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Authors: Paul Ableman

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BOOK: Tornado Pratt
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“I never did.”

“How would you like me to break your jaw, Harvey?”

“It would not improve your reading ability, Tornado.”

“That’s true, Harvey. But that wouldn’t be my reason for doing it.”

“Tornado, you are a powerful young man. I
concede
your ability to break my jaw. Won’t you be satisfied with that?”

“Harvey, find me a book that I
can
read.”

“What for?”

“Because I really have a yen to read.”

But he surprised me by saying urgently:

“Don’t do it, Tornado! Don’t make the mistake so many have made and think you can turn books into dutiful servants. They’re infinitely treacherous. Let me explain: suppose I did what you wanted and found a nice, simple-minded volume that you could sit there and enjoy. Well, that book might have a hero and a heroine in it. You might fall in love with the heroine and that would mean you would naturally want to emulate the hero. So right away, you’re deflected from your own course, your own truth and energy. But that would only be the beginning. That
book would make you want to read another book. And that would immediately give you a new set of models and ideas. And so it would go on. Twenty years later, you’d find yourself like me—without spirit or energy, battered by other men’s thoughts. And to crown it all, what you’d be then, Tornado, would be an
arbitrary
wreck! It might have happened that you’d read completely different books from the ones you actually encountered and they’d have done quite different things to you.”

Well, as you might guess, Horace, I was more than a little amazed by Harvey’s fervour. I knew he meant it kindly but I was kind of stubborn and sure of myself in those far-gone morning days. So I made him teach me, Horace, and, sadly, he consented. After a while, he got into it and became enthusiastic about my huge power to learn. Naturally, I began slowly—a modern novel or two, a kid’s history book, a few little tinkling poems and maybe a visit to the theatre. But from the start I bombarded Harvey with questions, making him explain and then explain his explanations and leaving no corner in which ignorance could lurk. And we made mighty strides, Horace.

P
RATT
P
ERFECTS
P
RATT

There came a time when Harvey would come at me with:

“Would you say that poem was a typical product of the romantic movement, Tornado?”

or

“Do you really give a fart for art, Tornado?”

And I’d come twisting back at him, full of book knowledge, leaping like a mountain goat from reference to reference, spinning out a shining web of ideas and, often as not, tangling up Harvey in the bright coils of my thought. Anything I could understand I could dominate and, if I set my mind to it, I could understand anything. Those were the tornado years, Horace, and I sucked in everything.

They’re coming whirling out now, Horace, out of my vivid flux of days, some images of pain. Like the time I slugged Harvey Maldoon.

We’d been to a speakeasy that night. Must have been a big occasion because I don’t recollect more than half a dozen times that Harvey came out on the town with me. After we got the mansion out beyond Taplow Park, he fitted it out with a
billiard-room
and most evenings he’d play billiards with one of the
house-boys
and then hit the sack early and read. But on this occasion—
maybe it was my birthday?—I’d persuaded him to come down and see this new spot. We took the Cadillac and I remember telling the driver to go down by way of the lake because I wanted to show Harvey the latest in our fleet of cargo ships. We had a drink with the Captain and I recollect as we were leaving the ship I saw a rat creeping up a hawser and I distracted Harvey’s attention with a wise crack because I knew he had a mortal fear of rats.

Then the night opened like a flower as it always did in those days for Tornado Pratt and out of the silver alleys of the town danced the children of sin. We caroused at Emmets which was a tinsel palace lit by emerald spotlights. The lights turned us all into fish nosing through turbulent pools of champagne. Little rainbow fish and thick grinning fish with pistols in their armpits clustered round as I swept up through the champagne. As I broke surface, the band struck up the “Tornado Song” which half a dozen Chicago clubs played whenever I walked in.

All the big shots called at my table. Not only businessmen and politicians came to pay their respects but actors and singers and artists. In those days, there was a girl called Lotte who wore green and scarlet face paint so that across the room she looked like a parrot but close up she was ravishing. Lotte was a poet and a dancer. Somehow she’d wafted to Chicago from Vienna and she’d become the queen of the artists. She was a challenge to me because, for some reason, she wouldn’t come across. Now I’m not suggesting, Horace, that I’ve ever had to shovel dames out of my bed. It’s never quite like that. No matter how much you’ve got, women don’t like to think of themselves as sex toys. Moreover, in a lot of cases, bodies are all girls have to bargain with and so they don’t give them away. Any man who’s had physical relations with a reasonable number of women—more than a hundred, say—knows that some kind of campaign is usually necessary. But with those qualifications, Horace, I wouldn’t be bragging if I said that I had few problems in those days. Many’s the night I’d dive laughing into the pool of champagne and the next thing I’d surface in some strange bed, perhaps with the wife or daughter of a senator or tycoon nestled up to me. And it might have been like that on this particular night—except that Lotte was there. I came to her with:

“Hiya, kid!”

“Oh, hello, Pratt.”

“My friends call me Tornado.”

“Do they really, Pratt?”

“Aren’t you my friend, Lotte?”

“What’s a friend, Pratt?”

“Why someone who—you know what a friend is, Lotte.”

“A tiger on a lead.”

“Huh?”

“Someone who can—eat you up.”

“I don’t want to eat you up, Lotte.”

“What
do
you want to do to me, Pratt?”

And then, as if suggesting the answer, she put her hand down and squeezed my leg hard, just below my crutch. Naturally, I swung my arm round to circle her shoulder but she shrank back as if alarmed.

“Don’t!”

“But—”

“You won’t find me, Pratt.”

“How do you mean?”

“Oh, don’t be stupid. Who’s that man looking at us?”

I glanced towards the entrance, where she was looking, and saw a plump, cheerful-looking man talking to a waiter. I recognized him as Jay Vasari, a gangster I knew slightly. I told Lotte but she didn’t seem interested. She asked:

“Do you want to sleep with me, Pratt?”

“I sure do.”

“You won’t find me if you do.”

“I—how do you mean?”

She smiled sadly. She suddenly looked pathetic under the whorls of green and crimson paint, like a delicate, doomed savage. I wanted to scoop her up in my arms and carry her off to a benign wilderness. She glanced towards the entrance again.

“That man’s still looking at us.”

Then she squeezed my leg again, even more urgently, her fingers brushing my muffled prick. But she again shrank back when I tried a follow-up. Just then, Harvey materialized beside me and said:

“Can I have a word with you, Tornado?”

Naturally, I showed reluctance but Harvey conveyed that it was important. I sighed, stood up and followed him a little way away.

“What’s nibbling you, Harvey?”

“It’s that girl you’re with—”

“Shoot.”

Harvey claimed that he’d just overheard a conversation which implied that Lotte was Vasari’s new girl-friend. I shook my head.

“No, she’s not. And what if she is?”

“Vasari, I believe, has a reputation for shooting rivals—or getting them shot.”

This was true but I was drunk and infatuated. I glanced about the room and recognized one or two of Vasari’s men but I felt ready to take on an army to get at Lotte that night.

“It’ll be okay, Harvey,” I assured him.

“I think you should drop it, Tornado.”

I felt a stir of irritation. Oh, sure, I’ve realized since that Harvey was merely trying to protect me but at the time I felt he was meddling in my affairs. I said:

“I can look after myself, Harvey.”

I saw he was peering over my shoulder. Then he said:

“That seems to settle it. She’s leaving.”

I spun round and saw Vasari towing Lotte out of the joint like a dinghy in the wake of a yacht. I growled and started after them. But Harvey, very stupidly, grabbed my tuxedo jacket. This
unbalanced
me and I crashed to the floor. I rose like a gusher and slugged Harvey, fracturing his jaw. Then I turned to pursue Vasari but found an unaccountable welter of obstacles which I later figured must have been rigged by Vasari’s men. First a waiter lay down in front of me and writhed about, further impeding my progress by pouring slippery blood from his mouth. I leaped over him only to encounter a judge and his wife doing a kind of turkey dance in front of me. I related this activity to the strange conduct of a gangster called Mario who seemed to be trying to shoot his own foot off with an automatic. I ducked to avoid a flying champagne bottle and a stranger behind me caught it in his mouth. Now the whole joint started leaping about and yelling in their attempt to keep me from Lotte. I patiently hacked a path through the living jungle and had just reached the door when a counter-torrent of patrolmen surged in and washed me back into the room.

The rest of that night got very confused, Horace. I plunged about Chicago, searching for Lotte. In the end I wound up at Pony Roach’s apartment. One thing I do want to make clear, Horace, is that I never killed Pony Roach.

He was one of Vasari’s men and I just called on him to get Jay’s address which was not widely known in Chicago. The funny thing about Pony Roach, Horace, is that he had excellent manners. He had natural courtesy. He was an Irishman, not more than five foot seven inches tall and delicate as a praying mantis but he could put away massive hoods and torpedoes. He made me laugh by claiming
that he’d never harm a human being but had no objection to
shooting
apes.

Well we talked for hours in his penthouse on Cutler Street. We were sitting on the terrace twenty-five floors above Chicago and I noticed that the sky was red. I asked Pony to tell me about Europe which I was thinking of visiting and he recommended that I should explore Cork. Then, still holding his pony glass, he dove off the edge of his balcony. All I can suggest is that it was a sudden impulse. A moment before, we had been talking and
drinking
and then Pony grinned and said:

“See you in paradise, Tornado!” and—whizz!—he’s over the edge.

I finished my cigar and whisky, although I felt uneasy, and then I went to the parapet and gazed down. I beheld many people, including patrolmen, gazing up at me and it struck me what the crazy joker, Pony, might have let me in for. People could easily assume that I’d booted him off the terrace. As if I’d do a thing like that just because he’d got down on his knees and fiddled with my fly buttons. Earlier, I’d asked him if he could direct me to where Lotte was staying. I’d suggested that, since he was number two to Vasari, he was in a position to know. Pony admitted that he did know but claimed that he’d promised not to tell anyone. Then he expressed the opinion that, in any case, I was wasting my time with a “dime whore” like Lotte who did a poxy trade in bargemen and niggers and I’d be better getting sucked off by him, Pony Roach. We roared with laughter at this crack and then Pony excused himself and dove off the roof. I hastened down in the elevator to the seventh floor, where there was an adjoining roof, and thus made my way home.

That’s how it was, Horace. I remember clearly now. I’ve never killed a civilian in my life—certainly not that kid in Peru. As for Pony Roach, I was hanging on to him with both hands, hugging him to my chest, and he just popped out like a wet fish, straight over the edge of the roof.

E
UROPE
R
AVISHED

It was a mistake busting Harvey on the jaw, not because he held a grudge. That wasn’t in Harvey’s nature. But because from then on he was scared of me. Just a little. He wasn’t terrified. He didn’t scuttle into the butler’s room when I got home but there was just that hint of deference, of restraining himself from being totally candid, which changed the balance of our relationship. Part of the
trouble was his jaw never healed properly. I don’t mean it stuck out on one side or anything. To look at, Harvey was the same distinguished-looking guy he’d always been. But he had twinges now and then, especially if he ate nuts or anything hard, which reminded him of my fearsome, drunken blow and I guess—

Sometimes, if we had company, and when we did have company it was the most glittering company in the Middle West, and I’d see Harvey wince when his teeth met something hard, tears would spring into my eyes. I loved that man and I’d broken his jaw. It could never be undone. I could stitch continents together with iron ships. I could make prairies belch cows but I couldn’t buy Harvey a new jaw. And there was something else too which, in a way, was worse. Because Harvey was just that fraction scared of me, I was just that fraction more bossy. I could hear the change in my voice and I’d think: my God, this is the guy who’s given you everything—why the hell can’t you go easy on him?

So I decided to travel some.

There was another reason too. I was wearing out with Lotte Rine. We had five weeks of concentrated passion when every day we managed at least one fuck. In her studio I’d pull her straddling on to my lap and probe into her while she gasped:

“Tornado! Töte mich!”

Then I’d rise slowly to my feet, still embedded in her and, after she’d writhed out of her blouse and brassière, fall forwards on to the deep cushions of her oval bed where we’d roll and curl for hours in the sweet athletics of life. Feeling the call, I’d excuse myself from directors or accountants and head for Lotte, often meeting her streaming towards me. And where we met, we’d do it. Not actually in the street but in strange nooks and crevices of the city with the iron life whizzing about us. I took her in telephone booths, often in cars, on perforated fire-escapes which must have revealed at least heaving forms to the street below, in alleys behind stacks of boxes, once in an elevator between the twelfth and the fortieth floor, where Lotte’s brief petal of skirt was still wafting down as the doors grated open and people jostled in.

BOOK: Tornado Pratt
12.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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