Excerpt from the novel
Night Train
(Open Books, 2010)
by Donald O'Donovan
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I was doing my laundry in the men’s room of the all-night movie and who do I run into but Jack. Little Jack, Jack with the red hat. Tony’s Jack. It was Friday or Saturday, last week. I’m wringing out my socks in the sink and in he walks. Jack was thrashed. His clothes were ragged and dirty and his red hat was full of stickers. He’d been sleeping out with the coyotes. And no Tony.
I put my things in a plastic garbage bag and we went back out, sat down and shared a bag of stale popcorn. We managed to catch a few winks, and in the morning, over coffee at Grand Central Market, he told me the story. Or he tried to tell it. The quality woman...the mansion in Brentwood. The words came out of him helter-skelter, like the song of a bird, a bird beaten down by a storm, a bird that had swallowed a poisoned worm. They were working the crowd in front of Bullocks Wilshire. Tony was sitting on his regular bus bench. Then the quality woman from Brentwood, she got her hooks into the big handsome guy. She kidnapped him. She adopted him.
I first met Jack and Tony several months before that on Fifth Street. It was raining. Jack was a pipsqueak with a sinister black widow’s peak, slyly conning black eyes and a pirate’s toothy grin. Tony was six feet tall, well built, graceful on his feet, with huge hands. He was strangely silent.
“Tony, this is—what’s your name?”
“Jerzy. Jerzy Mulvaney.”
“Jerzy, this is Tony. Tony, this is Jerzy.”
We stood under a liquor store awning to get out of the drizzle. The owner came out and told us to move on. We ended up at Clifton’s. We had enough for coffee. It was Jack who did all the talking.
“Do you know who this is?” Jack asked me. He kept plucking at my sleeve.
“Yeah, sure, he’s Tony.”
“He’s Tony, yeah, but Tony who? Do you know who this is? This is Tony Canzoneri. He fought Jake LaMotta in the Garden.”
“Tony Canzoneri?”
“Yeah, Tony Canzoneri. This is Tony Canzoneri.”
I shook hands again with Tony—my hand disappeared in his—then he sank back in his chair, as if the effort of meeting me had exhausted him. They were a great combination, the famous fighter on the skids and his peppery little promotion man. It was a good story. But there were holes in it. This Tony guy was obviously an athlete but he must have fought LaMotta when he was a baby because Jake LaMotta is 80-something now and this Tony looked to be only about forty-five or fifty tops.
When Tony got up to go to the toilet I plied Jack with questions.
“What’s the matter with him? Why doesn’t he talk?”
“Punchy.” Jack tapped his forehead. “He’s punchy. Say, you wanna get on a wine? I’ve got 76 cents.”
Later I looked up Tony Canzoneri at a wifi on Fairfax. Tony Canzoneri was a lightweight and LaMotta was a middleweight. They never fought. Besides, Tony Canzoneri passed away in 1959.
Weeks or months went by and I ran into Tony and Jack again, this time up by Bullocks Wilshire. They were coming on to the tourists. Jack, wearing a little red mountaineer’s hat, was expertly working the crowd while Tony lounged seductively on a bus bench like a big tawny tiger. Jack and Tony. They were raking it in. There’s no getting around it, I thought, this Tony’s got charisma up the ass. The tourists couldn’t take their eyes off him. They clustered around his bus bench, snapping photos and begging for autographs. I kept back out of the way. I didn’t want to queer their deal. After things died down I went up to Jack. I wanted to see if he remembered me. He did, and so did Tony. Jack handed me a five spot right away—“for eats”—and then I grasped Tony’s paw, that enormous strangely soft hand of his, like a padded tiger paw. Tony smiled faintly and murmured something like “Buon Giorno.” He kept pulling on a bottle, grimly, as if he had a horror of being sober. It was the hard stuff, a flat pint tightly wrapped in brown bag paper.
“Come on over to the park after a few,” Jack said. “We’re gonna score a jug.”
I went up to the Alexandria Jack in the Box for a Jumbo Jack and fries, but when I got back down to Lafayette Park Jack and Tony had moved on.

And now here we were at Grand Central Market, Jack and I. We were hungry and we were dead broke, but the coffee was good, the waitress was pretty, and it was a brand new day.
“I didn’t care much for the movie,” Jack said.
“Night of the Living Dead? Naw, it was pretty cheesy.”
Grand Central Market. What a place. Nothing like it anywhere in the world. Strangled sea creatures lolling on beds of crushed ice, goggling like embryos torn from the womb. Glistening loaves of bread, steaming kettles of menudo, yellow wheels of cheese. The food! The smells! My God, it’ll drive you crazy. And everywhere a buzzing of dialects, a babble of tongues. The dirty coins change hands, the mouths open and snap shut, the food goes down the gullet, the shopping bags are stuffed and the buyers totter off, conversing in their own special lingo.
I tried to get Jack to come clean about Tony. I didn’t want to tell him straight out that I never bought his story about Tony fighting Jake LaMotta in the Garden, so I just dropped a couple of hints. But Jack came up with another story. How much of it is true I can’t say. Jack is almost certainly a pathological liar. It turns out that Tony had been a concert pianist in Italy. He played a gig in New York, but got drunk and wound up on the skids with Jack in LA. It was more complicated than that, but that was the broad outline of it.
“So he went to live in Brentwood with this, this...”
“This cunt? Yeah, she was older, you know, but pretty easy on the eyes. I went to see him but she didn’t like me hanging around. Tony said he missed me but he had to look out for number one, you know? I mean, she was even talking about taking him to Paris with her.”
“Sure. But there’s something I’ve been wondering about.”
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“How come Tony never talks?”
“Well, he’s Italian, for one thing. He’s only got a few words of English. But the other thing is, well, he’s deaf.”
“Deaf? I thought you said he was a concert pianist.”
“He is. He was, I mean. He reads the notes, you know what I’m saying? I don’t know how he does it, but he does it. You should hear him play, man. He’s a fucking virtuoso. If you got it you got it. I mean, Beethoven was deaf, wasn’t he?”
Jack is a real survivor and plenty streetwise, but without Tony he was going nowhere fast. And he wasn’t going to have any luck pimping me out to the crowd. We both knew that well enough.
I told Jack that the best idea was to catch a bus up to Brentwood and get Tony away from the quality woman.
“Yeah, but that’s the problem, you see. He ain’t there no more.”
“What do you mean?”
“She dumped him. He’s gone, man.”
“How do you know?”
“The gardener. I was camping out for two weeks in these big old hydrangea bushes outside the gate. He’d come and hand me some grub through the bars, the gardener. Pretty decent guy, Japanese guy. Then yesterday he told me.”
“She dumped him?”
“Yeah. It was the drinking. She couldn’t handle it. Tony’s a suicidal drinker, you know.”
“I know.”
“I figure he’s playing piano in a bar somewhere now. That’s what he was doing when I met him in New York. Jesus, that guy had a villa in Tuscany and shit. He was somebody. I mean, he used to go foxhunting with the Prince of Wales. He was a racecar driver, too. I’m not shitting you. He went the distance with Mario Andretti at Le Mans. Then his daughter drowned in the pool and he started in on the sauce. He got drunk before a concert and fucked up by the numbers on stage. We came out here on a freight.”
“So what are you gonna do, Jack?”
“Find him! We gotta find him. We gotta find Tony, man.”
“We? What do you mean, we?”
“Yeah, well, I was hoping you’d help me look for him…”
Jack, when you got to know him, was something of a bore. There’d been a woman back in New York, a dime a dance girl named Francine, and he couldn’t stop talking about her. Francine broke his heart, and Francine this and Francine that, and it was Francine who drove him to drink, and all the rest of it. Their stories are all the same, these heartbroken guys, these side-of-the-road lonely boys, lonely and lost and stumbling drunk, and they go on and on until you want to put them out of their misery just like you’d do with a horse.
Jack’s other subject, besides Francine, is the revolution. Jack believes in the revolution. And he thinks it’s right around the corner.
“The poor will rise up like a river,” he told me. ”We’ll yank the rich off their thrones and throw them to the dogs in the street. We’ll empty their pockets, take their rings and watches and knock the gold out of their teeth with a baseball bat. We have smitten the Philistines hip and thigh, baby! They’re goin’ down! They’re goin’ down to Chinatown.”
Chinatown… Chinatown reminds me of Ashlee because Phillipe’s, on the edge of Chinatown, was our favorite restaurant, Ashlee’s and mine. I’ve been thinking about Ashlee all day, so maybe I spoke too soon, I mean the things I just said about Jack. But it’s a different scenario with me. I don’t go around mooning over Ashlee the way Jack does with Francine. No way! I met Ashlee at the Dreamland Dance Club, Eighth and Spring, fourth floor. It’s one of those places where you pay by the minute. This was back in the days when I had a credit card.
I remember the night I met her. I was feeling more than a little nervous as I ducked inside the place and blinked my eyes to get them used to the darkness. I needed a drink badly, but there was a big sign, “No liquor allowed.” Fortunately I had a half pint of Old Crow stashed in my coat pocket.
Standing in the foyer, I surveyed the lineup of bored butterflies sprawled insolently in chairs with their backs to the wall. Scrumptious! A few of the love-dolls were whirling around the floor with their victims. I wasn’t at all sure how things worked at the Dreamland Dance Club. Should I buy a ticket at the desk or do I ask a girl to dance? Nervous, nervous. I ducked into the toilet and quickly chugged my half-pint of Old Crow. Nothing like a few belts of cheap strong hooch to grease the trolley.
It was Ashlee who came to my rescue. She took me by the hand and led me to the dance floor. A moment later we were locked in a close embrace, swaying clumsily to the strains of “Only You.”
They say the sun even shines on a dog’s ass once in a while.
Ashlee said she was from Weehawken. Her accent was genuine, so I believed her. She’d come to California to make the movies. But who didn’t? She was pretty enough to make the movies, I thought. Long blonde hair, bangs, blue eyes, great tits. She was wearing a purple mohair turtleneck. I was crazed, but I wanted to make a good impression so I tried to remember the Arthur Murray lessons I took back when I was a private in the Army. Foxtrot, foxtrot... How the hell do you do the foxtrot?
Pretty soon Ashlee suggested that we sit one out and talk things over. We waltzed our way into a dark little alcove where there were couches and easy chairs. You sensed that there were other couples present but you couldn’t see them. You could hear them breathing, but it was so godawful dark you couldn’t tell what was going on. Which was probably just as well.
We plopped down on a couch, close together. Ashlee stuck her tongue in my mouth and we began to paw each other frantically. I reached up under her sweater and unhooked her bra. I felt her fumbling with the tab of my zipper.
For a small extra charge, she explained, she would 'make me happy'.
“How much?”
“Fifty bucks.” But it had to be cash. You couldn’t put it on the card.
“Fifty bucks?” I didn’t have that much on me. Not even close.
“Twenty-five,” she whispered. She already had her hand in my fly.
Fortunately I had twenty-seven dollars in my pocket. I gave her a twenty and a five, and she brought me to orgasm skillfully with her hand. It was over in seconds. I spritzed all over the front of her sweater.
I was happy all right. But she wasn’t. She was pissed off because she couldn’t work anymore that night. Not with that goo on her sweater. So I asked if I could take her home.
“Okay, yeah, yeah. I mean, that’s the fucking least you can do. Jesus!”
We went up to the desk and cashed out. It came to 60 bucks on the card, and I wrote in a nice tip for her. I was feeling pretty good. It had been a banner night for a guy who couldn’t even do the foxtrot.
But things went off on a bum tangent when we got outside and she learned that I didn’t have a car. But I had an answer for that. A taxi, of course. We got in the back and mushed it up, and she took a pint of sloe gin out of her purse, and then another one. We were both looped now, laughing and kissing and feeling each other up.
It turns out that your taxis from downtown LA to Venice Beach are goddamn pricey. I put it on the credit card, which pretty well maxed it out. I never had any intention of paying it, of course. Chase Manhattan, I think, was the name of the bank that had been foolish enough to send me a credit card in the mail. I guess they thought I was a responsible person.
Eventually Ashlee landed a dog food commercial. She deserved it, poor kid. It’s not much fun being pawed by lonely desperate men five nights a week at the Dreamland Dance Club. She got her own place, on Alexandria, behind Chapman Market. From her upstairs window you could see the site of the old Ambassador Hotel.
Then she picked up some work making karaokes. The studio was in Burbank. They wanted American-looking girls with blonde hair and big tits. You worked from a very short script, a treatment, actually. They shot at the Santa Monica Pier, then at Malibu, then at the Bronson Caves, a medieval scenario with handsome knights on horseback and Ashlee as a mysterious damozel. She made good money while the gig lasted, but she had to do the director a sexual favor, and finally the director dumped her and she went back to Weehawken.
It strikes me that I should have gone back to Weehawken. I should have gone back to Weehawken years ago.

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About the Author:
Donald O’Donovan is an optioned screenwriter and voice actor with film and audio book credits. He was born in Cooperstown, New York. A teenage runaway, O’Donovan rode freights, traveled the US, joined the army to get off the street, lived in Mexico, and worked at more than 200 occupations including long distance truck driver, undertaker and roller skate repairman. The first draft of Night Train was written on 23 yellow legal pads while the author was homeless in the streets of LA. Donald O’Donovan recently narrated the documentary film, The Forgotten, produced and directed by Sarem Yadegari. His screenplay, Cutter’s Woods, is a semi-finalist in the 2009 FilmStream Screenplay Competition.

Donald O'Donovan