The wind blowing at the far end of the line. But more than that: surf rolling in, louder and louder, closer and closer, until I almost felt it roll under my feet.
“Oh, Jesus, I know where you are!” I cried.
“No way,” said the phone voice, and broke the connection.
But not soon enough. I stared wildly at the empty phone in my hand and squeezed it in my fist. “Henry!” I yelled.
Henry leaned out of the taxicab, staring at nothing. I fell getting in the cab. “You still with me?”
“If I ain’t,” said Henry, “where am I? Speak to the driver.” I spoke. We went.
The taxicab rolled to a stop with its windows down. Henry leaned forward, his face like the prow of a dark ship. He sniffed.
“Ain’t been here since childhood. That smell’s the ocean.
That other smell, rotten? The pier. This where you live, scribe?”
“The Great American Novelist? Sure.”
“I hope your novels smell better than this.”
“If I live, maybe. Can we keep the cab waiting, Henry?”
Henry licked his thumb, peeled off three twenty-dollar bills, held them over the front seat of the cab.
“That keep you from being nervous, son?” “That,” the cab driver took the money, “will buy you midnight.”
“It’ll all be over by then,” said Henry. “Child, you know what you’re doing?”
Before I could answer, a wave came in under the pier. “Sounds like the New York subway,” said Henry. “Don’t let it run over you.”
We left the cab waiting at the foot of the Venice pier. I tried to steer Henry along in the night.
“Don’t need no steering,” said Henry. “Just warn me on wires, ropes, or loose bricks is all. But I got a nervous elbow, don’t like touching.”
I let him walk proudly on.
“Wait here,” I said. “Step back about three feet. There, you can’t be seen. When I come back I’ll just say one word, ‘Henry,’ and then you tell me what you smell, okay? And then just turn and go to the cab.”
“I can still hear the motor running, sure.”
“Tell the taxi to take you to the Venice Police Station. Ask for Elmo Crumley. If he’s not there, have them call his home. He’s to come here with you, fast as possible, once we get the whole thing rolling. That is, if it rolls. Maybe we won’t use your nose tonight, after all.”
“I hope I do. I brought my cane to hit that guy. You let me hit him, once?”
I hesitated. “Once,” I said. “You okay, Henry?”
“Br’er Fox, he lie low.”
Feeling like Br’er Rabbit, I walked away.
It was the elephants’ graveyard, the pier at night, all dark bones and a lid of fog over it and the sea rushing in to bury, reveal, and bury again.
I picked my way along past the shops and shoebox apartments and shut poker parlors, noting, on my way, various phones here or there, standing in their unlit caskets, waiting to be taken away tomorrow or next week.
I walked out along the plankings, over the sighs and rustles and stirs of moist and dry wood. The whole structure creaked and heaved like a sinking ship, as I passed red warning flags and signs which read DANGER, as I stepped over strung chains and found myself as far as I could go, at the edge of the pier, looking back at all the nailed-shut doors and rolled-down-and-pinned canvas fronts.
I slid into the last phone booth, rummaged my pockets, cursing until I found the nickels Henry had given me. I dropped one in the phone slot and dialed the number given me by the Janus editor.
“Four, five, five, five,” I whispered, and waited.
At this moment, the frayed strap on my Mickey Mouse wristwatch broke. The watch fell to the booth floor. Cursing, I picked it up, and shoved it on the shelf under the phone. Then, listened. Far off, I could hear the phone ringing at the other end.
I let my receiver drop and hang. I stepped out of the booth and stood listening, eyes shut. At first there was only one great roll of surf traveling under my feet, shaking the timbers. It passed. At last, straining, I could hear.
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