Read Tornado Pratt Online

Authors: Paul Ableman

Tornado Pratt (10 page)

BOOK: Tornado Pratt
7.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

But that bitter night, Horace, on the ledge above Milwaukee, I moved out of my omnipotent phase. I know, Horace, what Dr Sigmund Freud of Vienna said. He said the baby is omnipotent because it doesn’t know there is anything in the world outside itself. That’s how I’d been. If things had remained undone, it was because I hadn’t got around to doing them not because they were beyond me. For there was nothing in the world beyond the power of Tornado Pratt. But that night I dwindled, Horace, into the forlorn baby who knows he’s been kidding himself. He’s not the whole world or even a considerable part of it. Why he can’t even fill his belly without help. So it was with Tornado Pratt, builder of
empires
. Really he had no power to do anything that mattered Could he save his darling? Could he grant her one extra hour of life?

So then I looked upwards, Horace, at the deep dark and the stammering stars. And my glance moved about, picking out one point of light and then the next. Endless stars. And that canopy was just the fringe. A telescope would pour thousands more into my eye. And beyond that, the scientists said, were millions and billions of them, stars without end. And in that cascade of energy, what was life? A feather in a tornado? A flake in a furnace? And the great city, Milwaukee, was it even as much as a twig tossed on an ocean of flame? I gazed at the cold spits of light which, an immensity away, were vast spheres of fire and I realized that although it looked still and passionless from my perspective, it was really an inferno frozen by my insect senses. And scared by this monstrous vision, I yearned for my own. If we humans were just motes without meaning, surely we deserved our own? Let me keep
my bride and let us comfort each other in our twitch of life. And I howled with grief and anger at my impotence in the cosmos.

And that—was a long time ago, Horace. It was all gardens then. Moss and lichen on old stone walls and mellow sunlight. The sun was man’s friend in those days and what I wish to ask, Horace, is how do you come to be Japanese?

Now it is undeniable that I personally spent some time in the East, mainly during the war although after I’d finished weeding out yellow killers and trying to persuade the authorities to shoot them, I stayed on a while in Japan.

I recall the occupation troops talked real tough at first: “We’ll kill all the yellow bastards. Except the dames. We’ll kill all the guys, tear off their yellow cocks and then shoot off their heads.” I would listen to this kind of talk, Horace, in officers’ messes in Guam and finally on the Japanese mainland and although some of it made me faintly want to puke I could understand it because I’d seen the spiders limp home from the Burma railway, the
men-spiders
who’d been systematically starved and beaten out of humanity until they were just twitching bone bags. I figured our guys would want to take legitimate vengeance on the most savage war machine the human race ever evolved: the Japanese army of the second world war. But they only shot a handful. That’s straight, Horace. For instance, they shot a few on the island of Tikon where, one balmy evening, I happened to be changing planes.

From back in the coconut grove beyond the airfield, I heard shots. What’s that, I asked. That, Colonel? Yeah, that. I guess someone’s doing a little target practice. Big grin. So I moseyed over, Horace, and there wasn’t anyone there—alive. But the red, dilated disk of the sun was sinking over the calm Pacific, thickening dark shadows at the base of the trees and those shadows resolved themselves, as I got nearer, into frowning Japanese officers bound upright to the trunks and glaring hatred in death. And one of them—who must have got a burst of automatic fire smack in his chest—seemed patriotically to display his emperor’s standard for the red disk of the sun sinking behind him was matched by the torn red disk of his wound.

But they didn’t shoot many, Horace, because political and diplomatic considerations began to intervene. You see, what people fail to understand, Horace, is how the time-lag changes everything. This means that everything is something else. Nothing is what it is but includes other things that are different. If you call something one thing it will begin to swirl into a different thing before your
eyes. It’s not really the time-lag, Horace. It’s more the overlap of the time function or projection which—yi!—what was that? You feel that sharp twinge, Horace, in my cock? Tell me if it happens again. So when the Japs turned into something else which—yee!—in my dick, Horace! Something’s—yee!—stop them, Horace! They’re shoving hot needles up my dick. It’s the wrong treatment, Horace. Son, don’t let them—rck!—torture me! Has it—stopped? Have you fixed it, Horace? Can’t feel—feel better. Yes, now what I was saying, Horace, is the time-lag which lags all time and changes all things into their opposite so that I, Tornado Pratt, the most alive thing in the universe will be clay before the day—before the sun—is black—and—and—Nat? Is she there, Horace? Could you fetch her? Could you do that for me, son?

Nat? Say, honey, how about tonight we leave the car and take a little stroll down to the bay? Right, we could shuck our clothes and have a swim. Honey, you remember that time in Mexico we—honey? Nat? Are you there, Nat? I’d like to see you, honey. I’d like to touch your at least hand and—Nat? Please visit me, honey. Nat, sometimes I don’t think you quite realize how I miss you—every day, honey, deep in my guts—every day for so many long years—so, honey, couldn’t you just come to me now—just for a few minutes—just—

P
RATT
P
ENITENT

What I can’t figure out, Horace, is what happened to all that money. Must have had enough to reach to the moon and back. Mountains of cash. Yeah, the depression—but Harvey anticipated that. He made sure the bulk of our reserves was secured by gold and—Harvey? Did he go rotten and take off with—did he hell! Harvey was loyal until he drove his automobile into that truck when he was—how old was Harvey when he snuffed it? I can see him a bit wrinkled but ginger hair like—no! Now I see his old face—Harvey! Harvey, dear! Old face—like old Seminole chief—and fluffy white hair. Was going on seventy—nineteen—forty—forty—five—six—Harvey slammed into that truck in England—somewhere—at eighty miles an hour and turned himself into hamburger.

About Nat what I remember is how I felt. I felt bitterness and I felt rage. And I used these to ward off grief. But sometimes it would catch me. Once I was sitting in a viewing theatre in
Hollywood
watching a movie about a girl that raised ducks because I was beginning to dabble with movies—when grief shot through me like
a bullet and I gasped so loud the producer tapped me on the shoulder and asked:

“Anything wrong, Tornado?”

I couldn’t talk and I could feel the sobs accumulating inside me like puffs of breath in a balloon so I just leapt to my feet and zipped out. In the street, the pressure reached bursting point and I staggered along the boulevard, heaving with sobs like San Francisco with earthquakes.

One mistake I didn’t make. I didn’t try and drown Nat’s memory in bourbon or blot out her body with other bodies. I went on the wagon and lived as chaste as a monk. The anaesthetic I used was work. I bought into whales and movies. At two-three a.m. I might be perusing a report on fruit prospects in Columbia, or spawning a new subsidiary to bulk purchase manganese. Kept working like a beaver.

I remember just when it hit. It was one morning when I was driving to work, down the Loop, around Connaught Street and just at the junction with Ninth Avenue, I saw a big, new poster that said: WISE GUYS BUYS GINSBURG’S CARS.

Maybe it wasn’t Ginsburg although there was definitely a Ginsburg that sold old jalopies around at that time. Anyhow the sign said: wise guys buys somebody’s cars.

Just as I saw that sign, I remembered my pledge to Dr Curtheim. I’d told him that if he’d fly to Chicago and operate on Nat I’d give away my whole fortune. He hadn’t put any
pressure
on me and I’d paid him a double fee but I’d made a pledge. And what was I doing? Spinning bucks at a faster rate than ever. I kept looking at that sign: WISE GUYS BUYS GINSBURG’S CARS and I began to see the pits of hell.

I could see the devils with forked tails prancing about. Then I heard Parson Dugdale, who spoke the sermons when I was a boy, saying:

“If you was to think of hell as a place like Hugget’s Round or Everston, you’d be wrong. But you’d be even more wrong if you was to think of it as just a way of talking. Nothing is more sure than that sinners will scorch in the fires of hell for all eternity.”

I didn’t really believe that, Horace. I knew the world was made of dirt and water and that above my head were the moon and stars—other worlds. I didn’t believe there was any room for hell—a place where sinners were whisked away to suffer, but I couldn’t be sure. The superstition of my boyhood, and my dad frowning into the Black Book and the amazingness of death in any case—of how
a person comes and goes—of how you could switch Nat off like a light—swept over me and made me gasp.

After that, naturally, there was no way of getting rid of that thought. It kept me company just about everywhere for the next couple of months until I walked away from my fortune the way a hobo walks away from his camp-fire.

That was the end of my first phase, Horace, the end of the innocence of Tornado Pratt. For the next twenty years I felt guilty. What of? Maybe it really started with the death of Pony Roach.

M
YSTERIOUS
D
EATH OF
R
AT

It was before I met Nat. One night I was searching Chicago for someone—yeah, a girl called Lotte—something—and I was under the impression that Lotte was having an affair with a bootlegger called—think of it in a minute—anyhow, this liquor dealer had a number of hoods on his payroll, one of whom was a little
Irishman
called Pony Roach. Sometimes I shot pool with this same killer. He fascinated me—like the silken, slow-gliding snakes behind glass—hard to believe that anything as languid, elegant and
mindless
could deal instant death. I’d watch Pony fit a cigarette into a gold and ivory holder, stoop to plot the deflection of a pool ball and I’d imagine the thuds and muffled shrieks on some vacant lot as his big automatic hurled lead into an enemy of Jay Vasari. That’s the guy, Vasari, that Lotte was linked with—Vasari, who ended up himself shot to pieces on a street corner.

Now Roach was the only lead I had on Vasari and so I went found to his place. This was about three in the morning. I was full of whisky and recklessness. I’d never been to Roach’s place before and I was astonished at how opulent it was. There was a marquee over the sidewalk with a liveried doorman under it. Inside the hall was a pile of carpet with a very attractive tortoise-shell
pattern
. The elevator shot up like a tame shell and deposited me at Roach’s door. I rang the bell. A reasonable pause and then a faint shadow over the peep-hole. The sound of a chain withdrawn, the door opened and Pony, grinning but nerved up, stood there. He was surprised:

“Tornado? How’d you find me?”

“I’ve got your address.”

“How come?”

“Because you gave it to me. You wrote it yourself in my book. See?”

I held out my address book for him. He’d been pretty lushed
when he’d written it and I wanted the sight of his own
handwriting
to reassure him. I didn’t think he’d suspect that I’d come in a hostile capacity. Tornado Pratt would hardly be suspected of being a hired strong-arm but I knew that guys like Roach like to know exactly why everything is happening the way it is. It wasn’t
unknown
for Chicago hoods to snap-shoot their friends if accosted by them unexpectedly.

“Sure, I remember—”

And Pony’s eyes had verified, in one quick glance, my claim. He stood back from the door.

“Great to see you, Tornado. But very unexpected. You must want something—”

“Now—”

“It’s okay, friend, everyone wants something. That’s the
American
way of life. Can I get you a drink?”

“Scotch—if you got it—”

“I’ve got scotch—and Irish. You ever taste John Jameson?”

“Don’t recall.”

“It’s the best whiskey there is. That’s not just patriotism. There’s something in the Irish water—some kind of element—that gives it a fine taste. Like to try it?”

“Sure—great, Pony.”

“Come on out on the patio.”

He lived like a prince that pint-sized killer. He had this sweep of flagstones on the thirtieth floor above Chicago with small flower beds, bushes in tubs, even a little pool with goldfish and a
fountain
. Gazing out over the parapet you could sense rather than see the great dark-cold of the lake, swept from time to time by the tiny flare of a beacon. From beneath came the continuous warning growl of the city and sitting there, waiting for Pony to wheel out the drinks-trolley, I suddenly felt what an amazing thing it was to be a man. Not to live in a hole in a tree or hillside, not to huddle from the cold in a tuft of grass, but to make yourself a garden in the sky and sip whisky there.

“Thanks, Pony.”

Some time later, I became aware that Pony was stroking my leg. I was stretched on a lounger and my first reaction was nausea, followed by a flush of rage and embarrassment. I made an effort to orientate myself. How long—half an hour? An hour maybe? No good looking at my watch because I didn’t know what time I’d arrived. “You’re drunk, man,” I whispered to myself. “But why didn’t you ask him about Lotte?” another part of me queried.
Why had I accepted his drink, chewed the fat awhile and then drifted off to sleep? Why was it the minute I’d stepped out on to his terrace I’d forgotten all about Lotte? And now the little vermin was feeling me up!

You must understand, Horace, no man or boy had ever before set vicious hands on Tornado Pratt. When the kids at home went out into the long grass to handle each other, I went proudly the other way. There was no taint of that in me. From the start—from when I was twelve or thirteen and first kissed and explored Polly Robard and other girls—I was a man with a man’s feelings and a man’s equipment. It was highly disgusting to me to imagine myself doing anything like that with a guy. But I wasn’t a fool, Horace. And by that time, I wasn’t unsophisticated either. As I lay there on the lounger, going hot and cold like someone having water thrown over him in a Turkish bath, I asked myself honestly if I’d set this up—unconsciously—without realizing it. Had I, in the first place, suspected that Pony Roach had such tendencies? For instance, had I ever seen him with a broad? No, I never—hell, yes I had!—a kid called Josephine or something—one of the hostesses at Al’s place—about a year back she’d kept pretty steady company with mighty midget Pony Roach. So that proved it! I felt a surge of relief. I couldn’t have been lured by sick, scented, secret wishes to this terrace. Yeah but—why hadn’t I asked about Lotte? Maybe I’d just passed out from exhaustion. Hell, I’d been flit-assing about all night—all over Chicago—after a day’s work that would put most guys on their back—so maybe I’d just
succumbed
to the sheer comfort of Pony’s place.

“Cut that out,” I said softly.

“It’s okay, Tornado,” he whispered and his hand went on moving lightly down my leg, over my pants of course, and then back up to near my crotch.

“Goddamm it!” I roared. “I said, cut that out!”

But the trouble was, I didn’t roar it out loud. I roared it inside my head and I accompanied the bellow with a kick to Pony’s chin, causing him to yelp and topple over backwards. However, he didn’t do this because I had performed the action, like the bellow, inside my head and Pony didn’t even know they’d occurred. So he just continued to crouch there beside me, softly stroking my leg with his left hand and, emboldened by my apparent acceptance of his attentions, beginning to stroke my arm with his right hand.

What the hell’s going on? This is a very remarkable situation: Tornado Pratt, who has flattened guys twice his size for half his
offence, allowing a perverted little gunman to seduce him. Why? I asked myself again: is it doing anything for you?

I couldn’t locate that it was, Horace. All I located was the whisky-cigar breath of Pony Roach which was getting stronger. Then, with a pang of dismay, I realized
why
it was getting stronger. The dwarf reptile was stooping to kiss me. His scaly, purple face was gliding out of the night towards me. Revulsion squeezed a gasp from my lips and, for an instant, my muscles tensed,
preparatory
to hurling taut knuckles into the intruding face. An instant later, I relaxed again, so quickly that Roach did not appear even to have noted my spasm of fury, or perhaps he interpreted it as a little convulsion of love. The reason I had relaxed again was because proximity had enabled me to see Roach’s face clearly. And, Horace, that face had on it an expression of such exalted anticipation, of such tender yearning, of such amazing
innocence,
that I was robbed of all resistance. Not, I hasten to emphasize, because I suddenly felt lust for Roach or discovered a spring of perversity bubbling amidst the thickets of my normal masculinity, but just because—well, goddamm it, I just couldn’t bring myself to refuse him something that shouldn’t cost me much more than the price of a bucket of mouthwash and, judging from that rapture on his face, was going to plant him, for a minute or two anyway, on the banks of Jordan. Sure, he was a gangster and a murderer. Oak View Graveyard was thick with his victims. He was an
excrescence
on time but what was coming down into my arms was simple longing, like that of a child for its mother or the bride for the bridegroom or Christ for his cross. So I reached up, took him gently in my arms and pressed my lips to those of Pony Roach.

And I held it as long as he wanted, which seemed a long time. I tried to make my mind blank and scour from my awareness the pressure of his lips and of his tightening hands. But he took me to the limits of my tolerance and when he finally detached his lips from mine and eased back a little, I twisted out of his grip, jumped up and hopped away from that lounger. I was numb with misery, Horace. I guessed it would be all over Chicago in a week. Pratt the cock-sucker. Ever see a mincing Tornado? Gum-chewing ball players would snigger in the night spots. Business contacts would give me a special neutral stare to prove they hadn’t heard
anything
. Girls would giggle. And everywhere I went, the camouflaged army of perverts would flock round with winks and nudges. My palms would be raw from the scratching of secret handshakes. If I wanted to take a piss I’d have to barricade myself in the john! I—

And that was the moment Pony picked to come up beside me and slip his arm round my waist. I spun round, Horace. The mush had set into steel and my simple, instinctive movement sent Pony staggering back, reaching for his automatic. Only he wasn’t wearing it. And anyhow he wouldn’t have shot me. He was in love with me. He said:

“I don’t get it.”

What could I say? I’d let him kiss me. I’d kissed him. Now I wanted to pinch him out of time. I tried to control my voice. I explained:

“I’ve been drinking.”

“Sure, but—”

“Forget it!”

“But, Tornado—”

“I mean, forget it! Listen—think what you like—you’ve got a right to—but if I get any kick-back—if any rumour or murmur bounces back to me—I’m going to pull you apart, Pony.”

“You don’t think I’d tell anyone?”

He should have understood, Horace. He should have sensed that I was in a morose frame of mind. I lurched over to the lounger and picked up my jacket. I began to put it on. I didn’t want to hurry, to admit to myself that here was a situation beyond the capacity of Tornado Pratt to regulate, that I felt the impulse of a cornered racoon to be somewhere else but I prayed that he’d keep his trap shut because I knew I was on the edge—

“Why don’t you stay the night, Tornado?”

“Just—”

“I have a lot of feeling for you. You know that, Tornado.”

So I sighed very deeply and I walked slowly over to Pony Roach. I took him by his shirt collar in a tight grip and I shook him pretty hard. His square face rocked back and forth like a Russian doll’s. I explained:

“You’ve got the wrong idea about me, Pony.”

I shook him harder and harder until it occurred to me that I might break his neck. At the same time I heard him croaking:

“Okay! OKAY!”

And so I stopped. He gasped and his left hand flew to his throat and rubbed it. I wanted to say I was sorry but it seemed insulting, so I just sighed, shook my head and then turned and began to leave. I entered his living-room and had nearly reached the quilted front door when I heard his voice behind me.

“What are you then, a sadist?”

This gave me a turn because it is not the kind of thing people think about me—or that I think about myself—but I clenched my teeth and marched on. Then I gave a little snort of laughter
because
it struck me how ludicrous it was to be accused of being a sadist by someone reputed to have shot more than fifteen people. I shouldn’t have weakened because Pony caught that snort of laughter and came staggering after me. He grabbed my arm.

“You think it’s funny, huh?”

I didn’t want to exert myself any more. I didn’t want to assault Pony again. I just wanted to escape. But he held my arm tightly. I sighed and turned:

“Look, Pony—”

He looked terrible. His face was blue and his eyes were yellow. Thick black tears rolled down his cheeks and his shoulders twitched. And again it happened. A wave of pity for the little monster swept over me and I halted.

“It’s nothing personal,” I explained gently. “I’m just not built that way.”

“You ever tried it? You ever tried it with a guy?”

“I never have, Pony. Just now—out there—that was the first time I ever even—well—”

“Ever even what? Kissed a man?”

“Yep.”

“Am I supposed to believe that?”

“I sure as hell can’t prove it.”

“That’s the truth, Tornado. It would be a hell of a tough thing to prove. I mean you come knocking on my door practically at dawn, mumbling some excuse about a dame and straightaway go to sleep on my terrace—I mean suspicious-minded people might think you came here looking for it.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

“Didn’t I see you at the ball game last Monday?”

“How do you mean?”

“There was a guy at the ball game, sitting just five or six rows in front of me. I could have sworn it was you, Tornado. He was with Kit the Kitten.”

“I don’t know what—”

“Kit the Kitten! You know, the fruit that hangs around the pool room—looks like a clapped-out boy scout—takes it any way—”

“Now, look—”

“Get it off your chest, Tornado. Come clean. You think I never
noticed before? Man, I had you taped for one of us for a long time.”

I felt a touch of giddiness then, Horace, because I began to perceive how I was trapped. My instinct was to flare up in a fury, to bellow denials, perhaps to mash Pony with my fists, but I could see that the harder I struggled the more securely would I be caught in his web. So I breathed very deep and tried to speak calmly:

“Now look, Pony—”

“Okay.”

He flung a silencing palm at me and turned away. A couple of paces, however, and he turned back.

“I understand. Don’t think I don’t. You’ve got a lot riding on your reputation. You’re good at blending with the background. I’ve seen you strutting along with a dame on each arm.”

“The point is—”

“You want another drink? How’d the John Jameson go down?”

BOOK: Tornado Pratt
7.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Courtney Milan by A Novella Collection
A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter
Taking Death by G.E. Mason
Chankya's Chant by Sanghi, Ashwin
Hitting on the Hooker by Mina Carter
Short Stories 1927-1956 by Walter de la Mare