Authors: Irwin Shaw
To Charles Tucker
“Sir,” the Aide said to the Commanding
Officer, “G1, G2, G3, and G4 concur in the opinion that the proposed plan for the operation has an 85 percent chance of success, with acceptable losses.”
From this and other missions forty-four of our aircraft are missing.
The National Safety Council predicted yesterday that there would be five hundred and fifty-eight fatal traffic accidents over this forthcoming holiday weekend.
E WAS HAVING A
pleasant dream when the bedroom telephone extension awoke him. In the dream he was a little boy, holding his father’s hand, walking on a sunny autumn day toward the Yale Bowl in New Haven to watch his first football game.
“Sheila,” he mumbled, “get it, will you …” The telephone was on the table next to his wife’s side of the bed. Then he remembered his wife wasn’t there. He groaned and pushed himself stiffly across the bed. The glow of the arrows on the small clock on the table pointed toward three-thirty. He groaned again as he fumbled for the phone and picked it up.
“Damon,” the voice said. It was a voice he did not recognize, rough and hoarse.
“Mr. Damon,” the voice said, “I heard the good news and I wanted to be one of the first to congratulate you.”
“What?” Damon said, dazed, his speech thick. “Who’s this? What good news?”
“All in due time, Roger,” the voice said. “I read the papers like everybody else. And I decided from what I know about you you’re one of those nice people who like to share their good fortune—spread it around, so to speak.”
“It’s past three in the morning—what in the name of God do you think … ?”
“It’s Saturday night. I thought you might be home celebrating with friends. Saturday night and all, maybe you would invite me up for a drink …”
“Oh, quit, Mister,” Damon said wearily, “and let me sleep.”
“Plenty of time for sleep. Roger, you’ve been a bad boy and you’re going to have to do something about it.” The tone was heavily playful.
“What?” Damon shook his head confusedly, wondered if this was another dream. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about, Roger.” Now the tone was not playful, but menacing. “This is Zalovsky. From Chicago.”
“I don’t know any Zalovskies. And I haven’t been in Chicago in years.” Damon allowed his wakening anger to sharpen his voice. “What the hell do you mean by calling me up in the middle of the night? I’m going to hang up and …”
“My advice is not to hang up, Roger,” the man said. “I have to talk to you.”
“I don’t have to talk to
Good night, Sir. I’m hanging up right now …”
“I’d hate to see you do something you’d only be sorry for—very sorry, Roger—something like hanging up on Zalovsky. I want to talk to you, I said. And I want to talk to you tonight.”
“I’m not in Chicago. Or didn’t you notice that when you dialed my number?” Thoroughly awake now, he wanted to strike back at the man, even if it was only over the telephone. “What are you, man—one of those telephone nuts?” Then it occurred to him that perhaps it was one of his friends, drunk at an all-night party or in a bar, playing a practical joke on him. In his business he had accumulated some strange friends. “Okay, okay,” he said, more calmly. “What have you got to say for yourself?”
“Not for me to say anything for myself,” the man said. “I’m the boss here, Mister. And I’m not in Chicago; I’m just a couple of blocks away from you. On Eighth Street. Why don’t you get out of your woolies and put some clothes on and meet me at your corner in say, let’s say ten minutes, give you time to brush your teeth and comb your hair …” The man laughed, a brief tuneless bark.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, Mr. Zalovsky,” Damon said, “but if you have any business with somebody called Damon, you’ve got the wrong Damon. You might make sure you’re not making a mistake calling up a man in the middle of the night and …”
“Zalovsky isn’t in the habit of making mistakes. I have the right Roger Damon and you know it. You better meet me in ten minutes. If not …” The man cleared his throat. “If not, there will be consequences, Roger, consequences that you won’t like, not like at all …”
“Fuck you,” Damon said.
“Without the bad language and before you hang up, Roger,” Zalovsky said, “one last warning. It’s a matter of life and death.
“Fuck you again,” Damon said. “You’ve been seeing too many gangster movies.”
“You’ve been warned, Roger. I may not call you again.”
Damon banged the phone down, cutting off the hateful thick voice.
He had been lying stretched across the bed to reach the telephone, but now he swung around and sat up. He knew there was no use in trying to get back to sleep. He ran his hand through his hair, then pushed at his eyes. His hands were trembling and he was angry with himself because of it. It was a good thing his wife wasn’t home this weekend, but visiting’ her mother in Vermont. The call would have frightened her, then angered her, then made her suspicious and she’d have quizzed him for hours about just what he had done to get a threatening telephone call at three-thirty in the morning. It would have turned into one of their infrequent arguments in which she would use the phrase “your well-known proclivities” and “with your past …” By nature she was a calm woman, but she didn’t like mysteries. When she worried about him or when she felt he was perversely keeping some pain or a problem from her, she became abusive. He wondered if it would be wiser not to tell her about the call. Before she came home he’d think up some excuse for changing sides of the bed with her so that he would be the one who would answer the telephone. She would be suspicious about that, too, because she knew he hated to speak on the phone. She was his second wife. He had lived with his first wife for less than a year and was divorced by the time he was twenty-four. He had married for the second time at the age of forty, and during the more than twenty years for the second time of their marriage Sheila had invented—or, to be honest, not completely invented—a lurid notion of his history before they had met. She was fifteen years younger than he and if anybody was to be jealous, it should have been himself. No logic in marriage.
Ah, he thought, it was probably one of those tricks kids indulged in to amuse themselves—picking a number at random out of the telephone book and calling to make obscene suggestions or outlandish threats, with their friends giggling in the background. But the voice hadn’t been a kid’s and there had been no giggling in the background. Still, he wouldn’t say anything about it to Sheila. The man had said he might not call again. Until he did he might as well have peace in the family. He hoped Sheila was enjoying her visit in Vermont and would be in a good mood when she got back.
In the meantime … In the meantime, what?
He sighed, turned on the light. It was cold in the apartment and he put on a warm robe, remembering the taunting voice saying “woolies.” He went into the living room. It was dark. He had come into some money recently but the frugal habits of a lifetime persisted. He turned on all the lights. The room was comfortable, a little battered, overflowing with books. The apartment was a top floor through in a converted rent-controlled brownstone and none of the rooms was large. His wife was constantly after him to get rid of some of the books and he kept promising to do so. But somehow the books piled up.
Robe or no robe, he was still cold, shivering a little. He walked stiffly. He was in the middle sixties, solidly built, with a ruddy outdoorsman’s face that was the result of his walking bare-headed the two miles to the office and back each day, no matter what the weather was, and long, solitary hikes during his vacations. Still, it took a half-hour after getting out of bed for his legs to warm up.
He picked the Manhattan telephone directory off the bottom shelf of one of the bookcases and put it on a table under the light of a lamp. He was proud of the fact that although he wore reading glasses, when necessary, if the light was good, he could read the names and numbers in the telephone book without their aid.
He turned to the D’s. He saw his name, Damon, Roger, and the address on West Tenth Street. It was the only Roger Damon listed in Manhattan. Although his name was also in the book under G’s. There was Gray, Damon and Gabrielsen, literary agency. Gray had started the firm and taken Damon on as a partner when Damon was under thirty. Gray had been dead for years but out of loyalty to the old man Damon had not changed the name of the agency. Loyalty had its virtues, especially at times like this. Gabrielsen was a recent addition, under different circumstances.
He closed the book and put it neatly on its shelf.
No clues for Sheila when she came home. He would wait for the appropriate moment to tell her what had happened. If any moment could be considered appropriate.
He poured himself a stiff whiskey and soda from the table against the wall and drank it slowly, deep in his favorite armchair. The drink didn’t help him make any sense of what had happened at three-thirty that morning. New York is full of madmen, he thought. Not only New York. America. The world. Random assassins prowling the streets. Presidents, popes, people waiting in railroad stations, coming out of churches or department stores. Life and death, the man had said.
Unless it was all a grotesque prank, somewhere a stranger or somebody who knew him and wished him ill was waiting for him. He was too tired now to try to figure out who that might be and why he was waiting or had waited until now.
He shivered. When he went into the bedroom to try to sleep, he left all the lights in the living room on.
E WAS AWAKENED BY
the sound of bells. He had been dreaming. Once again it was his father in the dream, but alone, in a bright light that glowed off his smiling and loving face. He looked young, as he had when Damon was about ten, not like the gaunt, exhausted man he became toward the end. He was leaning over what seemed like a carved marble balustrade, beckoning with one hand. In the other hand he held a small piebald hobby horse. His father had been a maker of children’s toys, a manufacturer of gewgaws and trinkets. He had been dead twenty years.
The ringing this time was not the telephone. Church bells. Sunday morning. Calling New York to worship. Come, all ye faithful of the Imperial City—come, ye adulterers, ye blackmailers, stock-riggers, jury-fixers, drunkards, drug addicts, muggers, murderers, perjurers, bag ladies, disco freaks, joggers, marathon runners, prison guards, shooters-up and shooters-down, come you believers and preachers of false doctrine, come and worship the God that may or may not have made you in His image.
Damon stirred in the bed. Not having Sheila beside him made him feel strange. Then he remembered the call during the night. He looked at his watch. Nine o’clock. Usually he was up by seven. Nature had been kind to him, it had allowed him to sleep from four to nine. Five hours of forgetfulness. Sunday’s gift.
He pushed himself out of bed and instead of going into the bathroom and brushing his teeth and showering, padded barefoot into the living room. All the lights were still on. He went to the front door, looked to see if there was an envelope, a message lying on the floor there. Nothing.
He examined the lock. It was flimsy, simple. A child could have picked it open with a pen-knife. In all the years he had lived in New York he had never been robbed, had never thought about locks. The door was wooden, old, had been installed when the building was put up. When? 1900? 1890? He would have it changed, get one with a steel sheath, an unpickable lock, a peep-hole, a chain. There was no doorman below and all the tenants of the building, including Sheila and himself, were careless about pushing the button that opened the front door when the buzzer went off in their apartments. The speaking apparatus by which you were supposed to inquire who was below before pressing the button had been broken for years. As far as Damon knew neither he nor his neighbors had ever complained to the landlord and demanded that it be put in order. Innocents, falsely secure. Tomorrow.