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An Untold Tale of Kavalier & Clay: Breakfast in the Wreck

ISSUE:  Spring 2004

Author’s Note: Very alert readers of Kavalier & Clay might be able to trace the ghost of a series of allusions to some kind of extra-scholastic relationship going on between Sam Clay and his son’s fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Landauer, one—the last—of a long string of Sammy’s inconclusive and half-hearted not-quite-affairs with men during the course of his marriage. This relationship with Felix Landauer was at one time a (slightly) more pronounced subplot in the novel, one which found its termination in this deleted chapter. “Breakfast in the Wreck” follows immediately—it’s the next day—on Sammy’s strange public humiliation-cum-liberation at the Kefauver hearings into juvenile delinquency and comics. Now that he has been outed, he is trying to decide what to do with all the suddenly outmoded fixtures of his life, including Felix himself.

The Culloden Diner, in Pequot, New York, two stops beyond Bloomtown on the LIRR, had been formed by the forcible coupling of an abandoned house, its siding and boarded-up windows painted a pale shade of pancake batter, to the shell of a decommissioned New York City trolley car. Because, due to some miscalculation or subsidence of the foundation slab, the trolley car sat at a lurching angle to the little old house, with its blank surprised mien and air of buckling studs and sagging rafters, the diner was known among its devotees as the Collision, or, paraphrastically, as the Wreck. Its Greek owner, or his daughter, would unlock the door of the lobby—a glassed-in square of ash-gray linoleum with just enough room for a woolly rubber mat, an umbrella stand, and a Kiwanis gum-ball dispenser—every weekday morning at six o’clock. Within five minutes, the dozen booths, low-backed, padded in translucent, syrup-brown Naugahyde, and the flecked laminate counter, worn down in patches to the wooden underply by the transit of plates and running the length of the streetcar, would be crowded with the Wreck’s steady clientele of men who could not afford the time or bear the torment it would cost them to eat their breakfasts at home.

On a chilly April morning in 1954 the Wreck’s patrons would perhaps, to the eyes of a later generation, have seemed most remarkable for the nonchalant fury with which they coughed their way through the day’s first half-dozen cigarettes, and for the profusion—in retrospect it seems a kind of routine opulence—of their hats. There were men wearing astrakhans and homburgs, tweed caps, Tyrolean hats with feathers, and, above all, dented felt snap-brims, in all the soft browns and grays of an overcast Long Island Friday. These men carried topcoats and attaché cases and wore bloody rosettes of tissue on their cheeks. There were men in hunting caps, watch caps, canvas shakos, and peaked baseball caps, wearing pea coats, oilskin coats, and bomber jackets emblazoned with the names of hauling concerns and utility companies, carrying big, military-green metal thermos bottles that the Greek’s daughter filled up for a nickel. And there was a small, shifting population of local failures, layabouts, and drunks, hatless, many of them, others perhaps sporting something unlikely, a beret, a pomponned Santa’s-elf stocking cap, a battered old derby of the sort worn in the comics by street urchins and Brooklyn boys. Among this later group were many who had not yet turned in for the night, and others who were merely killing time until ten, when the Earshot opened and they would head across Gay Street to drink their morning meal.

All these men lived in and around Pequot and were familiar, at least, with one another’s faces, if not with their entire biographies, work histories, police records, tastes in music and baseball teams, favorite prizefighters, wives and daughters and sons; but there was, after all, the train station three doors down Gay Street, and the appearance of strangers, at any time of the day, was not unusual. It was little remarked when a pair of unfamiliar men had shown up, one frigid morning several months before, to assume a pair of quiet stools at the counter, and it would have been difficult if not impossible for any of the local men to pinpoint the moment when he realized that the two had become regulars.

They arrived, every Friday, just a few minutes after the Greek switched on the neon sign in the window. They were small men, the younger one—he couldn’t have been older than twenty-five—dapper and well groomed, with an elegant, painful slenderness that showed in the knobs of his wrists and in the big ridged knuckle of his larynx. He wore his hair cropped so short that he did not need to use pomade, and he always—on Fridays at least—wore a red bow tie. The other fellow was more of a fireplug, broad in the chest and shoulders, with a wide pugnacious face and the hint of a shadow even on his freshly shaven jaw. He always looked as if he had not dressed for work that morning so much as gotten into some kind of altercation with his suit, shirt, and tie. Though he could not have been more than ten years older than the other man, there were striations of gray in the dark shining gloss of his temples, and his forehead, even in repose, was arched with wrinkles, lending him a permanent expression of skepticism or mild surprise. If any of those who owned television sets had been watching Channel 11 the previous morning, they did not now recognize this as the man who had been impelled to answer a series of odd questions about boy superheroes by the senior senator from Nevada.

They always took the booth in the farthest corner of what had once been the yellow house’s living room—long since buried under a layer of sparkle laminate and rippling chrome—or, if that chanced to be taken, the one across from it, by the door to the toilets. They greeted the proprietor, and smiled at his daughter, and would always return a nod from another customer, but they rarely offered or accepted offers to engage in small talk, so that such offers ceased in due course to be tendered. They just came in, sat down, ate their breakfasts, paid their tab, and left. If it was raining or snowing, they would shake hands in the lobby; if not, they said their standard, curt good-bye out in the parking lot: a single, downward shake, with something decisive in it, as if, each time, they had just settled something between them, and from now on they would be partners in some modest but rewarding business venture or else need never see each other again. Then the dapper one, who barely an hour before had stepped off the eastbound train from Jamaica, would rush back toward the station with all the other westbound men hurrying to make the 7:14, while the stockier man got into his car and drove away.

On this morning they had the booth at the back, number 11. The skinny fellow, something of a trencherman, was working his way through his usual breakfast of three eggs over easy, a hamburg steak, fried potatoes, and four slices of rye bread toast. His companion, who never from the time he ducked into the diner until he went outside again lost the look of morning queasiness common to heavy smokers, limited himself, as usual, to a pair of buttered sweet rolls. There was a certain suggestion of unaccustomed agitation, perhaps, or of expectancy, in the way he checked his watch, signaled to the waitress with a wiggling finger, shifted and squirmed and rocked back and forth in his booth. But then he was always, the fireplug, something of a fidget. He and his friend spoke steadily throughout their meal, as always, in soft but not conspiratorial tones free of any hint that either felt constrained or hurried or impelled to condense into this allotted weekly hour together the rich, slow, miscellaneous narrative of something real. Their eyes met, held, then sought their plates or coffee or the cigarette balanced on the ashtray’s lip. They seemed more than willing, even eager, to share in the general effort among the men of the Culloden to banish beasts and darkness with a steady blaze of wisecracks and sententious declarations. Anyone passing their table might have picked up bits of conversation that differed not at all from those taking place throughout the Wreck.

“It was a mistake to let Dressen go,” said the man in the red bow tie.

“The guy was only looking for a little job security,” the older man agreed. “Which he earned, in my opinion. Two pennants and a tie in three seasons.”

“What’s with the davening?” the other said.

“Sorry.” The older man made a show of stopping his steady, slight rocking, gripping the chrome-trimmed edge of the table with both hands.

“You need to use the bathroom?”

“I’ll stop. How’s your mother?”

“Better. Sleeping again.”

“Thank goodness for that.”

“I got a night’s sleep last night. Five hours. First time in a month or more.”

“You look much better.” The older man picked up his cigarette, set it down, picked it up again. A lump of burning ash fell from the end onto his paper napkin. He smashed it with a palm. The water glasses rang and the coffee cups jumped.

“Jeez,” he said.

“Take it easy.”

“I’m sorry. I guess I’m a little jumpy today, I don’t know why.”

“Can’t imagine.” There was a note of asperity in the younger man’s voice. He concealed it behind his coffee cup, taking a long sip. “Jump away.”

“Did you see it?”

“It was on the radio in the teachers’ lounge.”

“Jesus, were the teachers all, what, sitting around listening?”

“Some of them. The rest of them were off teaching.”

The man in the bow tie set down his coffee cup. He picked up his knife and fork, made three neat mouthfuls of the remainder of his hamburg steak, and dispatched them.

The older man began to rock again. His friend watched him, chewing. He seemed about to make a remark, and then to change his mind.

“My brother, in Montreal,” he said finally. “He says the Royals have this kid. From Puerto Rico. An outfielder. My brother saw him hit three triples in one game. Bobby, his name is. Bobby Clemente. Just a, you know, just a young kid.”

“A wunderkind.”

“A chico maravilloso.”

“Too bad there’s no room for him. Not with Robinson out there. And Furillo. And Snider.”

“True. You know, if you look at your watch one more time, so help me …” The young man sounded teasing, but his eyes pleated at the corners as if in pain or irritation.

“Sorry, sorry.” The older man looked up from his watch, blushing, and said, wistfully, “Snider.”

“Snider,” the dapper man agreed, and then, “My God. Look at you.” The tone of his voice darkened, grew gentle and sardonic and, for the first time since they had come trysting over eggs and coffee, amid the smoke and the hats and the harsh light of the Culloden Diner, confidential. “You got a rocket in your pocket. That’s what my father would have said. You’re actually happy about this.”

“God knows why. It’s crazy, Felix. I ought to be ashamed.”

“But you aren’t.”


“You feel great.”

“I feel—what’s the word.”

“You’re lucky.”

“I don’t think that’s the word.”

“I envy you, you know. I always have. Now I can just envy you more.”

“What have I got to envy?”

“A talent.”

“A talent for nonsense.”

“I’m perfectly serious. You don’t know how lucky you are. You forget,” said the younger man. “I teach fifth grade. I see the fantasy leeching out of them, little by little, every day. Narrowing its focus. Losing its complexity. Fifth grade, that’s the last year for a lot of them.” He wiped his mouth with his napkin, the motion neat and almost dainty. Then he balled the napkin and threw it to his plate. “What am I saying, I ‘see’ it. I make it happen. It’s my job. That’s what I’m paid to do.”

His companion did not seem to know how to respond to this. Finally he said simply, “I should go.”

“Don’t let me keep you.” The pained look of mockery, more like a wince than a smile, returned to his face. “You’re already gone anyway.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry if I’ve been distracted.”

“I’m sorry that I haven’t been more of a distraction,” said the dapper young man. Then he raised the fingers of one hand to his lips, as if he had said too much.

“You’re hard on yourself,” the older man said.

“You have your talent,” said his companion. “I have mine.”

They stood up, and put on their coats, and took their hats from the rack on the back wall. The dapper young man fitted his trilby, merino wool of a green between loden and fir, to the top of his close-cropped head with the resolve of a train conductor snapping shut the cover of his watch. The two men waited side by side at the cash register for the owner, and separately paid their checks. The older man went back and left six bits, a tip of thirty percent, for the daughter. Then they walked out into the gravel parking lot, and faced each other, and shook, once, as if sealing yet again their unknown and inarticulable deal.



“What now?”

“Well, I don’t know.” They had not let go of each other’s hand. “I was thinking of taking a little trip. Maybe going out to California. That’s something I’ve—”

“A trip.” The younger man nodded blandly. A fine mist accumulated on the lenses of his eyeglasses.

“Yeah. Listen, Felix—you want to come with me?”

The younger man did not reply right away, as if he were considering the question carefully before answering. Then he smiled, and gave a little snort, sending a blast of curling vapor from his nostrils.

“I envy you,” he said. He withdrew his hand, turned, and went crunching through the gravel. Today he would be early for his train.

As Sammy watched Felix Landauer walk off, hoisting his trouser cuffs and picking a careful route through the puddles, he felt not sadness as much as a guilty sense of relief. There had been so many such handshakes, over the years, with so many men; so many partnerships and partings like this one, so many theoretical, chaste affairs that posed as friendships and offered none of the satisfactions of either. Then he settled his own tweed homburg onto his head and set forth again from the world of men and their hats, men who shouldered up to a counter, in the wreckage of a house and a streetcar, to eat their eggs and talk baseball and cough like madmen into their fists.


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