“Archie. I submit to circumstances. So should
--Nero Wolfe in Rex Stout’s Not Quite Dead Enough
In the end, blowing that tire on the Heron sedan in September of 1938 did almost kill Nero Wolfe and me, but it wasn’t because of our running into a tree. It wasn’t because of our chasing a murderer, either, or because of the bull, or even because one of us strangled the other during a discussion of my new pal Miss Lily Rowan. No, that tire almost killed us both because, when he decided he had to go to Boston later that month to meet with his friend Professor Joseph Martingale, Wolfe insisted that we take the train.
Professor Martingale had just gotten his hands on the only manuscript that recorded what Pelleprat really thought of Escoffier’s cooking, or maybe it was the other way around. At some point during the exchange of letters, phone calls, and telegrams of negotiation I might have mixed it up. It’s hard to keep track of tiny details when you are trying to rein back a seventh of a ton of eccentric P. I. with the bit between his teeth. In any case, Martingale’s manuscript turned out to include some recipes collected by the great man that were in Hungarian, and the professor did not speak Hungarian.
Wolfe did. Wolfe also had the culinary savvy needed to make sense of the marginal notes about eastern European cooking. There was no chance that Nero Wolfe’s unlimited conceit would let him miss such a wonderful opportunity to show off, even if it meant leaving the brownstone on 35th Street for the second time in a month. So, late the previous night, ego had won over laziness, and now we were heading to Boston.
Wolfe and Fritz, his chef, were in the kitchen together, discussing the expedition. You’d have thought we were on our way to the Antarctic to collect the ingredients for penguin pot pie.
“You have packed the warm clothing?” Fritz asked yet again. He didn’t trust the U.S. outside of Manhattan, and the events of our recent case in upstate New York had done nothing to sooth his fears. I’m sure he suspected all the Indians left over from the Boston Tea Party were lurking behind the trees in Massachusetts, just waiting to swoop down on Wolfe and me en route to Harvard.
“Yes,” Wolfe said, petulantly. It took both method and motive to pack that much sulking into one word, but he could do it. We were leaving on the eleven o’clock Limited from Grand Central which meant that he was missing his morning session with the orchids up on the roof and was in the perfect mood to travel.
I yanked a thumb at the two suitcases and the basket on the floor. “Fritz, it’s all here. But if we don’t leave soon, we won’t be there. Let’s go, sir.”
Wolfe compressed his lips, but he headed for the coat rack to begin the struggle with his overcoat and homburg. I started to follow until Fritz touched my arm. “Archie.” I paused. “Take care of him, and of yourself. I know I am being too anxious, but I have a feeling. Alors; it may be superstition, still--” He trailed off and shrugged.
Fritz wasn’t always a man with a pan. He spent four years surviving the trenches in France, and his feelings were worth some attention, even if it was probably only expedition nerves. I started to ask for details and then tilted my head at a bellow of “Archie!” from the front hall.
“Go,” Fritz said, and briefly clasped my shoulder. I gave him a smile, hoisted up the suitcases, the hamper, and my patience, and went.
It is true that I do not like to travel, and it is true that such was not always the case. When I was a youth, I savored my journeys much as did any other adventurous young man of my generation. It was not until after the Great War that I concluded that Epicurus was right, and that a simple life in one’s own home is the wisest defense against this irrational, insensate universe.
However, it is also true that I have a particular distaste for motorized transport. Archie considers my attitude to be an eccentricity, a mere affectation, and I am content to have him think so. I do not wish to tell him more about my war than I absolutely must. That long ride, after I was mistaken for dead, half-buried in a pile of mutilated corpses--my story is histrionic when measured against the graceless, stomach-churning phobia it inspired. As well, to appeal for sympathy in such matters is to cease to deserve it. I see. I walk. My fellows do not shrink from my visage. I do not cough my lungs out in pink, foaming shreds. This is satisfactory.
Beneath the constellations upon the great beaux-arts vault of Grand Central Station, Archie hastened to escort me through the sparse mid-morning crowd to our train. The sunlight streaming through the clerestory windows illuminated an interior architecture not without its charms, but I was still regretting ever having consented to view Joseph’s manuscript. I had known that such would be my attitude while I was traveling and was well enough prepared that my discomfort was as mild as could be expected. My complaints, and Archie’s ripostes, had an almost ritual quality. Even so, our Ethiopian porter smiled several times as he carried our suitcases to the rear-most car of the train, one labeled in gold “The Oriental”.
I asked Archie, “Are you sure this is the proper vehicle?” I prefer to be certain.
His look was exasperated. “That’s the name of the parlor car, sir. The train’s the Bostonian, as I told you. If you want the eleven o’clock Shoreline Limited Express, here it is. If, on the other hand, you want to take the local milk train--”
“Don’t be inane. Where do we board?”
He nodded at the nearer end of the car, towards a small, metal staircase beneath a narrow doorway that I had already decided was the most likely entrance. Archie waved the porter ahead of us and then assisted me into the carriage, although I could have made the climb by myself since there were handle-bars to grip on both sides of the door. It pleases him to manage these small details, most likely to fuel the exasperation he needs to shield himself from any man he consents to obey. In any case, I do not like to concern myself with such minor physical obstacles, so I let him have his way. I also allowed him to help me off with my overcoat and homburg before we found our seats in the parlor car.
Even though it fit, the armchair was too tight for what I consider to be true comfort. Archie tipped and dismissed our porter, grimaced at the antimacassars on the arms and back of his seat, divested himself of his own coat and hat, and sat. After a moment’s consideration, he made use of the button that would summon a steward to bring drinks. He also made use of the ability of his chair to swivel. He slowly rotated through an entire circle, probably in an attempt to be annoying. I refused to be drawn. Instead, I opened the New York Times, which I had brought along against just such a contingency. It almost allowed me to ignore the jolt and subsequent din as the train got underway and we began our journey.
Wolfe was pretending to read the Times, but he was faking it. I could tell by the way his eyes moved across the page. Since my published report about his behavior on our trip to the Kanawha Spa, he’s been determined to prove how far above my petty quibbles he is, which is like an elephant deciding he’s above noticing the National Mouse Administration. After a few minutes he gave up, folded up the section he’d been working on, and stared out the window at the tunnel with his hands clenching the arms of his seat, probably still sulking about mobility. For a while I pointedly ignored him, but then my own attention drifted.
It had been enough of a problem getting Wolfe moving that I’d forgotten to bring along anything to read, and there wasn’t much else to enjoy in that parlor car. Our companions were the same sort of self-anointed influential businessmen and professionals that I meet plenty of every time Wolfe and I work a fraud case. The quartet dealing out hands for bridge obviously wasn’t advertising for another player. The only interesting scenery was either too married, too young, or too Brahman for words, so my favorite method of frittering away time was also ruled out. A fast tour through the rest of the train revealed that it was largely stocked with young sprouts heading back to schools and colleges, a breed with which I feel no need to deepen my acquaintance. Given both Wolfe’s tastes and the basket Fritz had sent along, I didn’t bother to pause in the dining car.
When I got back to my seat, Wolfe was working on the Times again, scowling ferociously at an article about Hitler and the Sudetenland. I nobly refrained from interrupting his snit since, for once, it was justified. It’s hopeless, in any case, to expect anything in the way of a conversation from him while he’s penned up in a machine. After a while I realized I was reading the editorial page he was holding facing me. Hitler was a bum, machine politics were corrupt, hurricanes like the one somewhere off Florida were scary; none of it met my standards for news. So I snaffled a copy of that day’s Gazette from the bar keep, which did the trick until we stopped at New Haven around two. The wait at the station while various cars were being switched around was long enough that I managed to get to the newsstand.
When I swung down onto the platform, it was misting, and I turned up my coat collar until I got under the awning of the newsstand. There, I picked up a couple of magazines. As I handed them to the newsie, my attention was attracted by the snapping sound of some pulp magazines hung up in clips being ruffled by the stiff wind, flaunting all their gaudy glory. It gave me an idea. I leaned across the counter and pointed at one of the titles stowed on a shelf by the newsie’s feet. With a straight face, he added a copy of the magazine to my stack. I paid for my purchase, and then paused to smoke a cigarette and wait for the conductor’s call before I got back aboard.
When I returned to the parlor car, I could see the fury all over Wolfe. It wasn’t merely that I had gotten wet in the rain, which he resents. More importantly, he had spent the whole lay-over twitching at the thought of being marooned all alone with several tons of moving metal parts, a depleted supply of Fritz’s trail rations, and several strange women in fancy hats. It’s nice to be needed.
Making a production of it, I took out my brown paper bag of magazines and removed the girlie pulp inside: Gay Broadway. Perfect. Opening the cover, I began to read the lead story, a little gem called “Fortunes of Love.” I held the pulp spread wide open at arm’s length, the way Wolfe holds his newspapers, just to make sure he would get the full benefit of the bangled gypsy card reader cheerfully displaying mesmerizing amounts of unclad cleavage and midriff on the cover. He stood it for about ten minutes until he growled, made it up out of his armchair, and lurched away down the car towards the washroom, threatening every well-shod foot in his path. Grinning, I put the pulp away and pulled out Popular Science.
That ridiculous magazine was no unique provocation but neither was it an excessive one, which was extraordinary. Since February, Archie had kept to his usual agenda of jabbing at my private life while ignoring my clarification of the exact, pariah nature of my libidinous urges. He had not bothered to coarsen or readdress his japes; on some occasions, his raillery had verged on wit. For him, the past seven months had been a miracle of tolerant restraint. Perhaps his long-delayed maturity had finally arrived.
Observing that he was satisfied with his most recent effort to amuse himself, I secured my current book, Bell’s Men of Mathematics, and began to read. Between the printed word and Fritz’s culinary efforts, both of us managed to keep ourselves entertained without the need for any additional effort on Archie’s part. So he reposed, aside from two trips to stretch his legs and one quest to procure himself a glass of milk from the dining car. It was a pleasant, serene interval, uninterrupted by the preoccupations of the other passengers in the parlor car. I might even have been able to ignore the fact that we were traveling, if it were not for the steadily deteriorating weather outside of my window.
As we rattled along the railroad track with the Atlantic to one side of us and the flat coastal plain to the other, the rain had increased and the train had slowed. Every now and then our car had lurched a bit harder than usual as it was caught by the wind. Raindrops tapped and splattered against the window, driven from their vertical course towards the horizontal by the gusts. During our entrance to New London, Archie leaned over and said, “We’re half an hour behind schedule.”
I grunted. It was only to be expected. The summer had been wet and I doubted the track was in any shape for rapid progress during bad weather.
“Martingale’s smart enough to telephone the Back Bay station before he comes down. He’ll know if we arrive late.”
“Good.” My tone was curt, but Archie only grinned, the particular grin that means I am behaving as he anticipates but not in a way that irritates him. He got up, stretched, cast a hopeful but not expectant glance over the current distaff population of our car, and then sauntered off for yet another ramble through the train to stretch his legs. Unlike me, he compensated for the gyrations of the slowing cars with the inborn deftness intrinsic to his nature.
The delay in the station seemed interminable. While we waited, I had an excellent view through my window and down the inlet to Long Island Sound. Overhead, banked, heavily-laden clouds surged inland with staggering rapidity, driven by a fierce flow aloft. The remaining light had an odd sulfurous tinge that somehow seemed ominous. Upon the sound, churned by the strong wind to whitecaps, sailing vessels struggled to keep from capsizing with small success. As I watched, a surge of rain and wind streaked across the water, quenching the last dull, metallic glint from the waves before cuffing the train briskly enough that the car tilted slightly, as if on a curve, before it settled back.
A suspicion began to niggle at my consciousness. Taking the notion for some foolish manifestation of my fear of travel, I suppressed it. That was a mistake. Instead of sensibly insisting that we disembark, I abandoned my usual philosophical stance for stoicism and almost killed us both. But, in truth, mine was a bizarre idea. No matter the report from Florida in the Times, no matter what I saw outside my window, it seemed sheer folly to conjoin the two sources of evidence and produce the name of what was flailing New England.
The improbable is not always invalid. As our express waited for a break in the wind to depart New London, the full force of the so-called Long Island Express, the fastest and most powerful hurricane to strike that section of the Atlantic coast in recorded history, was about to arrive onshore.
Archie rejoined me. Even as the ships at anchor yanked and twisted violently against their moorings, even as the water rose visibly below the tracks, there was no panic among the other passengers, only complaints about the delay and excited comments on the seeming sou’-easter raging outside the window. For his part, Archie said nothing about the weather. After a while, he got up and brought me another beer without my requesting it. I looked at him, and his mobile mouth was still, his eyes slightly veiled by their lashes. I said, “You may wish to have another drink yourself, and something more to eat. It will undoubtedly be brisk in Boston, and you will need the sustenance.”
“Contrary to popular opinion, sir, Boston is not a polar ice cap. I’ll survive.” There was no edge to his reply at all. His lips curved slightly.
I felt my own lips quirk in response.
We finally left New London around four o’clock. I do not believe that the wind had abated to any great extent, but only that our driver and conductor had finally lost patience. Slowly we moved along the track until we passed the small community of Mystic, where we left the shelter of the lee of Long Island and encountered the undiluted fury of the storm. My last doubts departed me. We slowed again, to a speed where it seemed a man could outpace our train on foot, if any man was insane enough to hazard himself in the tohubohu of wind and water outside.
“Archie.” I said it as quietly as I could. “There is a good chance that this is not merely a southeaster, but a hurricane.”
He raised an eyebrow. Unusually, he did not immediately retort. Instead, he stared past me through my window, chin slightly raised, his grey eyes steady. Later, he told me his reason had duked it out with his intuition as he gazed into the storm. His intuition had championed me, and it had won.
“So? How bad can it be?” He was not being sarcastic, merely seeking information.
I looked outside again myself. On the crest of the waves breaking in from the Atlantic, I saw, for only a moment, part of the roof of a house. I thought I discerned something - someone - on it. Then the water drew it under. “Very bad, indeed.”
I turned back to look at him and our eyes met. After a second that seemed to stretch, he nodded and sprawled back loosely in his armchair. I was not deceived. It was a sign of tension in him, to sit in that particular way. I felt a rare temptation to touch him, as if it would somehow be a source of comfort to one or both of us. That otiose urge was a sign of tension in me.
The penultimate span of track before Stonington stretched along a thousand-foot causeway of boulders and gravel between the sea on our right and a salt estuary on our left. The track was laid upon a small trestle raised a foot or two above the causeway, perhaps as a precaution against storm surges. Cautiously, battling the wind, we crept out onto the trestle. We slowed still more, the cars shaking with sporadic blows from debris beat against them by the gale. We crawled on. Then, idiocy compounded by recklessness, a third of the way along the causeway we stopped.
We waited. I could not accurately tell you now how long that wait was. Long ago, I learned to measure time in such situations only when I must. I spent too many hours in the trenches crouched over a wristwatch, waiting, watching the seconds tick down towards gross folly. Around us now, our fellow passengers indulged in a different kind of folly as they ignored the evident disaster outside.
However, even the fools around us comprehended our danger when the first windows blew in. The one next to me exploded in a spray of glass and water, sharp shards and salt whipped together on the wind. Archie had his arm arched up to protect his face. He dropped it and turned to me in his chair.
“Are you hurt?” He had to shout it to be audible over the sound of the wind now shrieking into the car and the noise of another window shattering some seats ahead of us.
“No!” I bellowed back at him. My book, which I had wrenched up with some protective instinct remaining to me from the war, had taken the brunt. I noticed a three-inch shard of glass skewered into the front cover before I dropped it in a snapping flurry of pages.
It did not require an attendant to persuade us to move to the far side of the car, unlike some of the other first class passengers. We took seats whose fortunate occupants had left the train at New Haven. I peered through my new window. Wind-carried water, half sea-foam, half rain, rushed away from us inland. I could just make out the causeway below. I felt something clutch in my belly, and forced my face into its habitual stillness. It was obvious to me that the over-topping waves were eating away at the foundations beneath the track.
“Archie.” I pitched it to carry to his ears and no farther. He leaned in close, eyes slightly narrowed in concentration, lips tight. “We will be moving from this car, and soon. Do not worry about the suitcases. Get our coats.” I hesitated, before I made myself add, “Get my stick as well. I may need it.” I know too well how groups behave when driven before the lash of fear.
Archie is young but, in a crisis, sensible. Casually, ignoring the complaints of the bridge-playing businessman whose suits had been soaked and the hysterical cries of a matron decked in all together too many ruffles for her years, he arose and fetched down our coats and my stick. Some small, digressive part of my mind felt pride that he did not waste time with the hats, having correctly induced what the wind would do to any such irrelevancy. I do not know why I was pleased. His ability to function in the face of opposition is entirely his own.
As I stood to don my overcoat, I noticed that the car was listing towards the sea.
If I hadn't believed we were in trouble before, watching Wolfe deliberately drop a book would have convinced me we were in for it. It was a relief that he decided to move without my having to prod him into action. Back then, I hadn't learned how he behaves when he thinks, rather than feels, we’re threatened with death. He got up onto his feet without another word and followed me out of the parlor car, now heeled well over to the right, through the dining car, and towards the front of the train.
The passageways between the cars were short little samples of hell. As we headed into the dining car, there was a crump you could hear even over the wind, and the right-hand wall next to us bowed inwards as something hit with so much force that it almost made it through the metal. After that, I still remember my surprise that there were people finishing their dinners in the dining car, ignoring the fact that several of the car windows had cracked and were leaking water. One of the Negro waiters looked up at us tensely as we passed. He was still setting tables for dinner. He obviously suspected the score, but he had a job and he was doing it. I don’t like panicking, either, so I left him to it.
However, a Pullman coach car or two farther forwards, word had finally come through. The conductor was trying to move the passengers. He’d reckoned without all those bright boys on their way back to school. Several of them had played it pretty rough in the front of the car, clowning around, and he’d been forced to grab one of the fire axes. What he couldn’t see was the three geniuses starting to creep up on him from behind. I shouldered forward fast and slammed one of them into another, shoving the second back into the seats. As I twisted the arm of the first across his back, I caught a fast glimpse out of the corner of my eye of Wolfe neatly locking his stick around the throat of the third. There wasn’t even time to be surprised.
I stared into the face of the punk I had a grip on, the leader of this little pack. “Stop acting like Spanky on a spree.” I twisted harder, just so he knew I could, and then let him go. “There are women and kids on this train, and we have problems. Be a man.”
It hung in the balance for a moment. Distantly, I was wondering what it would be like to be raised with enough money and position to be so stupid. I’d been heading in that direction myself before my parents died and their estate mysteriously evaporated amongst all the relatives. Junior must still have had something to work with, though, because his chin firmed, and he said, sharply, “Jerry, Chip, quit it. Let’s go and see how they’re doing up front.” The one I’d shoved into the seats got himself upright and gave me a hostile glare. Wolfe removed the walking stick from across the throat of his target, who was being careful not to look at much of anything. Junior and his friends sidled forward past the conductor, who gave them a long stare before he turned and nodded to Wolfe and me. Then he went past us towards the rear of the train, ax still in hand.
Two more coaches up, we found a mob scene where the passengers and porters, all trying to swarm forward at once, had blocked the narrow aisle. Wolfe took one long look, set his jaw, pivoted to stare outside, growled, and pointed. We backed up and let ourselves out a door on the landward side of the car.
We weren’t the only passengers who’d abandoned train. Folks were clustered all along the side of the Pullman cars, some making their way forward, some clinging to the wheels and cables, some splashing around wildly like ants do when boiling water is poured on them. It was crazy. The water around us wasn’t boiling but it came from everywhere, from the sides as the wind blew it and from below as the waves washed in from the seaward side of the causeway. The flood had risen to the level of the trestle. I crossed my shoes off of my mental wardrobe inventory and jumped down from the bottom step. The undertow was strong and the water was full of dirt, debris, and oil. I gave up on my suit, as well.
When I turned back to Wolfe, he was already in the water, with a grim expression on his fat features. He was scowling like the hurricane was personally offensive. His bellow cut through the shriek of the wind. “We will never succeed in crossing the rest of the causeway without the shelter of this train. The wind will sweep us away.” Even as he spoke, what looked like half a chicken coop cart-wheeled over the car behind us and splashed into the estuary beyond the causeway. Wolfe shoved wet brown hair up off his forehead and then frowned. “What is that woman doing?”
I turned in the direction toward which he’d jabbed his stick. She was about fifteen feet farther up the train and, I swear, she was about to jump off the edge of the trestle. That would have been one thing, but she had three small kids holding on to her. So I waded fast and grabbed her. She turned in my grip and stared at me wild-eyed.
“What the hell, sister, is your name Gertrude Ederle? That’s going to be a record swim with the kids along.” I was yelling, but I tried to pitch it reasonable. She looked at me, looked towards the water churning and boiling below us, and, I swear, blushed underneath all the spray streaking her makeup across her features.
“Sorry!” she shrieked.
I shrugged and let go, so she could redistribute her offspring. She picked up the smallest one, who looked to be maybe three and female, and then leaned down to persuade the other two to get moving. Just then a huge gust of wind gave us a big shove, as if we had been simultaneously smacked with so many two-by-fours. I was upright and had the mass to brace myself, but she and the kids all went over.
I grabbed. If the water pouring across the railbed carried them over the edge of the causeway and into the estuary, they were gone. I managed to get her, still clinging to the toddler, with one arm and snag one of the kids, a boy, with the other, but there were too many bodies and too few of me. The oldest girl let out a surprised squeak and washed away.
Wolfe got her. Wolfe, of all people. He dove like a bull walrus for a fish and came up with the girl. Then he stood up on the causeway, belly deep in the flood, water streaming down from his face, his vest, and his overcoat, absolutely soaked. A wave surged under the car from the seaward side, broke around him, and receded. I wish I’d had a camera. His face was a picture.
I couldn’t hear what he said over all the racket, but his lips were clear as they moved. “Confound it, my walking stick!” He added something else that I’ll leave out, although it may have improved the girl’s vocabulary. Grimly, he clambered back up onto the trestle and trudged back through the water towards us, the kid now plastered to one shoulder. As he reached us, I picked up the boy, who was four or five and kicked.
“The crew’s moving everyone up!” While we’d been performing in our very own version of the aquacade, they had herded the crowd into some sort of order. Most of the women and children were being escorted, hugging the wheels of the cars, up to the engine and tender, and everyone left over was being stuffed into the forward Pullman.
“Indeed. Let us join them.” Wolfe’s expression was still grim and it wasn’t, I realized, because he was drenched and carrying a six-year-old female. “The rearmost cars of this train have left the track.”
I looked back. They had. In fact, the parlor car was flipped over onto its side, and was sliding with each wave towards the estuary. The rest of the cars would soon follow. Behind all that, the sea had reclaimed the causeway.
Even though it seemed fairly futile, we escorted the family to the lead Pullman, still carrying the older two kids. Like Wolfe once said, you can’t surrender to nature, so you might as well fight on. But, I have to add, there’s nothing like a good hurricane to convince you that you’re going to die fighting.
There was no room left in the forward car. There was no room left, Archie reported in a yell, on the engine or the tender ahead of us. We surveyed the rear stairs to the Pullman, the narrow entrance at their top so crowded with people that the door could not be closed even though the water had now risen to the bottom step. Then we looked at each other. If each of us wrapped an arm through one of the handles to either side of the doorway and set our feet firmly enough on the lowest step, if we then linked our other arms around each other’s waists and leaned back, we could create a small pocket of space on the second step into which we could insert the family. Our bodies would protect them from being knocked loose and swept away by the debris and the rising water.
The thought was father to the deed. A minute later I had the woman, still clutching her youngest child, wedged in front of me with her free arm wrapped around my neck. I spared a thought to wish she would lean forward and cling to one of the people on the upper steps since her daughter had claimed my shoulder and her son was adhered to Archie in something of the manner of a young monkey, which was more than enough to tolerate even in those circumstances. I dislike such proximity with strangers.
Once again, we waited. The water around us swirled with wreckage. Baggage from the train swept by us. On the seaward side of the Pullman, over the howling wind, I could hear the waves crashing against the side of the train and the sound of more windows shattering. The water washed up to our shins where we stood on the lowest step, plucking at us before it fell, only to rise again. I was glad that the woman’s offspring could not see past us when the first corpse floated by. There were more. Archie’s arm was warm and strong around my waist, and I wished him anywhere but at my side: safe in some motion picture theater, perhaps, or with Miss Rowan, or even back in Ohio. But there was nothing I could say.
Back along the trestle, the derailed cars torqued as the storm surge swept over the tracks, the wind pressed, the water battered. There was a screech audible even over the wind and the waves, and two more Pullmans further down the train broke free and slowly toppled into the flood. The car we were on swayed ominously. It was obvious that the entire train was about to twist off the rapidly eroding causeway.
Suddenly, I thought I heard a noise from the hoses. I looked at Archie, then down at the various mechanisms joining the cars. I had no idea how to--he shook his head and jerked his chin towards the engine. One of the train crew, a brakeman, was working his way along the side of the car towards us. Reaching, and then passing, the stairway where we braced ourselves, he lowered himself down into the water
It seemed impossible for the brakeman to loosen the pin that was joining our car to the cars behind us with the water dragging at his legs, attempting to tear him from his feet. As he tried and failed, failed and persisted, the debris carried in the current pummeled at him. Finally, his mouth opened in a cry of triumph stolen by the wind, and the pin came away in his hands. But his effort had exhausted him, and, as he stood from his squat, the undertow swept him from his feet. He was carried away towards the engine, floating on his back, feebly flailing at the water in a mockery of swimming. Helpless beneath my burden, I watched him go. Archie craned far back over the water, twisted his neck painfully to the side, and then pulled himself forward with a wide grin below the hair streaming with water. “The conductor caught him as he went by the other end of the car!”
We heard the whistle blow. We heard, faintly, the passengers inside the car, and ahead of us on the tender and engine, cheering. There was a churning noise as the locomotive attempted to make headway and failed, unable to gain traction with so much water sweeping across the rails. Once again we waited, this time as the engineer tried and failed, tried and failed, tried--and succeeded. Slowly at first, with a chorus of metallic complaints, the engine, the tender, and the one remaining car moved forward. Now, at last, the momentum was with us as much as with the storm. The waves cast obstacles across our path but the engine nudged them, crushed them, shoved them back out into the maelstrom. A telephone pole, a rowboat, logs, even a house: we overcame them all. Finally we ground into a full-sized fishing smack and, for one last minute, it seemed as if we would stall. But, with a shatter of timbers, the boat span around, turned turtle, and floated away out of my view. The engine pushed ahead and finally, finally, we left the trestle for the shore.
I braced myself against Archie and the doorway as we picked up speed, as sparks streamed from the wheels below us. The woman was weeping, perhaps from relief. Her younger girl was attempting to bite me, for what reason I can not imagine even now. The elder girl was thoughtfully and calmly licking her lips. As I glanced at her, she smiled brilliantly at me. Children are inexplicable. The boy clinging to Archie was, and had been, making a persistent droning noise amidst which I could almost discern words. I tilted my head towards him and heard, “…PUT a feather in his CAP and call it Macky’s PONEY…” Children are absolutely inexplicable.
Trust Wolfe. When we stopped at the crossing by the station, he let go of me, picked up the kids by the back of their coats like they were so many puppies, and set them down, one at a time, on the wet pavement. Next he cleared his throat and said, “Madam. Madam, we have arrived safely. You can release me now. We are obstructing this entrance.” He paused and then said, more sharply, “Madam--”
I had to peel her off of him.
As it turned out, all of Wolfe’s suffering served a purpose. She was a local, and had relatives waiting for her at the station who slogged out into the storm when they heard the engine. They were suitably grateful, too. In a burst of wild New England enthusiasm, her father clapped my shoulder. Then we all made our way the two endless blocks to their house. Rain still pelted us like bullets. The town streets were flooded with seawater and most of the local trees were toppled, some onto buildings. The winds were dying down a little, but they stayed powerful enough to knock us over once or twice. Wolfe and I ended up carrying the two older kids, again. At some point, he lost a shoe. Luckily for us, the great elm in their front yard had settled for crushing the family flivver, and the slate roof was left mostly intact for our shelter.
By the time we made it under cover, Wolfe didn’t even bother to react to our atmospheric late supper of cold baked bean sandwiches by firelight. We took what we were given and we were glad to get it, including the one small bedroom left over when Ma and the kids were tucked away to try and get some sleep.
There was no heat in the bedroom, no light aside from a candle in the old storm lantern Wolfe carried up the stairs. There was only one bed, narrow beneath a blue and white patchwork quilt. I didn’t give a damn. I was so exhausted that I had almost stumbled on the top of the steep flight of stairs. For once, Wolfe had to support me and not the other way around. I set down the jug of water our hostess had given us, and we used it and the ancient wash basin that usually held dried flowers to have a sketchy wash-up. Every layer of clothing, all the way down to my skin, was soaked, and the mud came off both of us and onto the old towels in brown and black streaks. It’s a sign of just how far gone we were that neither of us paused to complain as we stripped down, scrubbed, and got between the well-worn flannel sheets. With the wind still surging through the storm shutters and pushing through the cracked window panes, I was frankly glad to have the warmth of Wolfe’s bulk next to me. Our only wave in the general direction of good manners was to turn our backs to each other before we closed our eyes. In about two minutes, I was out like Jack Dempsy’s sparring partner.
When I woke up, it was still dark and I was breathing as fast as if I’d been running. I had my arms around my companion in that bed, and if you’d asked me what I was doing, I’d honestly have to call it clinging.
Of course I knew right away it was Wolfe. He has a scent of salt and bay rum, and a feel of soft, yielding flesh over barrel-chested hardness that I’d never mistake for anyone else. My body knew it was Wolfe, too, but it seemed to have a different attitude about the fact than it should. When I realized that, I sucked in some air. The sound that came from him in response wasn’t words but a low, sleepy rumble.
One of his paws swept slowly down over the base of my spine, following a clumsy path that hinted he was much more than half asleep. It wasn’t helping the situation up front at all. His other arm was still parked where it had been when I awoke, trapped between us, hand cupping my groin.
Sure, I could have short-circuited what happened next. It wouldn’t even have been embarrassing. He was only doing what I’ve done on some of the few occasions I’ve lingered in someone else’s bed long enough to wake up with interesting company. Any firm shove would have shifted him. Or, if not that, I could have moved away when he did come fully awake, realized what he was doing, and tensed. I didn’t. Instead, I pushed into his hand. I searched with my own hand. I found him, gauged the swell of his interest, and took a firm grip.
Neither of us spoke. There were drafts coming through the shuttered windows, humid and cool, plucking at the curtains so they rustled in the dark. I heard the sound, sensed the air shifting against my shoulders, my bare back and buttocks, felt the soft sheets beneath me warm from our sleeping bodies. But more vivid still was the feeling of what we were doing together, the scorching pleasure of it. I wanted it so bad I had to use his hairy skin to stopper up the noises I knew better than to make. He tasted of brine and of Wolfe.
Down through the years, I’ve slept with quiet a few attractive women. Wolfe wasn’t attractive, and he sure wasn’t a woman, but he was next to me in the dark when I wanted someone, and his hand was urgent and knowing. He knew all sorts of things, and not just about what his big palm and strong, fat fingers were doing while they wrapped around me. He knew about fear and about living when so many other people had died, and about the hunger that rouses. And he knew not to talk, not to say the words that haunt you in the morning because you don’t believe them and you sometimes wish you could.
I affirm I thought it was a dream. After all, it was a dream I’d had before, of a passion I never wanted and of an attachment I resented as much as craved. I had tried, however feebly, to break the bond between us for years. Every now and then he would bolt, and I would tell myself to let him go. Occasionally, I would eject him and tell myself to leave him to his destiny. He was strong, long healed, and I had nothing left to offer him that would not be more of a warping than a shaping. Perhaps that is why I had admitted to him I was a homosexual during the tired end of the winter months of that wretched year, in order to drive him away. If so, it did not work. It only increased how often I dreamt the dream that I now, with heart-thudding shock, found myself waking to.
Why do I ever think I govern Archie? He has his own ideas of what is meet and proper and, from time to time, he is the one who is right. In this case - in this case - who can be prudent with his dream in his arms? I tried, but it seemed so much more urgent to answer his desire, to brace up his passion, that frail shelter against the flesh-stripping winds of entropy. Like a fool, I did not ask what would come next.
What came next was a shudder and a spending, first from Archie and then from me. What that meant to me, how I felt then, I can not express. I will not try.
Afterwards, I draped my free arm around him, waiting for his withdrawal. But, instead, we lay together, still entwined, each still clasping what is supposed to be taboo, as our breathing slowed. Oddly, I felt no need to cleanse myself from what I had always before experienced as a soiling. Rather, I lingered as he softened in my grip. He was silent and I could not discern his features. Wanting to end the suspense, I leaned forward and found his lips with my own.
I expected him to push away. Instead, I felt him snort against my lips before he answered me with his usual insolent grace. Then he sat up, stroked one hand slowly down my back, and went to get a towel. I do not know how he found it in the dark.
I took the towel from him. He sat back down and the bed creaked.
“It is cold,” I said, at last.
“Yup. Move over.” He pulled the sheet, the blanket, and quilt across us, and for a moment there was silence. “Good thing you always trim your toenails.”
After a minute or so had passed, I decided to let tomorrow’s practicalities patch together the rags of tonight’s propriety, turned, and took him back into my arms. He yawned. I yawned as well. Again, we slept.
The next morning, we awoke to blue skies and sunshine. Outside, all was devastation. Inside, our hostess shared with me a remarkable local recipe for seafood chowder. It was poor compensation to Fritz for his worries.
The day after the Long Island Express, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. It was that kind of a week: death was on overtime. They say between six and seven hundred people were killed by the storm, but I think they undercounted since that was back before we all had records from cradle to grave. To my surprise, only two of those deaths were from the Bostonian. One of them was the guy I’d seen setting tables, who turned out to be a pantryman. He drowned when he went into the water trying to save the other fatality, an elderly woman.
Given the international news, everyone outside of New England pretty much ignored the mess. As for us, we never did make it to Boston. As soon as the crisis was over, Wolfe reverted to his usual obnoxious behavior and refused to set foot in the bus the railroad company provided the next day. Instead it took us two days to get back to Manhattan in a car I bought from a guy who suddenly needed money to pay for his wife’s funeral.
Our second night away from the brownstone we spent laired up in a supposedly historic brick inn, high up under the intact part of the eves, in a chintz-draped room lit by a kerosene lantern. We had two beds, and nobody was more surprised than I was when I got up, crossed the floor, and got into his bed with him. Since then, I’ve crossed bedroom floors quite a few times, although we’ve neither of us ever found any reason to make a big deal out of it. Of course, if it was a big deal - if we admitted it might be a big deal - neither of us could have done what we did. So, we kept our mouths shut.
To put it in terms I can take, he reached out in the dark and I answered. Maybe if it had all been something we could have talked about, the touching wouldn’t have happened. Maybe speaking certain words would only have brought it on faster. But life’s too damn short to wonder about what I can never know. So I let it go. If death riding a hurricane wasn’t enough reason for particular verbal expressions, neither is anything else. It wasn’t necessary. We stayed together, and that’s the beating heart of it. Anything else, the way we lived will have to express.
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