The staircase cascades down to the platform like a black waterfall of steel and rivets. At the foot stand three porters wearing thin cotton jackets, no match for the stabbing cold that has tormented New York since Christmas. The last passengers of the southbound Dixie Flyer have boarded, men in long wool coats and ladies garbed in fur, headed off for pleasant weather elsewhere. The porters have loaded their considerable luggage, leather bags neatly packed with golfing britches, tennis togs, and foulard dresses, something for every occasion on their holidays in Hot Springs and Palm Beach.
"White folks be headed south," says one porter in a rich baritone, "and black folks be headed north." Heads bob in easy agreement; coins jangle restlessly in deep pockets, the tips garnered for loading the suitcases of the well-to-do. They've all made more in an hour at Pennsylvania Station than a sharecropper makes in a week.
Steel columns reach up to cambered arches that support the lattice of windows in the glass ceiling high above. Some days it seems like the arches hold up heaven itself, the way shafts of light shine down. But not today. The sun has disappeared, and as soon as this train departs, the porters will disappear too, back to a small room beneath the stairs where they can pretend to be warm for a few minutes, before the arrival of the 83 at 1:06.
A whistle sounds, shrieking through the station. "All aboard!" a conductor shouts, beefy hand cupped to mouth, eyes red and watery. Suddenly, bounding down the steel stairs comes a ticket clerk, spectacles pinched to a thin nose and in danger of flying off as he waves his arms wildly trying to get the conductor's attention. "Wait, now! Hold the train! Hold the train!"
Somebody important must be on the Dixie Flyer, the porters decide, curious now as the spectacle unfolds. A few seconds later they see a huge man appear at the head of the stairs, surveying the platform below as a lord would his minions. He begins his descent at a leisurely pace, obviously in no hurry. He knows the world will wait for him, so there's no reason to rush. He walks with a cocksure swagger, a great garish blue coat pulled tight against his massive chest. The wind has whisked a curly frock of black hair onto his forehead, giving the man a boyish look, the disheveled appearance of an untamed lad forced to put on his Sunday best. Behind him trails another hapless porter, struggling to carry the man's mountain of luggage, including a set of brand-new golf clubs. At the foot of the stairs some sportswriters catch the big man, who stops and allows a photographer to snap off some shots, the bulb popping loudly like a small gun.
"Hey, Babe!" a reporter shouts. "How much you tipping the scales these days?"
"Counting my pecker?" The big man snickers, then reaches into his blue coat and pulls out a cigar. "Boys, I've never felt better in my life." He pauses, lights his stogie, and immediately falls into a fit of coughing, which reddens his face. "The Yankees don't pay me to model no swimming trunks. Hey kid!"
George Herman Ruth motions to a little boy hiding behind a column, calling him over to the impromptu news conference. The kid at first appears to be too stunned to move a muscle; he's been tagging along ever since he saw the slugger out on Sixth Avenue. The kid's eyes grow wide and somehow his body begins to go forward. The crowd of reporters parts to make way for the youngster. The Babe kneels down and puts his big, meaty arm around the child's thin, small shoulders. The boy quakes as if palsied by the cold, so vivid and palpable is his excitement.
"Listen, kiddo," the Babe sings, "how 'bout you taking this here sawbuck and going up to that Kraut selling wieners by the newsstand and picking up five for the Babe? Can you do that for me?"
The boy nods eagerly, eyes bugged in disbelief.
"Good. And run back as fast as you can." With a final pat the boy scampers off, his little feet pattering against the steel steps as he hurries to the terminal. Ruth stands up, a bright smiled fixed on his lips. "The Babe gets hungry, he eats. He gets horny, he screws. You swing big, you live big. It ain't as complicated as you make it sound, you dumb eggheads."
The reporters laugh, as they usually do at Ruth, but they also know that the slugger doesn't look especially well. He seems to be about thirty pounds overweight, and his face, jowly at the best of times, swells from a bloated chin. Every year he makes a pilgrimage to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to pull himself together before spring training starts in Florida, but this year he'll have to redouble his efforts to get in condition. Can he do it? Can he continue to find success through excess, live like he doesn't care about tomorrow only to seize the day and conquer? It doesn't seem possible, but neither did hitting fifty homers in a season, a feat he's already accomplished twice.
"How many homers this year, Babe?" a reporter calls out.
"A hundred. Hey, any of you scoffers ever been to St. Pete? What kind of burg is it anyway?"
"It's swanky, Babe. Real swanky."
"Is it wet?"
"All Florida is. So I hear."
"All aboard!" the conductor shouts, as again the whistle splits the frigid air.
The smile quickly fades from the Babe's face. "Where'd that kid go with my franks? And my ten smackers?" The reporters all wheel around; the staircase is empty. The kid is nowhere to be found.
"The hell with it!" Babe Ruth chuckles merrily, unperturbed by the grift. "And I was hungry too. They got food on these trains." He gives a wave as he springs over to his Pullman car. "See you in St. Pete, boys!"
The reporters know Ruth was slapped with a paternity suit six months ago, although the case had been dropped. They know he consumes women and food with equal fervor and equal indiscrimination. They know he likes to spend time at the racetrack, where, when he won, he won big. Though he lost even bigger, and they know that, too, these reporters huddling at the train station on this cold winter day in February 1925. They know facts about the man, and facts are like stars, hovering above us in fixed constellations that guide our lives through eternal blackness.
"How long you give the bastard to live?" asks one wag as the train began to pull slowly away from the station.
The floor is so cold against his feet that it feels like he's walking on ice. The fire went out last night, but he didn't start feeling it until he sobered up. Now not even his companion for the evening, the lovely Ginger DeMore, can keep him warm anymore.
"Hey, you!" she calls out. "Come back here."
Frank Hearn grins at her, revealing a set of perfectly straight teeth. A few are chipped, though, like old china. His nose is crooked, and one cheek sits flatter against his face than the other. But he's got wavy brown hair, a cleft chin, and bright hazel eyes, making him a ruggedly handsome sort. He stands well over six feet and is sturdily constructed, thick in the chest and broad in the shoulders, solid like a gnarled oak tree, with the same sort of markings. A few scars, some bumps, a broken limb or two over the years, but still impressive.
"I'll brew us a pot of coffee," he tells her. There's not a stick of wood left to feed the stove, so he'll have to trudge downstairs to borrow some more from the landlord. But this will be the last time. You don't need firewood in Florida, and that's where he's headed. The Sunshine State.
"I'll be right back," he says, sitting on the edge of the bed to get dressed.
"Where're you going?" asks Ginger sleepily, propping herself up on her elbows. "You sick of me already?"
"No, I'm sick of the cold. I need to get some wood." He pulls on a pair of wool socks. His toes poke through a few holes, and he wiggles them. These won't be making the trip south. You don't need wool in that heat.
Ginger falls back onto a pillow like she's been shot. "Get me some Bromo-Seltzer while you're at it. My head is spinning like a top."
"How about some hair of the dog?"
"Hardware for breakfast? I like how you think, sport."
Now dressed, Frank strides over to the closet by the front door. He opens it and stands back to regard what's inside: 117 bottles of Hennessey Three Star scotch, straight from the Canadian shores of Lake Erie. Frank just got back to Asbury Park yesterday, and he can't help but marvel at his handiwork, the neatly stacked cases, the block printing on the sides, so official looking, so perfect. Name-brand booze, more valuable than gold.
"If that ain't the cat's meow!" Ginger purrs once she sees the haul. "Some bootlegger you are!"
"They're pretty, huh?" He reaches in and grabs a bottle out of an already-opened case. This is the last one he'll take for himself. He gave two last night to Murray Redd, photographer and Frank's good buddy. Murray took pictures of naked women—models like Ginger, whom Frank met last night. It sure pays to have friends. Frank has gorged himself on Murray's skirts the past three years. He'll miss those parties at the studio, but all good things must come to an end.
"I've never seen so much booze," gushes Ginger.
"You won't be seeing it for very long. I got it all worked out. Somebody's buying the whole load." He examines the bottle of scotch he's holding, his attention drawn especially to the label. That's what makes it so beautiful: people love labels on their booze. They'll pay dearly for it, too.
"Aren't you a smart boy. Pour me a drink already."
He finds a glass, one of two he owns, and fills it up halfway. For himself, he takes a quick swig off the bottle, then another.
"I'll be right back," he says, teeth rattling from the cold. "I gotta get a fire going."
"Hurry up already. It's lonely in here all alone."
He smiles down at Ginger, reclined naked on his bed, barely covered with the blanket. She is just what the doctor ordered, a woman plump in all the right places, with a full bust and strong thighs she could wrap around you like she was breaking a mustang. She also speaks in a low, gravelly voice that puts you in a naughty frame of mind, and after six nights in the freezing cold on a smelly fishing boat, Frank had plenty on his mind when he brought Ginger home last night. Very quickly those long, lonely nights on the Hudson River faded away.
Frank gathers an armful of wood, quietly, keeping an eye on his landlord's door. No need to wake him up. He'll ask for the rent and Frank won't have it to give. Not till later today, after he sees Ed Callahan. That's who's buying the booze. And when Frank gets a stake this time, he won't blow it. No sir. He won't be that stupid again. He ran through a thousand berries last summer like it was nothing. And for what? Showing some dame a good time. Dinners, movies, drinks, new clothes, you name it, and Frank bought it for her. The thing was, she was a poor little rich girl, a millionaire's daughter. What a soak he was. No, he won't be that stupid this time. He learned his lesson. There'll be time aplenty for skirts once he gets to Florida and gets set up in the real estate game.
"I'm back," he announces, closing the door with his foot and hurrying over to the stove. Heat is all he wants. "Let me light a fire. I hate this cold."
"Why don't you let me warm you up?" asks Ginger, peeling back the blanket to show a little more of her bust. She's got his attention now. Frank breaks into a wide grin, like a kid who's just found a silver dollar.
"Let me get this started. I'll be right there."
He holds a match to an old newspaper and then puts the flame beneath a few small logs.
"Hurry up already," she coos.
The logs begin to crackle as they catch on fire.
"I gotta get going," he tells her. "I'm not giving you the bum's rush or anything. I got business to take care of." He untangles himself from her nude body. He's supposed to meet with Callahan at noon, and he wants to get this squared away, since he invested almost every penny he had in buying the booze.
Ginger sighs theatrically. "Men and their business. It's all work, work, work. You sound like my husband."
"Husband?" The word gets stuck in Frank's throat like a chicken bone. "You never said nothing about a husband."
"You never asked."
She starts collecting her clothes, which are strewn on the floor around the bed. Frank stands and watches her with a new suspicion. Married? She doesn't act too married, and there's no ring on her finger. Somehow he missed it. Must've been blinded by her slinky cocktail dress.
"Ah, don't get balled up, Frank," she sings merrily, pulling on that same cocktail dress with the studded rhinestones that unglued him last night. "I left him. We're separated and getting a divorce."
"Yeah? Why's that?"
She shakes her head like she's warding off a fly. "Lots of reasons. Do you really want to know?"
"I just don't want some rube showing up here looking to kill me."
She snorts a derisive laugh. "You won't have to worry about that. You seen my purse anywhere? I need some lipstick. I can't go out looking like this. Oh, there you are." Her purse is resting on a chair. She picks it up, and starts looking around.
"Don't got one."
She shrugs, and walks over to the chifforobe, where she begins applying makeup, humming to herself as she does. She's almost dressed now, and soon she'll be heading out the door and out of his life for good.
"There. How do I look?"
She's got a purse in her hand, and when she spins around, something heavy falls out of it and crashes against the floor. A pistol, .22 caliber by the looks of it, snub-nosed. She stoops and gathers it up.
"Why are you packing heat?" he asks her. That's the last thing he expected she'd carry around.
"A girl needs a friend."
From the Hardcover edition.