you know,” george mattingly announced suddenly, “the damnedest thing happened to me the other night.”
we all nodded politely. i, for one, was not the least bit interested in the damnedest thing that had happened to george mattingly or anybody else, being more than content to stare into space and nurse my scotch and water, but i nodded along with the rest of them.
a word of introduction. there were six of us, and we met regularly, usually at pat callahan’s on second avenue, or, sometimes to break the monotony, at the five brothers on twenty-fifth street.
on some festive occasion or other that seemed to call for it, we might make the rounds of the seedier bars around washington square or the village.
we were not exactly a club, having no official membership and no rules or dues - and no fixed meeting place we could call our own - but we called ourselves a club.
the downers club.
downer, as in downing drinks. which we all prided ourselves on our ability to do.
in recent years, as i may have inadvertently suggested above, we had taken more to nursing drinks than downing them, but we did not start calling ourselves the nursers club.
and our number had dwindled to six, down from a high of eleven.
at one time we had even had a couple of women in the group! but that is another story, for another time.
we were not the sort of fellows who were destined to be secretary of state, or in the senate, or even to be called to testify before a senate committee. nor were we the sort to be making our families’ lawyers earn their retainers, getting our names in the papers, being shot by chorus girls or jealous husbands or all that sort of thing.
we just stumbled along from year to year, putting in our hours at the family firms, having lunch, and meeting for drinks.
people say the world is always changing, but i don’t see it. to me it looks quite the same as ever.
so - there we were, at pat callahan’s on a rainy night, or maybe it was a snowy night, or maybe it was ninety degrees outside in the middle of august…
i was just getting to sleep, george mattingly began, when the phone rang.
right in my ear, as the phone is right beside the couch where i usually pass out.
i keep meaning to have the phone moved to some other place in the house, but i never get around to it. i am not even sure who would move it. the phone company? would i have to hire somebody?
i was instantly awake, as i had not had time to properly fall asleep, and i picked the phone up and a man’s voice said…
“ernie! you have to get down here right away!”
“i’m sorry, you have the wrong number,” i replied and hung the phone back up, quite relieved that it had nothing to do with me.
i was just snuggling back into my rolled up coat when the phone rang again.
and again - “ernie!”
this was annoying. “i’m sorry but i am not ernie. you have the wrong number,” i told the fellow with more patience than i felt. “please hang up and try again.”
once again i hung up my own phone. now i was so awake i even considered getting up, going into the bedroom, actually getting undressed, and so forth.
i had just gotten into a sitting position when the phone rang again. i snatched it up.
“ernie! billy doesn’t like this! you got to get down here!”
i managed a friendly laugh. “you have the wrong number, sir. this is not ernie’s number.”
a pause. then, “is this central 6 - 9347?”
“indeed it is, but is not ernie’s number. it is my number.”
“i have it as ernie’s number.”
”but it is not ernie’s number, “ i replied. “whoever gave it to you as ernie’s number was mistaken. mistaken as to what ernie’s number is. or perhaps you copied it wrong. mistakes happen,” i concluded, as amiably as i could.
pause. “i didn’t copy it,” the voice said, in a slightly aggrieved tone. “i got it given to me. they said it was ernie’s number.”
“be that as it may, it is not ernie’s number. it is my number.”
“and who are you?”
“that is no concern of yours. it is sufficient for you to know that i am not ernie. i suggest that you consult the person who gave you the number and have them correct their error.”
and with that i hung up. i felt i had handled the situation rather well. suddenly i was sleepy again. why bother getting up and going into the bedroom?
i fell sound asleep. i had a dream in which i was a piece of shrimp and chiang kai-shek and bing crosby were a couple of toothpicks who were trying to spear me and put me on a paper plate that was also eleanor roosevelt making a speech at the united nations…
the phone rang again. it took me a few seconds to remember the earlier calls.
i finally managed to pick up the receiver.
it was a woman’s voice this time. and a very nasty voice it was.
“ernie! billy doesn’t think this is funny!“ and she proceeded to berate me - or ernie - in language no lady should use, even in this modern age.
“get down here and get down here now!” she sounded like my second wife.
for the first time i began to see some humor in the situation. “and where is here, miss?” i asked when i could get a word in.
“you know ————— well where here is!”
“remind me. i may have had a few too many and i have forgotten.”
i could hear what sounded like a hiss. “twenty-fifth and broadway, ernie. cut the comedy and be here.“ i could hear her muttering to somebody else. “we’ll give you twenty minutes.” and she slammed the phone down.
twenty-fifth and broadway! practically around the corner. and a block from the five brothers. after playing out the comedy i could go into the little diner across the street from the brothers and get some coffee and a slice of pie and wait for the brothers to open.
i straightened and tightened my tie, shook the wrinkles out of my coat, put on my hat, made sure i had my cigarettes and lighter and was down on the street in no time.
the fresh air felt good, and woke me up. for a moment i considered turning around and walking away from, rather than towards, broadway but i decided i had come this far…
besides, i felt that if my tormentors saw me, that would be the end of it, and i would not have to worry about being bothered by them on another night or any night.
i did not have to search for those who were waiting for me.
a black plymouth four door sedan was idling at the corner of twenty-fourth and broadway, pointing south. a hulking fellow wearing a cloth cap was leaning against the passenger side. could this be “billy”?
a woman - surely the one i had spoken to - was standing on the sidewalk watching me as i approached. she wore a man’s black fedora and a heavy black coat. a black half veil covered her face down to her mouth. she could have been any age between twenty and fifty.
i raised my hat and smiled at her. “good evening, miss. i am the gentleman you - i assume it was you - spoke with at central 6 - 9347.”
she did not smile back. “get in the car.”
“get in the car?” i laughed. “but surely you can see that i am not the person you want. that i am not ‘ernie’.”
“we’ll let billy be the judge of that.”
“and where, i may ask, is this billy? why did not billy come here himself?”
“get in the car, pal,” the man in the cloth cap who was apparently not billy told me, “or i will have to throw you in.”
there was nobody else in sight. i decided to humor them. the man opened the rear door and i got in. the woman in black got in beside me.
the man in the the cloth cap got in the front seat beside the driver, a short fat swarthy fellow with thick glasses.
“can i ask where we are going?” i asked as amiably as i could.
“to meet billy,” the woman answered.
“i already knew that.”
“then why did you ask?”
“of course, how silly of me. do you mind if i smoke?”
“suit yourself. just shut up. do you think we wanted to come out here? so just keep your mouth shut.”
“and enjoy the ride,” the man in the cloth cap added from the front seat.
we were heading south. we got onto bleecker street, then the bowery and the manhattan bridge.
and into the wilds of brooklyn and queens. i never cease to be amazed at how country much of brooklyn and queens are.
i must have fallen asleep, because when i woke up we were on what looked like a real country road, somewhere on long island.
we went on and on. nobody spoke a word. it started to get a little bit light.
finally we stopped. a car was parked by the side of the road. it looked like an old duesenberg but i couldn’t be sure.
a man was standing beside it. very well dressed, in a blue overcoat and a tasteful red and blue scarf and a pearl gray homburg. he was blowing on his hands as it had gotten colder.
i got out of the car, with the woman in black behind me. the man in the cloth cap got out on his side and walked around and stood beside me.
i got a better look at the man in the homburg. he looked like dean acheson.
at this point george interrupted his narrative, which he had been delivering in a monotone, and looked around at us.
“i think it might have actually been dean acheson,” he said. “i really think it might have been. what do you fellows think?”
“it doesn’t seem very likely, george”, bill robinson answered.
“why don’t you go in with your story, “ i told george, “maybe that will give us a clue.”
“yes.” george resumed his tale.
the man who looked like dean acheson stared at me. “who is this?”
the man in the cloth cap shrugged. “ernie.”
“no, you idiots, he is not ernie!”
“we thought he was ernie.”
the man who looked like dean acheson was fit to be tied. “you idiots, “ he screamed at the man and the woman in black. “can’t anybody do anything right?” and he let them have it, cursing them out like they were convicts on a chain gang and he was the boss or foreman.
for their part they did not seem too concerned. they might have been a couple of schoolchildren being scolded for putting their feet up on grandmother’s sofa.
finally the man in the cloth cap reached under his coat and pulled out a gun and waved it at me. “want me to take care of him?”
the man who looked like dean acheson looked around. the area was pretty deserted but there was one light in the distance, probably from a farmhouse. that might have saved me.
“no, you fool. put that thing away and let’s get out of here.” without another word the man who looked like dean acheson got in the duesenberg.
the man in the cloth cap winked at me and put his gun back under his coat. he and the woman got back in the plymouth.
both cars roared off, leaving me alone.
“and you never saw them again,” chad barber said,
“well, no,” george agreed. “but it was only two or three nights ago.”
i started walking toward the light of the farmhouse, george continued, or whatever it was.
i never made it. when i woke up i was in a state troopers barracks.
i told them my story but i don’t think they believed it. they were ready to lock me up for vagrancy but when i asked them to call fred lewis and they realized i was the sort of fellow who actually had a lawyer to call my own they treated me a little more politely.
the young trooper who had picked me up, a big fellow with a big red farmers face, got me a cup of coffee while i waited for fred to come pick me up.
i asked him if he believed my story.
he looked at me with big sad eyes. “everybody goes off the rails in their own way, sir, ” he said.
“we believe your story, george,” jack freemantle assured him. “for my part i think you showed a lot of spunk in your little adventure. in fact i will buy you a drink to show my appreciation.”
jack called the bartender over and we all ended up buying drinks.
“everybody goes off the rails in their own way,” bill robinson repeated. “isn’t that the truth?” he shook his head. “did you all hear about harry malmberger? they found him walking up eighth avenue the other day, stopping in every phone booth and ripping the phone book up and scattering the pages in the street.”
“that’s nothing,” chad barber said. “did you hear about ollie tappington? now there is a fellow who really went off the rails. went off the rails in style.”