I'll be damned, Ruth thought. The whole world's on strike.
The motorcade appeared in front of him, rolling slowly down Charles Street. He kept a leisurely pace as he followed it through the throngs while it snaked around the Public Garden and then along Commonwealth. He signed a few autographs as he went, shook a few hands, but it was nice how his celebrity diminished in light of much larger star power. Folks were less clamorous and clingy with him that afternoon, as if, in the bright sun cast by Wilson's fame, Babe was just one of the common folk. He might be famous, but he wasn't the reason rifl es were pointing down at their heads. That was a mean kind of famous. His was a friendly kind of famous, a regular famous.
By the time Wilson climbed a podium in Copley Square, Babe had grown bored, though. The president might have been powerful and book- smart and all, but he sure didn't know much about public speaking. You had to give them a show, a little razzle here and some dazzle there, tell a few jokes, make them think you took as much pleasure in their company as they did in yours. But Wilson looked tired up there, old, his voice a thin, reedy thing as he droned on about League- of-Nations this and new-world-order that and the great responsibilities that come with great might and great freedom. For all the big words and big ideas, he smelled of defeat, of something stale and weary and broken beyond fixing. Ruth worked his way out of the crowd and signed two more autographs on the fringe of it and then walked up Tremont and went looking for a steak.
He came home to his apartment a few hours later and found Harry Frazee waiting for him in the lobby. The doorman went back outside and Ruth pushed the button and stood by the brass doors of the elevator.
"I saw you at the president's speech," Frazee said. "I couldn't reach you through the crowd."
"Sure was thick," Ruth said.
"If only our dear president knew how to play the press like you do, Mr. Ruth."
Babe swallowed the smile that threatened to creep up his face. He had to hand it to Johnny Igoe on that one --Johnny had sent Babe out to orphanages and hospitals and old-lady homes, and the papers ate it up. Men had flown in from Los Angeles to give Babe screen tests, and Johnny talked up the offers he'd told Babe were coming in from the flickers business. Actually, just about the only thing that could have pushed Babe off the front pages this week was Wilson. Even the shooting of the Bavarian prime minister went under the fold when Babe's deal to star in a short flicker called The Dough Kiss was announced. When reporters asked if he'd be going to spring training or not, Ruth kept saying the same thing, "If Mr. Frazee thinks I'm worthy of a fair wage, I'll be there."
Spring training was three weeks off.
Frazee cleared his throat. "I'll meet your price."
Babe turned and met Frazee's eyes. Frazee gave him a curt nod.
"The papers have been drawn up. You can sign them at my offi ce tomorrow morning." Frazee gave him a thin smile. "You won this round, Mr. Ruth. Enjoy it."
Frazee stepped in close. He smelled good in a way that Ruth associated with the very rich, the ones who knew things he'd never know in a way that went beyond secret handshakes. They ran the world, men like Frazee, because they understood something that would always escape Babe and men like him: money. They planned its movements. They could predict its moment of passage from one hand to another. They also knew other things Babe didn't, about books and art and the history of the earth. But money most importantly--they had that down cold.
Every now and then, though, you got the better of them.
"Have fun at spring training," Harry Frazee said to Babe as the elevator doors opened. "Enjoy Tampa."
"I will now," Babe said, picturing it. The waves of heat, the languid women.
The elevator man waited.
Harry Frazee produced a money roll held fast by a gold clip. He peeled off several twenties as the doorman opened the door and a woman who lived on six, a pretty dame with no shortage of suitors, came down the marble floor, her heels clicking.
"I understand you need money."
"Mr. Frazee," Babe said, "I can wait until the new contract's signed." "Wouldn't hear of it, son. If one of my men is in arrears, I aim to help him out."
Babe held up a hand. "I've got plenty of cash right now, Mr. Frazee."
Babe tried to step back, but he was too slow. Harry Frazee stuffed the money into the inside pocket of Babe's coat as the elevator man watched and the doorman and the pretty woman on six saw it, too.
"You're worth every penny," Harry Frazee said, "and I'd hate to see you miss a meal."
Babe's face burned and he reached into his coat to give the money back.
Frazee walked away. The doorman trotted to catch up. He held the door for him, and Frazee tipped his hat and walked out into the night.
Ruth caught the woman's eye. She lowered her head and got in the elevator.
"A joke," Ruth said as he joined her and the elevator man shut the cage door and worked the crank. "Just a joke."
She smiled and nodded, but he could see she pitied him.
When he got up to his apartment, Ruth put in a call to Kat Lawson. He convinced her to meet him for a drink at the Hotel Buckminster, and after they'd had their fourth round he took her to a room upstairs and fucked her silly. Half an hour later, he fucked her again, doggie-style, and whispered the foulest language he could imagine into her ear. After, she lay on her stomach, asleep, her lips speaking softly to someone in her dreams. He got up and dressed. Out the window lay the Charles River and the lights of Cambridge beyond, winking and watching. Kat snored softly as he put on his coat. He reached into it and placed Harry Frazee's money down on the dresser and left the room.
West Camden Street. Baltimore. Ruth stood on the sidewalk outside what had been his father's saloon. Closed now, distressed, a tin Pabst sign hanging askew behind a dusty window. Above the saloon was the apartment he'd shared with his parents and his sister Mamie, who'd been barely toddling when Ruth was shipped off to Saint Mary's.
Home, you could say.
Babe's memories of it as such, however, were dim. He remembered the exterior wall as the place he'd learned to throw dice. He recalled how the smell of beer never left the saloon or the apartment above it; it rose through the toilet and the bathtub drain, lived in the floor cracks and in the wall.
Home, in truth, was St. Mary's. West Camden Street was an idea. An on-deck circle.
I came here, Babe thought, to tell you I've made it. I'm Big Noise. I'll earn ten thousand dollars this year, and Johnny says he can get me another ten in endorsements. My face will be on the kind of tin plate you'd have hung in the window. But you wouldn't have hung it, would you? You would have been too proud. Too proud to admit you had a son who makes more money in a year than you could make in ten. The son you sent away and tried to forget. George Junior. Remember him?