(Copyright, estate of Gaillard Hunt)
CITY OF MASTERLESS MEN
It was a clear, cool night outside and he drove uptown to Al's. As he was taking off his coat in the hail he thought the place reeked with the smell of whisky, but perhaps it was not the actual smell -- only the Illusion of smell created by the intensity of the peculiar high-pitched noise that comes from a lot of people crowded together and drinking. He handed his coat to one of Al's men and went into the front room.
It was crowded. Randolph and Root were at a table in a corner with a girl Peter did not recognize. There was no way of telling whose date she was -- the two young men seemed to be jockeying for position and this was peculiar because it was not in the code of either of them to gum another man's date. But perhaps she was a chance encounter or even a pickup in which case they would continue to jockey until one got the rail, whereupon the one on the outside track would go somewhere else and declare he was glad he wasn't stuck with that numb. Unless, in the process of jockeying, they got so tight they would not know one side of the track from the other.
Mary Fish was at a small table on the side. She had on a shimmery evening dress cut in a manner to accentuate her breasts which were worth accentuating. With her was a miscellaneous little guy in a tux. She saw Peter and smiled, and from her smile it appeared that the purpose of her evening was accomplished when he came in the room. He went over and she said, "Hel-lo, Peter. So you're back in town. How did you like Syracuse? Are you going back to the Office? So glad you're going to stay." She was this year' s smoothest deb and Peter knew she would not date the man she was with now for at least two weeks because she had adopted that policy. He also knew she had been engaged two years but in the meantime wanted to come out and have a good time. Further, his relationship with her was not such that she would normally have all his comings and goings at her fingertips -- it must be a sort of card-index system on half the men in Washington. Still it was pleasing -- a lot of girls didn't remember where you'd been and why, and it was nice to find one that did. At the very least it was flattering that she should take the trouble.
He spotted Peyton and Collins. They were at a large table in the back room, with Jane and Hilda. Peyton was a rather small, neatly-dressed man with a face that looked as if he should have had a small mustache. He had shaved off the mustache, but no one noticed the difference -- the face was such that it implied a mustache. Collins was a sprawling, large-boned youth who was now leaning half across the table emphasizing some point with his finger. Peter went up and sat down with them, and it was some time before he could attract the attention of one of Al's men.
When he had ordered a drink he said, "Well, we got a pretty good Hunger March."
"Did you see it? What was it like?"
"I saw the general assembly in the Auditorium and it was alright as hunger marches go. But do you know what they are? They're Communists. They're just about the same as the old Wobblies -- "
"Wobblies. I.W.W. Industrial Workers of the World. If you know what they are. And if you don't know what they are, these guys are still like the Wobblies, only these guys have a lot more props than the Wobblies ever had -- they've got a band with uniforms, and more grammatical speakers, and similar stuff. Their approach is the same, though -- they just give everything indiscriminately hell. Lots of fun."
"Why'd they come to Washington?" asked Collins.
"They want unemployment insurance. What's more, they demand unemployment insurance. Whether they get it or not they certainly make no bones about demanding it. You know, if I thought they had a chance of getting to first base, I'd join 'em."
Collins put down his drink. "Why?"
"Because they were getting to first base," sald Jane.
"Just a camp-follower," said Hilda.
"No, that's not the idea."
"I have no interest in the principles of Communism," said Peyton.
"That's not the idea, either," said Peter.
"Well, what is the idea?"
"The point is there's a certain amount of emotion and enthusiasm about it. It's sort of like a football rally. And take for instance sincerity -- Hoover and that bunch aren't sincere; look at Prohibition. Furthermore, it stands for something in the way of -- Aw, who cares?"
"Won't," he said, raising his drink.
Everyone shifted to a more relaxed position. Hilda said, "He always does that. Gets halfway through something and gets everybody all worked up about it and then says 'Who cares.'"
They were singing "Grandfather's Clock." It was a good song for the occasion, with no notes that would tempt anyone to raise his voice too loud and incur the displeasure of Al's men. They thought it very amusing. Then, under the leadership of Peyton, they tried "Look down, look down, that lonesome road" which went all right until they got to the line "Weary totin' such a ic-ad" when they heard their own voices too loud and the people at the next table heard them too and turned around, so they became selfconscious and stopped.
Peter finished his drink. It was his third, and it registered -- it was as if someone had pulled open a throttle several notches. Collins and Hilda were having some kind of argument that involved such statements as "I didn't say that," and "You did. You said the same thing," and Jane and Peyton were looking on amusedly, saying "Pretty weak," "That's get 'em," and so forth. Peter turned around and looked into the front room. Mary Fish was still there -- the miscellaneous man was talking to her earnestly and she was smiling distantly. Randolph and Root were still jockeying. A few new people had come in but they were not interesting --one was a man who looked like the damn Chief Clerk. People were getting tighter, they were talking from table to table but as yet there was no milling around. If they began milling around he'd go over to Mary Fish. Maybe she didn't keep a card index. But what could be accomplished except stand in line two weeks for a date? Hell with her. Hell with the Office and the Chief Clerk. Open the throttle some more notches.
He turned back to the table. Ed and Hilda had reached some kind of impasse and Ed had his elbows on the table and his hands over his ears. Mad. Peter said, "How about another?"
Jane, Peyton and Hilda agreed, but Collins did not speak or move. Hilda said, "Order one for him too. He'll be alright in a minute."
He hissed at one of the waiters and held up four fingers. Then he said, "Do you two always fight in public?"
Jane said, "They fight in public and they ph. c. in public."
"What in hell is ph. c?" asked Peter.
"Physical contact," said Jane. "In other words, necking, smooching, co'tin' and several other things."
"Loving up," said Peyton. "Spooning, to be thoroughly archaic."
"Making passes," said Hilda.
"But only if the passes are completed," said Peyton.
"Ed's an M. Ph. C. -- Master of Physical Contact," said Jane.
"Hell," said Hilda.
"My God," said Jane suddenly. "There's Dick Marshall. Don't look, please don't look because I don't want him to notice us."
"Never you mind, he will," said Collins coming octt of his frump. "Marshall never forgets a face."
"Like the doorman out at Jimmy's," said Peter.
Hilda said, "He's with some people and the poor things want to get rid of him and don't know how. And say, there's John Sartain. I want to see him."
"I don't care, Hilda," said Jane. "Don't attract their at tent ion.
"Oh, you. You know you like John."
"Just the same, Hilda, don't attract their attention."
"Who is John Sartain?" asked Peter.
"He's a man we met down at Charlottesville," said Hilda. "And he's really very nice. Very southern. He was a Rhodes Scholar and now he has an instructorship or something at the University. You'd like him. He's swell."
Jane said, "Nevertheless, we don't want
"Hello, Manns," Marshall's voice boomed across the room and settled the argument. He left the people he was with, came over, and pulled up a chair and sat down. "Well, well, I haven't seen any of you kids in a long time." He was like a skeleton in build and appearance, only most skeletons are not so tall. "You aren't going to finish this drink, are you?" he said to Hilda, helping himself to a large gulp of it.
"I wouldn't finish it now," said Hilda coldly.
"Hilda, I remember how you came down to the hospital that time I had my first attack of ulcers. I'll never forget that. And now the doctor says I've only got three years to live."
"That's too damn long," muttered Collins in an undertone. Without saying anything Hilda rose and moved away toward the party that Marshall had left and Marshall grasped another drink, indiscriminately, and drained it. "I hope nobody wanted this."
"Say, that's a typically Marshallonian trick," said Peter in a loud voice.
"What do you mean? What do you mean?" said Marshall. He stood up, drew back his arm and, after telegraphing the blow for a full two seconds, let fly. Peter stepped back out of range. A chair fell over and Peyton stood up. "Get them outside, get them outside," he said. "Any delay is fatal." Al came in, and Peter walked toward the door.
Outside he leaned against the iron railing of the porch. Now, in the cold air of the night, he felt rather foolish. He would have to swap punches with that guy and probably get his face all bunged up. Looking for a job and seeing people was bad enough anyhow, without having a shiner or a split lip. Thing to do was finish it as quickly as possible. Work on his gut, it's easier to reach and if he actually has ulcers it ought to stop him quick. Better than stringing it out and both getting hurt.
The door opened and Marshall came out. He had his right hand outstretched. "Peter, old man, I apologize," he said. "I certainly do apologize. Fact is, I'm not myself when I'm drunk."
"Forget it," said Peter. "Let it go."
"Well I certainly do apologize. Let's go back in and I'll set you up to a drink."
"I'm going back in," said Peter. He noticed that Marshall had his overcoat on his arm. He rang the bell and Al opened the door. Peter walked in and, just as he thought, Al had other plans for Marshall. He left them arguing and went into the back room.
He could feel the general let-down as he sat down at the table unscarred. "Nothing to it," he said.
"What happened, didn't he fight you?"
"It only took one punch to subdue him," said Peter. "Let's have another round."
Collins made a noise commonly known as the bird.
"S'truth, and if you want a demonstration step outside. I'm in rare form tonight."
"Nuts. I bet you and Marshall kissed each other."
"What happened, did he apologize?" said Peyton.
"Yeah. He was just bluffing."
"Such childishness. You shouldn't have insulted him in the first place," said Jane.
"I tell you, Jane, this is something you know nothing about," said Peyton.
"What about another round," said Peter. The near-encounter with Marshall had sort of cleared the air for him, and he felt that something might possibly be done with life.
"John Sartain wants us to come to a party in St. Matthew's Court," said Hilda.
"Let's have another round and go there," said Peter.
"Let's not. It'll probably be awful," said Jane.
"Let's," said Peyton.
"Oh, you," said Jane.
But they finally decided to go, and when they had finished the next round they went out and all got in the Manns' car. Peyton drove them a few blocks uptown and stopped at the intersection of two broad cobblestoned alleys, where the back wall of St. Matthew's Church rose black in the moonlight before them. No one had a definite idea of where the party was located. Peter said, "Every time I see this place I think of the time when I was a kid and I came around here and this alley was just full of little Nick kids slugging hell out of each other and I asked what it was about and it turned out that the Altar was fighting the Choir."
"Which side were you on?" asked Peyton.
"Neither. I was never a choir boy nor an altar boy. My religious training has been neglected."
"I'll say," said Collins.
"Well this isn't finding this party," said Hilda.
"Let's spread out. I'll look for it down here," said Peter and he got out and walked down one of the alleys.
A short time later they began to gather again at the car. Jane was saying, "Who cares, anyhow, I know all about the kind of people who live on St. Matthew's Alley and if Peyton and Peter want to go to this party they can go but I favor retirement." She took the key out of the car.
"What's that for?" asked Collins.
"In case Peyton might be obstinate," said Jane.
Peter came up the alley and threw a hot-water bag in the car. Hilda and Ed were "ph.c.-ing" in the back seat and Hilda broke away and said, "What's that?"
"It's just what it looks like. A hot-water bag," said Peter.
"Where'd you get it?"
"It's a gift. An award."
"I saw a bunch of guys crowding around you down there," said Ed, "but I don't understand this hot-water bag stuff."
"Perfectly simple. They gave me a hot-water bag as a token of esteem.
"It's the damndest thing I ever heard of," said Hilda. "A hot-water bag, You just can't laugh off a hot-water bag."
"Imagine trying to laugh off a hot-water bag," said Jane.
"I see no reason to laugh off a hot-water bag," said Peter.
Peyton came up and stood in the middle of the alley. "What, no party?"
"No, but Peter got a hot-water bag," said Jane.
"And it's positively flabbergasting. He just went down the alley and came back with a hot-water bag," said Hilda.
"I keep telling you it's perfectly simple," said Peter. "These guys came busting out and wanted to beat me up at first but then they decided I was a pretty good guy so they presented me with a hot-water bag as a token of esteem."
"Was that the party?" asked Peyton.
"No. It was a swell bunch of guys."
"Well, where is this party?"
"None of us know. Get in," said Jane.
Peyton got under the wheel. "Let's go places," he said.
"No," said Jane. "Let's go home."
"Let's not," said Peyton. "Jane, have you got that key again?"
"You don't get it till you promise to take us home."
Peyton sat still. Ed called, "Keep it, Jane and let's go home." Hilda said, "Yes," but Peter said, "No. Let's go places. I want Mary Fish. I want Nora Laskey. I want babes."
"You ought to have higher aims than the two you mentioned," said Jane.
"You just picked up a bag," said Ed.
"Yah!" said Peter.
Peyton suddenly grabbed Jane and tried to wrest the key from her. She flung back her hand and the key tinkled into the middle of the alley. Peter sprang out and got it and gave it to Peyton who put it in the lock and kept his hand on it. He stepped on the starter, but as soon as the engine started Jane pulled out the choke. Then Peyton and Jane sat and looked at each other.
"This is a gummy procedure," said Peter. He got out of the car and walked down the alley toward the street. Over his shoulder he sang out, "Dominus vobiscum!"
They answered in unison, "Et cum spiritu too-ooo"
The walk back to where his car was parked sobered him somewhat, and he got in and drove. He breezed past dead traffic lights along New York Avenue to the northeastern limits of town; there he swung into the broad Bladensburg Road. He stepped on the gas and accelerated, past filling stations, past cemeteries, till the road ran straight through moonlit Maryland hills. They were always Maryland hills to Peter, and always would be, just as other hills were Vermont hills, Oklahoma hills, Colorado hills, California hills, Alberta hills. He never could get to consider any of them as just hills, just as he could never consider any place as his permanent home. After all, he had just come back to Washington, and his previous stretch here had been only three years. Although he had been born here and had come back every now and then, he had been away off and on since he was fourteen when he started to go away to school. Even then he had never considered the schools as other than temporary -- they were in the Carolina hills or Berkshire hills or Virginia hills. He'd had a strong tendency to examine those hills, and the natives of the hills on farms or in the general stores and poolrooms of the nearby towns. And he had other anti-social habits, which always made it expedient to change schools and get a new set of hills.
He made a sharp turn down a side road and into a hollow where there was a large, cubical, grey-brick building. Several other ears were parked in the yard and he slid into a vacant space.
The doorman said, "Ain't seen you for some time. Got a card?"
"Step into the office and sign up." He shut and bolted the heavy oak door and called, "Fix this man up with a card. He's O.K." Peter perfunctorily signed a name and started upstairs.
On the second flight the noise of the place reached him --the yip-yip of the crap dealers, the click of the dice, the drone of the card dealers mingled with the muffled buzz of the crowd and, as always, he ran the last few steps. It affected most men that way -- it was as if the tremendous attraction this place had for them was concentrated on those stairs drawing them up two steps at a time until they stood in the massive room at the top.
The room could hold a thousand without crowding; in fact it did on Saturday afternoons. Along one side was a huge blackboard for racing data, there were tables for craps, roulette, blackjack, and poker. Peter looked around. The crowd had thinned out and there were only two crap games running; a hundred or so men crowded around these or aimlessly strolled the floor or sat in the benches which lined the walls. Over in a corner there was a poker game with Sammy, the wizened dealer, flicking out cards under the harsh light of a drop lamp.
There was something about the atmosphere of the place that made Peter feel better. Here everything was clean-cut, it ran by concise rules, without hypocrisy. Personalities, influence, and prejudices were out. You could use your head, but the cards or the dice were impartial -- if they fell one way it meant win; another, lose, and the dealers paid out chips as mechanically as they raked them in. Here was nothing of the Chief Clerk or the weasely game he stood for.
He walked over and looked at the blackboard. The Epinard colt, Epithet, had won and paid off at 3 to 1. He had been watching that colt -- he knew just how the race had been run. Broke fast, opened up a four-length lead at the half, lost some of it going into the stretch, but stayed there. He should have bet that colt - - what had he been doing? Seeing the Chief Clerk and drinking with Jane. He should have been tending to business. But why had Epithet closed as high as 3 to 1? He said aloud, to no one in particular, "What was the opening line on Epithet?"
"Opened at 8 to 5," said a man nearby. "Went to 7 to 2, then closed at 3 to 1."
"They thought he'd stop," said another. "Novelist got all the play. Opened at 5 to 1 and closed at 2."
"Novelist almost caught him, too. It was a nose finish," said the first.
"It's the third close decision Workman lost today," said the second.
"He lost another one on Judge Schilling Saturday," said the first.
Peter wandered over to the poker table. The dealer looked up. "Vell. Hello, Mister. Vere you been?"
"Hi, Sammy. Been out of town."
"One seat open. Want it?"
Peter sat down and bought a stack of chips. He glanced around the table -- there was the owner of a large junk yard, an F Street jeweler, a printer, an automobile sales manager, and three men he did not know. He did not like the junk man or the sales manager -- couldn't stand their speech or appearance or the things they said -- and for a few seconds he did not want to play with them. Then Sammy dealt -- the first card down, the second up, and intoned, "The Queen is high, bet the Queen. Four bits, the man says. Four bits. Four bits to you, sir."
Peter shuffled his chips. The junk man and the sales man ceased to exist. They, and all the rest, became Poker Players.
Or home, to Introduction