EASY ESSAYS
EASY ESSAYS
Syndic Literary Journal

AA ~ The Adventures of Henrietta Fine ~ Chapter Two

“The Adventures of Henrietta Fine”

By P.M Levitt

Narrated by Elizabeth Mansfield

Chapter Two

Money was short. Although Mom sold the house, I had little left after paying off St. B. and the doctors and all the tradesmen who had kindly extended us credit. So we moved to New York and rented an airless, dark, two-bedroom, third-floor apartment, at 626 W. 165th Street. Mom refused to ask the relatives for help, fearing they’d find out about Uncle Sam and the theft. She preferred want to scandal. But she paid a price. Shamed by her poverty and her imperfect English, she rarely budged from her bedroom. Every day, she perched on an old cedar chest that smelled like a forest when opened, and stared out the window at the grass tennis courts across the street, on the grounds of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. She watched the doctors and nurses play tennis in their snooty white shirts, shorts, and shoes. What fancies raced through Mom’s brain, I have no idea. But I know what I thought. Loneliness can swallow up the world—and poverty just makes it worse. Bernard Shaw, whom Pop idolized, was dead right: It’s a crime to be poor, a crime against health and well-being. So I swore that unlike the people slaving in factories—the America of needle and thread, backaches, and ten cents an hour—I would rather be a thief than a pauper.

Shortly after we moved to New York, I started my apprenticeship with Charles Courtney. Needing a dress, I asked Mom to help—and not by offering one of her own. She bought a length of tubular cotton jersey, stitched one end, leaving just enough room for my head, and cut holes for my arms. Turning the raw edges to the inside, she finished them with small slip stitches. The mannish, flat-chested look, much in style, suited my figure to a T. And you couldn’t beat the price: a dollar seventy-five for the material.

Each morning I walked to work, forty blocks, to save a nickel. Mr. Courtney told me I was the first girl he had ever employed and maybe the only girl in all of New York training to be a locksmith. His shop enabled me to meet famous people, like Bill Tilden and David Belasco and Harry Houdini. One of the reasons so many celebrities patronized Mr. Courtney was that they loved the inside of his place. In the late afternoon light, the rows of lathes and key machines, and the board hung with thousands of blank keys, made jagged patterns on the walls and the floor. The shop itself had several divides. Just inside the front door was a small fenced-off space reserved for customers. A swinging gate led to the work area, which held eight benches. Each had its own machines and tools: vises, pliers, chisels, “nutcrackers” (a giant pair of shoemaker’s nippers), tension wrenches, picks, shims, shove knives, files (made in Switzerland), and, of course, jewelers’ tweezers, screwdrivers, and loupes. The thousands of key blanks were grouped alphabetically by company and organized by millings. For some companies, like Yale, our stock ran to over a hundred different kinds of blanks. The shop cut them to order on key machines from Barrows, Corbin, Eagle, Keil, Lockwood, Master, Norwalk, Penn, Reading Knob, Russwin, Sager, Sargent, Schlage, and Yale. Although most of the machines were interchangeable, Mr. C. insisted that by owning them all, he was prepared for every eventuality, like cutting intricate tubular keys or designing masters for office buildings.

Off to one side was a small trophy room displaying some of the locks and keys that Mr. C. had collected on his various trips round the world: an elegant heart-shaped lock from the coffer of Cardinal Infanti; a famous padlock that Ivan the Terrible used to imprison the woman he loved, causing her death and the death of his infant son; the key to Lincoln Prison in Ireland, where DeValera and many other Irish rebels were incarcerated; a stout lock made by Martin Luther’s father; and an exquisite iron lock, from the brother of Philip IV of Spain, with two mythical animals locking horns. The priceless items were kept in two safes at the rear of the shop in Mr. C’s private office. One safe had come from the Vanderbilts and the other from Abraham Lincoln’s Illinois law offices. In the first, he kept my favorite lock. Made of brass and fashioned in India, it was probably older than Timur the Tartar. A Hindu bird, with a coxcomb and a leaf in his mouth, hid the keyhole under a movable wing.

Mr. C. sat in a swivel chair in front of a roll top desk, covered with papers and pieces of locks. He could never keep his love of the shop separate from his paper work. When he tired of bills and invoices, he would push them aside and turn his favorite pick on a particularly intractable lock. On the wall over his desk hung a dagger-like shark knife with saw teeth on one edge. During World War I, Mr. C. had served in the Marines, as a diver. He never slipped into the sea without that knife at his side; and although he wouldn’t talk about close calls with sharks—people are worse, he said—there looked to be dried blood on the teeth. The knife was surrounded by dozens of framed photographs of foreign princes and kings and presidents, including one of the old Czar of Russia. But my favorites were the ones hanging on the other three walls, photographs of moving picture actors and actresses, like John Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, and Mary Pickford; and Broadway directors, like Belasco and Ziegfeld; and especially of vaudeville stars, like Nora Bayes, Eddie Cantor, W. C. Fields, Joe Frisco (who stuttered and signed with an X because he couldn’t read or write), Georgie Jessel, Al Jolson, and Harry Richman.

On slow days, I would duck into Mr. C’s office and peer at the pictures. But in the beginning of my apprenticeship, free time was rare. Mr. C. insisted that before being assigned my own bench, I had to learn about the history of shackles. So he sat me down in his office and began with the ancient Egyptians. I learned more about history in those two days than I did in two years of high school. Once we had covered the past, we turned to warded locks, which have wards or guards that protect against arbitrary keys. For a key to enter the keyhole, slip past the wards, and encounter the dead bolt, it must be notched or bitted correctly. Then turning the key to the right or the left will advance or retract the dead bolt, locking or unlocking the door.

I soon became schooled in the second oldest profession.

But the juiciest part of my lessons concerned picking a pin tumbler lock. An outer cylinder encases a rotating inner cylinder or plug. In a locked position, metal pins extend partially within the cylinder and partially within the plug, preventing the plug from turning. To turn it, you need to separate the tumblers. It takes two tools, a tension wrench and a pick. The tension wrench is used like a shim. You put it in the top or bottom of the keyhole and apply tension in the direction that the lock is designed to release. The tension produces a half turn and prevents the tumblers from falling out and freezing the lock. With the pick, you position the tumblers so that the uppers remain in the cylinder, while the lowers remain in the plug. The line between them—the shear line—is then clear, forming a gate that allows the plug to be turned and thus opened. Mr. C. advised me to start at the back of the lock, with the last tumblers. Pushing them up, you move forward, picking each one in turn.

But Mr. C’s favorite means of entry was to impression a key. Some locksmiths recommend carbon coating the blank: holding the key blank over a flame to coat it with carbon. Carefully inserting and turning it, you remove the key to see where the carbon has been erased. Those spots you file. Mr. C despised gumming up the lock with carbon. Instead, he directed me to do the following. First, take a Swiss file and prepare the key by lightly filing off the hard outer key plating. Second, place the head of the key in a vice-grip plier and insert the key in the lock. Third, apply pressure to the right or the left and then jiggle up and down. This movement will leave a faint mark. Fourth, using a delicate file, remove no more than a little metal at each mark, repeating the procedure until the right depth is reached. Mr. C. contended that a first-rate locksmith, proceeding this way, could cut a key in under five minutes.

During those first few weeks, while learning all about locks, keys, and safes, I accompanied Mr. C. on a number of jobs. The one I liked best was like a Sherlock Holmes mystery—and led to my meeting Lily Gillespie. A house in South Port had been robbed. The safe, which contained jewels and rare silver, had been opened without being forced. Since the only two people who knew the combination were the owner, Mr. Deutscher, a banker, and his secretary, Mr. Linz, they locked up the latter. As we drove along the sea on a magnificent morning, the water shone luminously purple and blue; overhead gulls glided and dove, at one moment displaying their silvery bellies and the next their ebony sides. The contrast of the black inkberries against the white sand for some reason made me think of a tuxedo.

The house, a massive dark stucco fortress, with narrow barred windows, sat overlooking the bay. A butler opened the thick oak door and led us to Mr. Deutscher’s study, upstairs, at the end of a hall. A short, gaunt, bloodless man, Mr. Deutscher greeted us formally, with something resembling a bow. He looked like a mortician, dressed in a black suit, with a white shirt and navy-blue tie. His balding blonde hair was spider-leg thin, matching the delicate wire arms of his glasses. Instead of launching into the robbery, as I had expected, he began with comments such as “I trust that what passes between us will remain confidential” and “Silence never betrays.” After some preachments about discreetness being a mark of refinement, and manners the measure of a man, he concluded with the observation that he enjoyed considerable influence in New York society, especially among businessmen, honest businessmen, who are the backbone of America. But even so, he did not wish to involve his associates in this robbery, or his personal friends. “Let discretion be your tutor,” he said. “You never can tell who’s really to blame.” Although his secretary had been hauled off to the local jail, Mr. Deutscher did not believe in the poor fellow’s guilt. The arrest, he explained, had been the idea of the local police, who had deduced that since the only person beside the banker who knew the safe’s combination was the secretary, he had to be guilty.

“This young man has been in my employ for five years,” said Mr. Deutscher. “He’s from good Protestant stock. German. I have shared with him the most sensitive details of the bank and of my personal holdings, and he has always conducted himself as a gentleman. Besides, he’s no fool. Quite the opposite. So why would he steal from me when such a theft would so readily point to him?”

A closet, one of two in the study, held a large safe that looked very secure. Mr. C. mumbled something about “flaws” and directed me to help him tip the safe forward. With the safe leaning on its front edge, he spun the dials at random. Clang! The safe door swung open.

Mr. Deutscher looked shell-shocked. “That’s all it took?” he asked. “No more than that?”

“Your safe came from Austria,” replied Mr. C. “The first ten safes of this type were defectively cast. So the door doesn’t open and close as it should. Tipping the safe forward forces the locking bolt back. All it takes is a twist of the dials, as you’ve just seen me do. The manufacturer tried to recall the ten safes, but three of them couldn’t be traced.” Mr. C. looked around, as if he had lost something. “Tell me, do you have any Austrians working for you?”

The parchment that passed for Mr. Deutscher’s face suddenly acquired some color.

“I did. A gardener. He came to work for me when I returned from Vienna. But he quit two days ago.”

“He once worked at the Austrian factory that made these safes.”

“Pretty slick,” I said.

“What invites that conclusion?” asked a surprised Mr. Deutscher, turning his peepers on me.

I blurted, “He tracked you down and talked you into a job, didn’t he? Lucky for you Mr. Courtney knew about the flawed safes. Otherwise the guy would have gone undetected.”

With an edge to his voice, Mr. Deutscher observed, “Anyone who believes that it is pretty slick to live by robbery rather than by gainful employment does not belong in this country.”

“A great many famous Americans walking the streets today,” I shot back, “are nothing more than robber barons.”

“Do your parents approve of their daughter working as an apprentice locksmith?” Mr. Deutscher asked, clearly annoyed. “Shouldn’t you be in school or learning a feminine trade?”

“She’s first-rate,” Mr. C. said. “Top of the line. As good as any of the young men in my shop.”

“If you were my daughter and lacked any aptitude for college—how old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“I would keep you at home learning refinement and duty.” Growing expansive, Mr. Deutscher added, “Without women to show us the way, what is the point of our faith, hard work, and self-sufficiency?”

Mr. C. remarked that he had spent several childhood years in Germany, where he had learned all he ever wanted to know about discipline. While he and Mr. Deutscher talked about Teutonic culture and discussed what kind of safe would best serve the banker, I went outside to get a gander at the place next door, which I had seen from an upstairs window. Mr. Deutscher’s joint resembled a convent; but his neighbor’s, a radiant red brick Colonial home trimmed all in white, screamed tasteful gelt. The two houses, separated by a low natural stone wall, represented two different cultures. On Mr. Deutscher’s side formal gardens had been laid out in fastidious circles and squares. The neighbor’s grounds had a pond and a small riding track large enough to accommodate the Shetland pony that a nurse led by the reins as a young child perched in the saddle. Below the track a stretch of lawn ran to the bay. There, rocking slowly in the tide, stood a red sailboat moored to a small wooden dock, with a pole that held a green wind sock languidly flapping in the breeze. I could see on the veranda, under an arbor of yellow roses, a shining young woman wave to the child. Her arms and neck displayed dazzling jewelry, and the barrette in her dark, lustrous hair, reflected the sun. Even her white linen dress glowed like gold. I smiled and waved. She crossed the lawn to me.

“You must be a friend of Mr. Deutscher’s,” she said in a voice that admitted me into her confidence and seemed to promise sensational disclosures about the private world of others. It resonated with indiscretion.

“Not really.”

“Oh?”

“I’m here on a job.”

“What do you do?”

“Locksmithing.”

“I wish I had a job like that,” she said looking at her house. “Wouldn’t that cause a stir?” Her enchanting voice, punctuated with murmuring breaths, increased her radiant beauty.

“What’s your name?”

“Henrietta Fine.”

“Mine’s Lily Gillespie.”

At that moment, the woman leading the horse and child came up to the house.

“This is our nurse, Mrs. Pearce, and my son, Tommy. He’s four.”

I warmly greeted them both.

“Now go inside and play with Nanny” said Lily.

The child obediently left.

I loved the golden woman immediately. I told her about Mr. C., and my work, and Pop’s hope that one day I’d complete high school and go off to college—but not Princeton, which Pop regarded as a refuge for drunks and rah-rahs.

“Don’t repeat this, but most college grads are dim bulbs. I went to Smith. It’s in Massachusetts. My husband’s from Vanderbilt. He grew up in Chicago. Lexington’s my hometown.”

I gulped. “Would you recommend college?”

“So long as you don’t let on that you’re smart. The college boys prefer dumb blondes.”

In the distance, I heard a shot. A bird dropped from the sky, landing on her lawn. She walked over and gently touched it with her foot. “Perhaps it’s an omen,” she said. “This is the second time. Both finches. Both dead.”

Not a good sign, I thought.

“I think they come here from Europe, like so many of our immigrants.”

Taking up the thread of her comment, I remarked, “There are a great many people who want to return. They’re unhappy here. That’s what I read in the papers.”

“Money,” she said. “It takes money to live the good life in America. The right kind of money.”

Figuring a buck was a buck, I asked what she meant.

Lily smiled, touched my arm, and said, “Some money is flawed, so it won’t open the right doors.”

Seeing Mr. C. emerge from the house, I gave Lily a business card and invited her to call. “It’s as much a museum,” I said, “as a locksmith’s shop.”

“Is it really?”

“I’d love to see you again.”

She promised to drop by, and we parted.

A week later, she appeared at the customer gate of Mr. C’s shop. I assumed she had come to see the collection; and in fact she spent a good half hour admiring the historical locks before she said that she needed a key for an apartment she kept in the city. It was on West 158th Street in a long row of apartment houses, each the same as the other.

“No kidding? That’s not far from where my mom and I live.”

“It’s on the top floor, number 707. I’ve lost my key, so I have no way of getting in. If we could leave now . . . my husband’s away in Cape May.”

I asked Mr. C. for permission to take on the job and explained that Lily was the woman living next door to Herr Deutscher. (I couldn’t resist inserting the Herr.) Mr. C. said that given the age of the building, the lock was probably a Schlage or a Yale, and suggested which key blanks might work. He asked whether she was on the up and up. Mr. C. had often warned me to verify the customer’s story. And for good reason. One night, a couple had called him to make a key for their penthouse apartment on the swanky east side. First thing, Mr. C. went to rouse the super to tell him what he intended to do. By the time he returned with the info that the owners of the apartment were in France, the couple had taken a powder. Lily could be trusted, I insisted.

“All of life is a horserace,” he cautioned. “There are no sure bets.”

Unless the race is fixed, I mused. And the one thing I knew for certain was that Lily Gillespie’s beauty and seductive voice put her lengths ahead of any other woman I knew.

Her blue coupé was parked at the curb. Throwing my canvas bag of tools into the trunk, I slid into the seat next to this fabulous woman, to raft down the river of Broadway. If only the kids in Newark could see me now!

“Keys,” remarked Lily, “have more meaning than meets the eye. We give keys to loved ones, to open houses and cars and vaults. But we also use keys to lock out those we dislike and to keep them from learning our secrets.”

In my short time in the shop, I had learned that the attitudes people express about keys and locks provide a peek at their prejudices. You quickly discover, for example, who finds the world hostile and who embraces it, who worries about theft and who is generous. But never had any of our customers talked philosophically about keys—until now.

Lily turned right on 158th and parked in front of the building. Out in the street, some children were playing kick the can. It was a neighborhood trying to come up in the world. You could see the aspirations in the lace window curtains and the potted geraniums arranged on sills and fire escapes. The foyer, lined with copper-colored mailboxes, bore a menagerie of names like Baer, Beaver, Fox, Katz, Mink, and Wolf. Glancing at box 707, I saw no “Gillespie,” just the initials “G.D.” Two steps led into the hallway, covered in linoleum with an octagonal orange design. The elevator, a pea-green, paneled Otis lift, moved like molasses. On the ride up, Lily seemed abandoned in thought. I studied her every movement, wishing I could look exactly like her. A moment later, she turned and gave me that do-I-have-something-to-tell-you smile saying,

“You ought to have your hair marcelled. It would look terribly cute.” Right there on the spot I decided that first chance, I would make an appointment at the neighborhood beauty parlor.

The elevator stopped. We opened the gate and walked down the hall to apartment 707. The door was hinged from the inside and the apartment lacked direct access to a fire escape. One look at the lock and I knew it was a pin tumbler Yale. Reaching into my bag for the key blanks that Mr. C. had recommended, I lightly began filing one. Then I gripped it with vise pliers, jiggled it around in the lock, and patiently filed the markings. In under ten minutes, I had cut the key and opened the door—just as someone from apartment 705 peered out suspiciously. But an imperious glance from Lily caused the snooper to quickly withdraw.

The apartment, which fronted the street, looked nothing like what I expected. Instead of spiffy furniture, there was schlock: a three-cushioned purple sofa, a white parlor chair, and a wobbly coffee table, covered with moving-picture magazines, several copies of The Aryan Newsletter, a jar of Noxema cold cream, an ashtray overflowing with lipstick-stained cigarette butts, and a small vial of perfume, labeled “Passionate Love.” The dining room, only large enough for a card table covered with a green padded cloth and four rickety chairs, had a small lacquered plaque on the wall, “God Bless This Tryst.” A flower vase on the table held some dead stalks. The bedroom was a holy mess of sheets and pillows in disarray, a clothes closet with as many dresses and hats on the floor as on the hangers and hooks, a badly worn navy-blue rug strewn with hairpins and shoes, and a dressing table overflowing with lotions, salves, perfumes, and pins, as well as an open compact of mascara and a caked eyebrow brush. A trail of white talc led from the table to the bathroom, which my fastidious mom would have attacked with Bon Ami and boiling water.

From the street came the sound of a can being kicked and some raucous kid yelling, “I caught you off base. You’re out!”

Lily pocketed the key and silently made her way through the apartment. The place reminded me of a magazine article I once read, “The Archaeology of Love; How to Tell If Your Husband Is Cheating.” It didn’t take much digging to uncover the facts.

Standing in front of the bedroom closet, Lily reached in and recovered a man’s pale blue cardigan sweater, with a swanky coat of arms stitched over the heart. I couldn’t help noticing that the closet also held a man’s suit, trousers, shirts, slippers, and two pairs of shoes. Holding the sweater at arm’s length, Lily said, “The son-of-a-bitch! I bought it for him in London.” She shoved the sweater under her arm and made straight for the door. I would have followed her out, but something caught my attention. A petticoat, hanging from a hook, looked just like the ones Pop used to make: the same kind of stitching, the same color silk. I read the label, “Sam Fine, Petticoat Lane, Cape May, N.J.”

At the curb, Lily asked, “What’s that you have?”

“A petticoat.”

She smiled and handed me a double sawbuck, apologizing for the deception. Even so, I felt like a patsy and wondered if my future held a jail cell. I said nothing during the drive back, a reckless whirligig ride, as Lily skidded the car at the corner and raced north on Broadway, weaving between pushcarts and cabs, hardly stopping for lights. Approaching the shop, she hammered the brake, causing the car to spasm with hiccups before it came to a stop. While I retrieved my canvas bag from the trunk, she stepped out of the car and jauntily said, “Marcelled would look best. Trust me.”

With that statement, my annoyance and fear disappeared.

“Will you tell me something?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“The green wind sock at the end of your dock . . . what does it mean?”

Lily paused, as if the question was a stumper. “It signals which way the wind is blowing.”

She patted me on the cheek, slid in behind the wheel, and drove off, leaving me wondering if I’d ever see her again. But the very next day, she walked into the shop laughing insincerely and whispering to a blonde, curly-headed, deeply tanned friend, whom she introduced as Miss Morgan Tabor.

“Wasn’t the Lenglen match simply divine?” Lily enthused.

“She’s the only woman in tennis who leaps for her volleys,” Miss Tabor added, with an upward tilt of her chin.

“Speaking of off the ground,” said Lily, “did I tell you about that luncheon at the Holsteins? Beastly! You’d think we had never traveled in Europe or gone to college. Instead of serving the food at the head of the table, they expected us to dish it out by ourselves. But worst of all, they passed the serving bowls to the right.”

“To the right!” Morgan gasped, as if she had just been let in on a murder; “that’s what comes of admitting the wrong kind of people into society.”

I was so angry, I wanted to spit. The woman I had so admired—the one who had told me that women with brains have to struggle—was sounding like just another nitwit. Was this the same Lily who had talked thoughtfully about keys, as we drove to that loveless apartment, where her husband rendezvoused with some floozy? Already high class, Lily had no need to put on airs. Only later did I decide that she was not one woman but two. The first, spoiled by beauty and wealth, never had to prove her true worth; the second, because of her savvy, wanted to have some say in the world, and not be dismissed as merely a looker. I felt sorry for Lily. My guess was that if she spent as much time thinking about things that actually mattered as she did improving her wardrobe and face, she’d rank right up there with Madame Curie.

“I’ve come to ask you a favor,” said Lily, as Morgan discreetly wandered over to the small room housing Mr. C.’s antique collection. Her voice was warming up, readying itself to let me in on some fabulous secret. “Could we just step outside?”

Standing on the sidewalk, I could hear the ballet master in the studio upstairs: stretch, stretch, stretch.

“You’re such a clever young woman. Do you know how to change a lock?” She laughed insipidly. “How silly of me. If you can pick one, surely you can change one. Right?”

“Right,” I said indifferently. I didn’t want her to think that I was taken in by that ha-ha, ho-ho stuff of hers.

“Well,” said Lily, “remember that apartment on 158th Street? I’d like you to change the lock.”

“Who owns it?” I asked.

Looking me straight in the eye and dropping all pretense of gaiety, she replied, “My husband. He keeps it for his girlfriend.”

Feeling that Lily’s candor deserved my collaboration, I said, “Don’t change the entire lock. He might get suspicious. I’ll just change the plug. That way it’s the same lock; but when the key slides in it won’t turn.”

“You are a marvel,” gushed Lily. “Won’t they both be deliciously inconvenienced?”

“I’ll bet the next door neighbor tells them we called.”

“All the better. If Brad wants to accuse me, he’ll have to admit to having a mistress.”

“When does he return?”

“Two days from now.”

“I could lose my job, if Mr. Courtney found out.”

“There are some things a well-bred woman never discusses.”

Lily wrote down her home telephone number and asked me to call when the job was done. “I may have other work for you—you never can tell.”

Morgan was standing just inside the door waiting for Lily. “I prefer new things to old,” remarked Morgan.

Lily laughed without any feeling.

“Those old locks remind me of dungeons,” said Morgan. “I always keep my doors open.”

“That’s because you have nothing to hide,” Lily said rather smugly.

“Come,” Morgan directed, “I have numerous errands . . . and a hair dressing appointment at four.”

Lily leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. Slipping a greenback into my hand, she said, “Don’t look till I’m gone.” A moment later only her perfume remained.

“Who was that?” asked one of the apprentices. “Some peach!”

“Great gams,” said another.

“A friend,” I answered—and finally opened my hand to reveal a C-note, enough for several months’ rent and a few fancy duds.

******

The next evening, after work, I took a small bag of tools and returned to the apartment on 158th street. In no time at all, I had removed the old plug and put in a new one. Testing the key I opened and closed the door several times attracting the attention of the neighbor next door. This time the snooper from 705—an elderly man in a bathrobe and slippers—opened the door and walked into the hall. He must have been suffering from some eye disease. Tears kept running down his unshaven face, and he kept dabbing his peepers with the arm of his corduroy robe.

“New people moving in?” he asked.

“Security service,” I answered. “We’re just checking to be sure all the locks work.”

“Really?”

“Want me to look at yours?”

“Would you?”

I stepped next door, tried the lock, and tapped some graphite into the keyhole. “Right as rain.”

“Thanks,” he said, with a genuine smile, and shuffled into his apartment. Suddenly he peered out and asked, “Ain’t you a girl?”

“A lot of people make that mistake.”

“Oh!” he said looking startled, as if he had just had a great revelation. Half a jiff later I could hear him fastening the safety chain.

Before leaving, I couldn’t resist one more peek inside. Letting myself into 707, I noticed for the first time a small what-not, with three shelves, wedged into a corner. It was overflowing with knickknacks: a nutcracker in the shape of a woman’s legs, a miniature toilet seat inscribed, “Please drop in,” glass animals of the brutish sort (a rhino, water buffalo, hippo, and bull), some wax flowers, a small golden frame with a black velvet painting of Jesus, three soap stone monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil), and a few other oddities that silly women often call “cute.”

In a drawer of the dressing table, I found a limerick signed, Brad. “Dear Gertie, in days of old, when knights were bold, before the rubber was invented, they used to leave their load inside her fold and walk away contented. Can’t wait for Cape May.” I pocketed the note, eased out the front door, and darted down the hallway. Taking the stairs three at a time, I flew out the building and happily whistled “Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me.”

Giving Mom the hundred dollars that Lily had slipped me, I found twenty-five smackers in the morning next to my cereal bowel; so I shot over to Fifth Avenue and 38th Street to look at Bonwit Teller’s pre-summer sale. With Lily in mind, I bought a hand-embroidered dress of French cotton voile for $18.50, and white pumps with tan leather trimming for $5.50. Now all I needed was a beau.

Two days later, a bull of a man with shoulder muscles rippling under his shirt showed up in the shop. On his arm was Lady Fatso, who seemed to be in mortal combat with the seams in her dress. The man asked for me. He said his wife, Lily, had given him my name. I tried my hardest not to look guilty.

“I need a key made for my apartment,” he said gruffly. “Something’s wrong with the old one. It won’t work.”

Thinking he might come to the shop, I had prepared duplicate keys for 707. It was just a matter of pretending to cut him a new one. Of course, I could have charged him a sawbuck by accompanying him to the apartment and impressioning a blank for the new plug I’d installed. But since the old man in 705 could be a problem, I told Mr. Gillespie that if he showed me the old key, I could cut a new one right there in the shop.

“Didn’t you hear me? I just said, it doesn’t work!”

“I understand.”

“Well?”

“Well, when your old key wouldn’t open the door, I’m sure you tried forcing it.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” he said with annoyance.

“Forcing a key always leaves marks. Give me your old key and I’ll make you a new one.”

He looked relieved.

“Smart kid,” said the woman.

Glancing around the shop, Mr. Gillespie grew expansive. “Quite a selection you have. Must be the best key shop in New York. Maybe America. Do you sell any bagels with your locks?”

The woman bellowed like a cow in labor and, slapping him on the shoulder, said, “Brad, you’re such a card.”

“Well?” he asked, expecting me to reply.

“Try down the street at the delicatessen.”

“I figured you might sell ’em here,” he said, with an insincere smile. “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”

Why do beautiful, intelligent women marry handsome, dumb men? Sure, Brad was tanned and tall and good-looking, his hair dyed blond by the sun, and his broad-shouldered, sinewy body a picture of health. But he was a cartoon figure, right out of the comic book ads, in which some ape kicks sand in the face of a scrawny kid, who immediately enrolls in the Charles Atlas bodybuilding program. The next time the ape walks down the beach and kicks sand, the kid punches him right in the nose. Of course what the ads never explain is why the ape would do the same thing a second time when the scrawny kid is now a he-man. In my mind, Brad was the ape and I was the scrawny kid turned into a mountain of muscle.

Judging from the ring on his right hand, with the letters B.I.G. depicted in diamonds, I concluded that this door frame with a melon on top had gelt. Why else would a woman like Lily ever have given him a tumble? Fatso seemed much more his type, all flesh and no brains.

On receiving his keys (two), he asked the cost. A quarter apiece. He handed me a half bit and said, as he went out the door, “Don’t spend it all in one place.” The woman let out a howl as we entered the street.

That evening, I told Mom about Lily and Brad.

“When some people clean a stove,” she said, “the outside sparkles and the inside disgusts.”

 

END OF CHAPTER TWO

Author Bio ~ Paul M. Levitt, retired English professor, lives in Boulder, Colorado and currently occupies himself with historical fiction. He has authored scholarly books, plays, and novels.  His fondest memories issue from writing radio plays for London BBC Radio and working with a number of outstanding English actors.http://paul-levitt.com/

Narrator Bio ~ Elizabeth Mansfield  is a British actress and singer and has been working in theatre, radio, TV and film since the 1970’s. She has performed many leading roles in UK regional theatres and London’s West End, in plays, music theatre and musicals, winning an Olivier Award nomination for ‘Best Actress in a Musical’ and ‘Best Actress’ in the London Theatre Awards, for her performance in Marie, at the Fortune Theatre. Web Address: www.ensemble-online.com

 

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