AA- The Adventures of Henrietta Fine – Chapter Nine
Syndic Literary Journal

AA- The Adventures of Henrietta Fine – Chapter Nine

The Adventures of Henrietta Fine

Chapter Nine

By Paul Levitt

Narrated by Elizabeth Mansfield

Published by LeRoy Chatfield

   When A.R. and I talked business, we always retreated to the kitchen, here he could stuff himself with sweets and wash them down with milk.  As he munched on a chocolate éclair, he wanted me to know that he had a job for Hank and me that would take us to Cape May and then Long Island.  He would pay me five grand. 

            “I’ve got a problem.  It’s getting harder to bring in booze from Rum Row.  The navy has increased their patrols, so the speakeasies are running low.”

            Rum Row was a line of liquor-laden boats stretching from Maine to Florida.  The boats lay at anchor just outside U.S. territorial waters, three miles off shore.  Converted yachts, ancient windjammers, rusty old steamers, sloops, schooners, ketches, and yawls functioned as floating liquor stores.  The ships mostly dispensed Scotch, rye, and gin—by the case.  The liquor came from Europe and Latin America, and was unloaded at docks on the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off Canada, the British West Indies, and the Bahamas.  Every day boats with false papers declaring they were sailing in ballast (without any cargo) left those supply bases to replenish the stores of the shady vessels, all under foreign registry, that hovered off the eastern seaboard.  The greatest number of ships, running to more than a hundred, were parked off Long Island and the coast of New Jersey.

            Parked there as well were Coast Guard patrol boats, waiting to pounce on the rowboats, rafts, sailboats, skiffs, dinghies, lighters, and powerful motorboats, some powered by airplane engines and some with light barges in tow, that stole in from the mainland to transport the liquor to shore.  Although free to sail in ballast across the three-mile limit to the rum runners, the buyers became lawbreakers the moment they took on the prohibited liquors and entered the forbidden zone.  To escape arrest, they faked breakdowns, used decoy boats loaded with empty crates, and set fire to decrepit ships, forcing the Coast Guard to come to the aid of the blazing vessels.

            The Coast Guard’s rum-hunting boats had a top speed of forty-five knots and carried one-pound guns.  A.R. knew the specifications of the government boats, because by law they had to be published.  To keep one jump ahead, he had Rodman take the specs to a Philadelphia shipyard and have them refit a speedboat to make it run ten knots faster than the Coast Guard’s fastest.  The brain had worked out the Rum Row caper down to the last detail.

            When I asked Hank about our specific assignment, he said we had to meet Bill McCoy on Rum Row to load up and make a dash for Montauk, Long Island.  But first we had to collect the newly outfitted boat.

******

On September 2, suitcases in hand, Rodman and I waited to board a train to Philly.  On the platform I bought a newspaper.  Scanning through it, I came across an article on page eight.

An unnamed person of interest told the police that on the day of the Truffa murder, he had had an appointment with the owner of the Club Baal.  On leaving the office, he said that a small, skinny man, with a briefcase, was seated outside waiting to see Mr. Truffa.

“A penny for your thoughts,” Hank said.

I had so many thoughts I didn’t know where to begin.  “Tell me about the liquor deal that the cops busted up at your place.”

“It really began when a schooner docked at the Canadian island of St. Pierre loaded with bonded Scotch whiskey.  Masseria and Zucania bought the whole shipment and induced a wealthy yachtsman from the New York Commodore Club to use his own windjammer to sail the booze to Long Island Sound.  From there, my people were to transfer the stuff to the stables.  But someone tipped off the cops.  A.R. had agreed to pay for the booze with diamonds and split the liquor shipment five ways.”

“Who copped the diamonds?”

“I don’t know who lifted them, but Gurrah does.”

“Where does he come in?”

“He carried the stones from Fieldston to my house, where he hid them in the fishbowl, and then presumably took them to Vineland.  You know the rest.”

“Do I?”

“In Vineland, A.R. assumed ownership of the diamonds and gave them to you to give to Masseria and Zucania.  They say you substituted a phony for one of the real diamonds.  Did you?”

“Hell, no.  Where would I get a counterfeit?”

With one word, Hank turned my world upside down.  “Boritski.”

After a long pause, during which I tried to collect my thoughts, I said, “One more question.  Did Masseria and Zucania know that Federico Truffa was A.R.’s fence?”

Hank laughed.  “Everyone on the street knows.”

Imagining the scene, I could see the killer show up.  When Truffa says he no longer has the diamond, the killer ransacks the office.  Finding nothing, he demands to know the current owner of the gem.  Truffa refuses to say.  The killer then demands that the fence get him the stone.  But what incentive does Truffa have?  He knows that having paid for the diamonds once, the killer isn’t about to pay a second time.  With Truffa standing to lose a lot of money, he refuses to budge.  What happens next?  Bang!  And then lighter fluid and a match.  The killer dashes out the back door.  A few minutes later, Suzie and I enter.  Among the chaos and papers, we see the burning corpse.  I also see Brad’s card, “Bradley I. Gillespie, Esquire.”  On our way out, I snatch it, and we flee.

I retreated into silence, as I weighed what all this could mean.  A few minutes before, Hank had said that every jeweler in New York knew that Federico Truffa dealt in hot diamonds.  If Brad was looking for a stone, the Club Baal was the place to go.  And even if the thief remained unknown or unnamed, who was the killer?  And who was the guy that asked Truffa to fence the single diamond—and presumably walked off with a hefty sum, even if he received only half the worth of the stone?

Arriving at the shipyard, on the Delaware River, we learned from the foreman that our boat had been returned to dry dock.  One of the engines had caught fire and needed extensive repairs, which would take a few days.  That delay gave me an idea.  I talked Hank into spending the time with me in Cape May.  During our train trip and bus ride to south Jersey, we became chummy.  That’s when I asked him what it had been like in the war.

            “The trenches, the mud, the phosphorous shells exploding overhead . . . all that was insignificant compared to my real life.”   

            “I don’t follow.” 

            “A life is only that which has passed—and is remembered.  Nothing exists outside of memory.”

            Years later, I heard critics say that Rodman was just a pretty face whose words didn’t match his good looks, a tongue-tied lover spouting hackneyed phrases.  But the Rodman I heard that day didn’t sound like a Brooklyn bozo. 

            “Although the Army had sent me to Europe, my thoughts never left Lily.  I saw her likeness everywhere.  Whether in Paris or Chartres or in Oxford, she smiled at me from paintings and stained glass windows; she appeared on the friezes of palaces, on comb-boxes and mirror ornaments.  I recognized her fresh, cool look in marble Madonnas.  Even in sleep I couldn’t escape her.  My dreams were always of her, and so real that my waking memories seemed pale in comparison.  One windy day, at a bookstall along the Seine, I was standing behind a woman with the same dark, radiant hair.  A gust lifted some strands into my face.  I briefly held them between my lips, as I’d done once when Lily and I stood on the beach at Coney Island.  Another time, I followed a woman through a winter rain in Paris because her voice, which I had overheard in a shop, sounded like Lily’s.

            “The hair, the voice, the playfulness, the ways of her love; these are the stuff of my long mad memories and the source of my dreams.  Wherever she stands, stands the sun.  Her perennial wonder is simply that she exists.” 

            He was convinced that a stairway ran from her house to the stars and that the blue curtain which blew in a freshened breeze the first time she told him she loved him was spun on the moon.

            Continuing in this confessional manner, he said that he’d known numerous women but none, until he met Lily, who made him wish to be better.  Her unspoiled youth, her hopes for the future, made him believe that time was not a stagnant pool but a tide that could sweep away his dirt-poor beginnings and carry him out to a sea of success.  Instead of the gigolo in him, she brought out the dreamer.  Upon meeting her, he no longer sought easy conquests; he wanted nothing less than the golden girl.  I didn’t understand until later that though she had been desired by many—the college boys, the soldiers stationed nearby, the rich Lexington horse set—Rodman embodied a quality the others had no reason to have, the promise of change.  Wealth often imprisons.  Lily found their debutante balls and country clubs boring.  Rodman offered her the chance to live not only affluently but also wondrously.  Each fell in love with the idea of the other as much as with the person.  Of course, in the end, only the idea remained.  But that’s jumping the gun.

            “My father farmed as a tenant,” he said, smiling at me and remembering some distant place.  “He had to bend his back early, that’s why it grew crooked.  We lived in a small Illinois town, Decatur, in a bunkhouse.  My mother always wore the same house dress, or so it seemed.  When you’re a farmer, all you’re left with is a straight furrow.  It’s your signature—not just on the field but on life.”

            After the war, he returned briefly to Lexington.  Lily and Brad, honeymooning in the South Seas, would not be returning for a month.  Her old friends said that the couple planned to live in Chicago.  Rodman walked the familiar streets for a week and imagined the white roadster in which Lily drove him to the local swimming holes, to brassy parties, to distraction.  Penniless and heartbroken, he rode not in a day coach, as he later told Lily, but in a boxcar with hobos, from Lexington to Chicago, hoping to catch sight of her there.

******

            Although I hadn’t told Hank my reason for wanting to visit Cape May, I wanted to settle scores with my thieving uncle.

            The train was packed.  We squeezed in among a family of Italian immigrants lugging hampers of pane, prosciutto, frutta, formaggio, and vino, the words most frequently used when someone would reach into the basket for yet another handful of food.  To my satisfaction, I found that I could understand a good deal of their animated talk, owing to my friendship with Jimmy-Jimmy.  By the time we pulled into Cape May, at 6:05, the tourists had exhausted the words bella, bambini, and basta.  A welcome sign at the station read:  “The Playground of Presidents.”  Lincoln (before his election), William Harrison, Franklin Pierce, James Gillespie, and Ulysses S. Grant had all enjoyed themselves here.     Asking directions, we meandered from the station toward the Anodyne Hotel, where we had reserved a room on the recommendation of a welder at the Philadelphia shipyard.  It wasn’t far from “Petticoat Lane” and Uncle Sam’s store.  The town brought to mind Pop’s description of Charleston as lacy and languorous.  In the light of the gas lamps, street after street glowed in blues and greens and yellows and whites from the gaily painted Victorian gingerbread houses.  On the big front porches, laughing vacationers sprawled on the swings and rocking chairs and steps, kibitzing, smoking cigarettes.  You could tell the new guests from the old:  Their skin glowed like steamed lobsters. 

            Just for a gander, we ducked in to one of the more spectacular guesthouses on Columbia Avenue:  an Italian-like villa, with a gold-painted cupola on the roof and a sweeping veranda full of high-backed rockers overlooking a garden buried under hydrangeas, tiger lilies, and roses.  The palatial sitting room had ornate plaster moldings, an elaborate chandelier, and a ceiling several feet higher than a basketball rim. 

            The Anodyne Hotel, white with green trim, was another matter.  The long porch was crowded mostly with elderly people inhaling the salt air.  One gray-haired man, with a silver moustache and a black ivory cigarette holder dangling from the side of his mouth, was explaining to a cadaverous fellow that the sea air was good for one’s liver and lungs.  The skeleton held a red metal box in his lap inscribed “Powers Powder.”  Pouring some of its contents into the lid, he lit the powder, which gave off an evil-smelling black smoke that the poor man inhaled.  Almost immediately, he began to cough and bring up phlegm.  I was tempted to tell them both that quitting the weed and the powder would have done more for their health than the sea air, because when they coughed, which they did pretty often, I heard the same rattle of bones that used to sound in Pop’s chest. 

Just inside the front door was the desk.  The clerk had a forehead shaped like a coffin and an undertaker’s syrupy voice.  He seemed a fitting introduction to a hotel with beds as bare as bunks.  Our bedrooms were austere and small, just large enough for a cot, a dressing table, a chair, and a towel rack; they were clearly meant for short lets.  The few toilets, down the hall, had a waiting line.

            We decided to cancel our reservation and return to the nifty place on Columbia Avenue, which still had unoccupied rooms.  The clerk at the Anodyne desk was none too happy, but he seemed in no mood to argue with Hank.  Our new digs were terrif and the food was scrumptious.

            The next morning, Hank went in search of a pair of bathing trunks.  He said he wanted to body surf.  I begged off saying I wanted to sightsee, and agreed to meet him for dinner.  Immediately, I set out to locate Sam’s house, which was in the poorer section of town, on a side street with potholes filled with water from a recent rain.  True to form, he had a ratty bungalow.  The roof and siding, covered with the same green shingles, blended together to make one bilious blob.  Except for two large flower boxes, splashing red geraniums across the front of the house, and white lace curtains in the windows, the place looked pretty dreary.  My aunt, crippled by arthritis, used to hobble around with the help of a cane, but was now confined to a wheelchair, as I discovered when she opened the door.

            “I couldn’t believe my ears,” she exclaimed, “when I asked who it was and you said ‘Henny.'”

            All my aunts had started to gray from an early age.  But Aunt Anna’s hair had silvered completely.  Physically frail, yet always cheerful and hopeful, with bright blue eyes, she didn’t lack conviction or courage.  A dyed-in-the-wool suffragette, she would tell the fainthearted, who urged patience, “Wait?  Wait for what?  This is the only dance that we dance.”

            Settled on the sofa, I realized now that I had come to Cape May as much to see her as to face down my uncle.  Gnawing away at me was the question, how much did she know?  Had Uncle Sam told her about the theft?  If so, which seemed unlikely, why hadn’t she restored the money to Mom?  And whether she knew or not, why hadn’t she written or called to ask about Pop?  Her silence had to mean she knew nothing.  Or was she simply too embarrassed to speak because of the theft?  The explanation surely had to involve my Uncle Sam.

            Refusing to let me help, my aunt wheeled into the kitchen and returned with a tray on her lap, holding a pitcher of lemonade, two glasses, two plates, and a sponge cake.  I said nothing as she talked about Cape May:  the elegant homes, the shops, the beach, and the boardwalk, where my uncle pushed her in warm weather.  But when she told me how sad she was to hear about the death of my dad, I took my cue.

            “Ah, you know?”

            “Sam said the hospital was refusing all calls, so I wrote.  Sam mailed the letters.  When he learned Solly had died, I told him to send a telegram and masses of flowers.”

            “Yeah, they were lovely.”

            “I telephoned Celia.”

            “She never said.”

            “Your mother seemed so formal.  No doubt because of the shock.  We talked only a minute or two.”

            “It was a shock, all right.”

            “I would have called again, but thought it an imposition.  Pity . . . because at one time we were so close.  Now I fear I’ve waited too long.  You will tell her my feelings, won’t you?”

            “Of course.”

            “Had I been able, we would have attended the funeral.”

            “We really missed you.”

            “If not for your dad, Sam could never have made a new life.”

            I did a slow burn.  Either she knew—and was brazening it out—or my uncle had told her a passel of lies.  I was willing to bet on the latter.

            “Business good?” I said, trying not to choke on my lemonade.

            “At first we hardly got by, until Sam started advertising.  Of all things, he used a sandwich board.”

            “It must have sent the right message.”

            “I suppose so, because business picked up almost at once.”

            “When I passed the shop, the place looked empty.”

            “Really?  He says this time of day is his busiest.”

            “He probably just hit a slow spot.”

            “Did you stop in to say hello?”

            “No, I wanted to see you first.”

            “I’m flattered.  Where are you staying?”

            My recent experiences had taught me to cover my tracks.  “At a place near the beach.”

            “You can stay here.”

            “Thanks anyway, but I’ll be leaving first thing in the morning.”

            The afghan covering her legs had slipped to the floor.  I picked it up and tucked it in neatly.  The parlor, at the front of the house, faced a small offbeat church, called the Light of the Sinners’ Temptation (L.O.S.T.).  In front, a man in stained overalls was trying to pry open a can of paint.  First, he used a wooden mixing stick, but when that broke, he tried pliers, and finally a screwdriver, which sprung the lid.  Stirring the contents, he painted the three steps leading into the church with a thick coat of whitewash.

            “Never heard of that church before,” I remarked.

            “Sam goes.”

            “Not shul?”

            “He says it gives him comfort.  He stops in every morning.  I’m surprised, because in Newark he rarely attended a service.”

            “I guess some people reach a point in their lives when they need it.”

            My aunt let out a laugh that launched a piece of cake halfway across the room.  “Excuse me!” she exclaimed, wiping her mouth.  “But what would that point be for Sam?”

            “You said he owed a great deal to my dad.”

            “I’m sure he thinks of him every day.”

            “How come?”

            “Henny,” Aunt Anna said with surprise, “you of all people should know.”

            At the risk of tipping my hand, I decided to keep prying.  “Pop’s generosity was legendary.  It could have been one of a thousand things.”

            “You were there.  You helped.  Sam said.”

            My brain froze.  It was stuck.  “Oh, that!” I said to mask my confusion.

            “Yes, that!”

            Without hurting my aunt, I needed to pry out the truth.  “I don’t often get compliments, so I’d sure like to know what he said.”

            “You helped load the truck.”

            “It was nothing.”

            “You’re as modest as ever, Henny.”

            “Naw.”

            “I knew that Sam was his favorite.”

            “Pop told you?”

            “Sam did—many times.”

            Making a wild stab, I blurted, “The payments . . .”

            “Every month.”

            “To . . .”

            “Celia, of course.  Sent to her in New York.”

            “I didn’t know.”

            “Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying this, but I did think it strange that your dear mother never said a word.”

            “Didn’t you wonder if the money arrived?”

            “Surely if it didn’t, she would have told me.”

            “She never spoke to me about it.” 

            Aunt Anna laughed.  “Mothers don’t tell daughters everything.  But how would I know,” she remarked sadly, “I never had children.  For some reason, God has cursed me.”

            “You can adopt me,” I said frivolously.  “Two moms are better than one.”

            “I have,” she replied with a teasing look.

            “Oh?”

            “It’s a surprise.”

            “But you just told me.”

            “Not what it means, though.”

            “When do I learn?”

            “The day you go off to college.”

            “First I have to pass the high school equivalency test.”

            “You never finished high school?”

            “Hated it.”

            She gave me one of those smiles that says, I’m with you.  “So did I.”

            “Remember, I’m left handed—”

            But before I could outline the problem, she interrupted, “So they tortured you, too!”

            “I was told lefties were sinister.”

            “They told me the devil was left handed.  I was therefore possessed.”  She shook her head.  “In fact, I was.  Demon love had entered my life in the form of your uncle.  But that was a long time ago, in a small town in Poland.”

            “I’m not sure about college.  Too many starched shirts and wind bags.”

            “My sister-in-law, Rachel, her son, Stefan, he’s now a college professor.”

            “Poor guy.”

            Misunderstanding, she replied, “I don’t know what he earns, but he’s awfully clever.  Would you believe, he has a Ph.D.?”

            “What’s that?”

            “Some kind of degree that makes him almost as good as an M.D.”

            “I’ll bet not as rich.”

            She lingered over the cake.  “He teaches literature.  But who in America’s going to pay someone for knowing about books?  Medicine, yes; law, yes.  That’s what draws in the dollars.”

            “I know some pretty dumb doctors, like the ones who kept torturing Pop.” 

            “It must have been awful.” 

            Tears came to my eyes.  “I’d rather not talk about it.”

            “Here, let me give you Stefan’s address at City College.  That’s where he teaches.  I’ll ring him to say that you’d like to drop in.”

            “Just don’t say when, ’cause I’m not sure myself.”

            “Whatever you’d like.”

            My early memories of Aunt Anna were sweet.  When I was seven or eight, she brought me a bag of black licorice twists, for no reason at all except that she was in the neighborhood and decided to stop.  To this day, I can still hear Mom saying, “You shouldn’t have,” and her gentle reply, “No one should ever visit a child without bringing a gift.”

            The same couldn’t be said for my uncle.  Later that day I went to see him.  His shop, a block from the ocean, exuded elegance, in the mirrors and rugs, the dressing rooms with velvet curtains, the walnut counter, and the cash register with a brass eagle on top.  Even the sign, “Petticoat Lane,” was out of the ordinary.  Instead of painted, block letters, the words were stamped out of metal and written in longhand.  You didn’t see signs like that very often.  I knew a little about hinges from my work as a locksmith.  Uncle Sam’s door had been mounted on the best hinges and opened at a touch.  A small bell tinkled whenever anyone entered or left.  My uncle was measuring a thick-bottomed matron who would require a good stretch of material.  One look at me and he nearly swallowed the straight pins pressed between his lips.  Stretching the tape round the woman, he lurched forward, almost knocking her over, and then jumbled his measurements.  “Waist, twenty-three,” he mumbled; but my guess was thirty-two.  Flustered, his hands shaking, he asked the woman to return later that day. 

            “Good to see you, Uncle Sam,” I cheerfully lied.  “Just came from seeing Aunt Anna.”

            That information, as I had hoped, stopped him dead in his tracks.  He adored his wife.  And rightfully!  She never criticized his lazy labors and always brightened his home.  As Pop used to say, the best thing about Sam was Anna. 

            “She told me about the telegram and flowers and payments to Mom.”

            “You didn’t tell her, did you?”

            “Not yet.”

            “I can explain,” he sniveled.

            “No need, just give me the money.”  I stuck out my hand.

            “You have no idea how hard it has been.  You saw how we live.  I’m saving up for a big house, one with a ramp, so your aunt can easily get in and out and have something nice.”

            “Judging from this shop,” I said, looking around, “I would’ve guessed business was good.”

            “Awful.  Girls nowadays hardly wear nothing.  No one wants slips or petticoats, except for maybe a wedding.  I’ve had to add other lines, bunting and flags.”

            “I hear you’re working two jobs.”

            “Whatta you mean?”

            “The store—and the signal corps.”

            He looked blank, until it dawned on him that somehow I knew.

            “How?” he sputtered.

            “Friends.”

            “You?”

            I knew what he meant.  For my friends to know about him, they had to be bootleggers.

            “Ever hear of A.R.?” I asked, knowing the answer to my question in advance.

            “Big joke!”

            I rummaged around in my pocket book for the key to the Rothsteins’ front door, and noticed that I was still walking around with my purloined pick and tension wrench.

            “See this key?” I asked holding it up.  “It opens A.R.’s front door.  Don’t believe me?  Call him.  I’ll give you his personal number.”

            My uncle pounded his chest with one fist and began breathing deeply.  Whenever Pop bawled him out, he pleaded ill health.  “All my life, Solly is the smart one.  Sam, the donkey.  He was the favorite.  My parents always compared me to him.  Solly’s successful, you’re not.  Everyone loved your father—tall and handsome.  Me, short and plain.  The one good thing in my life was Anna.  How long can a man live in the shade?  I wanted too some light.”

            “So you stole.”

            “I hated myself for it.”

            He took out a hanky and let out a rhino roar, as if ridding his internal pain through his nose.  I was almost convinced, until it occurred to me that he didn’t hate himself enough to return what he took. 

            “Just give me the money you owe Mom and I’ll walk out of here and not say a word—ever—to anyone!”

            He went behind the counter, opened the cash register, and immediately closed it, without removing the cash. 

            “The dough or else!” I said in my best mobster manner.

            “I can’t.”

            “Why not?”

            “I told you.  I’m saving up for a house.  Special, for Anna.”

            “If she knew where the money came from, I don’t think she’d want to move in.”

            Reaching under the register, he pulled out a pistol.  “Don’t make a move,” he said angrily, pointing the gun at my head.  “Anna must never know, and the money stays right where it is.”

            My first reaction was:  This is a bad moving picture, or pulp fiction.  To this day, I’m convinced that my Uncle Sam, like most people, had so little imagination that even under stress, he took his manners and mutterings from others.  That’s why he sounded like a bandito in a magazine or a book.      

            “In the store room,” he growled, shoving me into the backroom of his shop and locking the door behind me. 

            “You should bite your tongue,” I shouted, “and poison yourself!”

            The windows were barred against burglars, and the door that led to the alley secured from the outside.  The room held numerous bolts of material, and smelled of silks and taffetas, except for the disinfectant stored in the airless, matchbox-sized bathroom.  I don’t know why, but the first thing that crossed my mind was that as long as I’m locked up in here, he can’t get to the toilet to pee.  Taking stock, I noticed that some bolts of fabric stood not upright but at an angle.  In the hope of finding another way out, I pushed them aside and stumbled upon a large free-standing safe.  I could hardly keep from laughing.  My uncle had given me—a trained locksmith—as much privacy as a safecracker could want.  All I lacked was a drill or some nitro.  Or some luck.  Cross my heart and hope to die if staring me in the face wasn’t a Geldschrank safe.  No need for tools and explosives.  Here was one of the three flawed Austrian safes that couldn’t be traced.  I now knew where two of them were.  Remembering how Mr. Courtney opened the one in South Port, I tried to tip the safe forward, but was unable to budge it.  From one of the bolts, I stripped off yards of linen, uncovering the pole underneath, which I used as a lever.  In my geometry class, Mrs. Yoolid had told us the story of Archimedes, who had said that if he had a lever large enough and an elevated place high enough on which to stand, he could lift the world.  I had the lever.  Climbing up on a window sill, I applied downward pressure on the lever and tilted the safe forward onto its edge.  The rest was a cinch.  I spun the dials and pulled the door open.  Papers and files came tumbling out, as well as three shoe boxes filled with cash, bonds, and coins.  One box bore the name Anna, but compared to the other two boxes, it held only peanuts—less than a grand.

            My counting was interrupted by Uncle Sam’s voice on the phone.  I had missed the start of the conversation, which must have occurred while I was jimmying open the safe. 

            “In the backroom.”  Pause.  “I can’t figure it out.  But I’m telling you she knows.”  Pause.  “You better make it over here sooner than forty-five minutes, ’cause I have to pish.”

            The door leading into the shop had a warded lock and would have been a breeze to open, except for my uncle inside with a pistol butt peering out of his pocket.  Through the keyhole, I could see him pacing the floor.  The shades had been drawn, and undoubtedly the front door was locked and the “Closed” sign hanging in the window.  To and fro, he paced, faster and faster.  At first I thought he had a case of the jitters.  But when I saw him grab his abdomen, I realized he had to pee.  Thirty-five minutes had elapsed; he could stand it no longer.  Tip-toeing to the front door, he silently opened and closed it, disappearing from sight.  I figured he had probably ducked in next door, so I had to hurry. 

In a jiff, I lined up the wards, unlocked the door, grabbed the shoe boxes, and stuffed them into a handled shopping bag, marked “Petticoat Lane,” that I found under the counter.  Just as I reached the street, my uncle emerged from a shop two doors away.  Seeing me, he immediately gave chase.  I turned sharply down the narrow passageway between his building and the one adjoining.  Slinging my pocket book over my shoulder and hanging on for dear life to the shopping bag handles, I ran so fast, I’m sure had I been clocked with a stop watch, I would have qualified for the sprints in the Olympics.  At the end of the passageway—with freedom in sight—a shot rang out.  My pocket book kicked my shoulder blade.  But I never stopped running till I reached the rooming house.

            Hank was pacing the porch.  “Where were you?  I’ve been sick with worry.”

            I told him that I had visited an aunt who lived in Cape May, and had lost track of the time.  I profusely apologized and went to my room.  My pocketbook now had a bullet hole right in the middle.  When I unzipped it, my knees sagged.  Lying side by side were a piece of lead and a bent silver dollar.  At dinnertime, I excused myself to make a telephone call.  “I want to thank my aunt for the time she spent with me.”  Intending to tell her the truth about Uncle Sam, I didn’t know where to start, so I just let the matter drop.  I could hear his voice insisting that she find out where I was staying.  When my aunt finally asked, I lied, “The Chalfonte Hotel.”  No sooner had she told him than in the background I could hear a door slam.  “Has uncle gone out?” I innocently asked. 

            “He said he just remembered he left the lights on in the store.”

            I could detect a sadness in my aunt’s voice.  “You sound as if something’s wrong, Aunt Anna.”

            “I might as well tell you.  The surprise I planned for you has been lost.  Sam was in charge of it.  With business so good, I made Sam put away money for your tuition and college expenses.  Today,” she said, “he was robbed,” and she broke down and cried.    

******

            Two days later, Hank and I schlepped back to Philadelphia.  During the train ride, he reminisced about the body surfing, but all I could think of was my poor aunt and the goniff she had married.  On leaving the rooming house, I had given the owner a sealed shoe box, with my aunt’s address and an enclosed note.  “Who stole your purse intended well, but landed on the road to hell.  No curse, I beg, direct at me, my conscience feels the third degree.”  The owner promised to personally deliver it the next morning, a favor for which I gave him five smackers.

Taking a cab from the train station to the boat yards, we happily found our boat repaired and ready to go.  The Daedalus was a lean, rakish craft powered by three surplus Army Liberty airplane engines capable—in smooth waters—of up to fifty-five knots.  Placed side by side in the cockpit, the engines left little room for anything else but the fuel drums, navigational equipment, and two narrow bunks.  Stripped to its bare essentials, the seventy-five-foot boat had a hold just barely capable of storing the six hundred cases we’d be bringing in from Rum Row.

At first, Rodman feathered the engines, listening carefully to their hum in order to detect any defects.  Satisfied that the pistons were pumping smoothly, he gently opened the throttle and let the craft start to run.  Following the Delaware to the bay, we headed northeast.  The morning sun rose in a radiant arc making the water sparkle like a sea of sapphires.  I could understand why primitive peoples thought the earth flat and the sun an omnipotent god.  It looked as if the ocean suddenly stopped at the foot of this towering light.  September, the season of hurricanes, had so far behaved.  What did not behave was the Coast Guard.  As soon as we came around the Cape May lighthouse on the point, a naval cutter signaled us to stop.  They wanted to see our papers.  But once they saw the size of our engines, they ordered us to follow them into shore for questioning.

While we remained at anchor and while Hank explained that he was a sportsman who enjoyed boat racing, I saw cutters bring in several smuggling boats.  Some of these vessels, I was told, carried more than booze.  They also brought in heroin, cocaine, morphine, and illegal Chinese immigrants.  The forlorn Asians were led off the ship dressed in rags and thin as skeletons.  Desperate to earn a living wage, they were trying to reach the U.S. not because here they would have to work less, but because America offered the chance to grow rich beyond the dreams of avarice.  Wasn’t that why warehouses were filled with liquor and new ones abuilding, and why Rodman was convinced that money could make a farmer’s boy a gentleman?

After slipping the chief officer a c-note, Hank rejoined the boat, and we immediately swept away from shore.  We reached the Tomoka in no time, since our engines were now firing full blast.  McCoy and his crew helped us load liquor from the Tomoka to the Daedalus.   

            Sunburned and tired, we ate a hearty meal with McCoy and told him about our run-in with the Coast Guard.  A light rain had begun to fall.  Unable to keep from dozing, I excused myself, went below, and spent the night in a hammock, swaying ever so gently.

Some of A.R.’s boys were to meet us the next night on a deserted beach at Montauk Point.  Because of the lurking naval boats, we would wait until dusk, before making a dash for shore.  But early that evening, a naval cutter anchored a few yards from the Tomoka.

“Get that tub outta my sight,” bellowed McCoy, “or I’ll turn my guns on you.  We’re in international waters.  So keep your distance.”

The captain of the cutter said, “If the speedboat that docked alongside you last night intends to bring liquor into the States, tell him to forget it.  We have you covered like a blanket.”

McCoy laughed and said his sister had come to visit, parading me on the deck.  I had my doubts about the wisdom of his showing me off because now I was known to the feds.

In the wee hours, with the skies gray overhead and fog rolling in, we set out to deliver the Daedalus’s load.  Stealthily, Rodman ran the boat on one engine, with our running lights off.  Although we avoided the cutter parked on our doorstep, we had no way of knowing where the other naval craft were positioned.  Suddenly, a darting searchlight pierced the fog and crisscrossed in front of the boat.  Rodman quickly turned the Daedalus out to sea.  We had not been discovered, but I had no doubt that if we couldn’t make the three-mile crossing in time, we’d be answering the questions of some Coast Guard official. 

            As we neared Montauk Point, a Coast Guard craft—not a cutter but a speedboat, stamped Gipsy—appeared out of the night to give chase.  Ordered to cut our engine and prepare a clamp for towing, we looked at each other for a second and then I said, “Let ‘er rip!”

             I was cocksure that we had the power to pull away from the Gipsy, but what I didn’t count on was that the police boat also had Liberty engines—and no load of liquor to haul.  Rodman piloted around the Point and, with all three engines thundering and the boat trailing foam, made directly for the East River. Lights could be seen on the land, even though a heavy mist hung over the river.  As we shot past Throgs Neck and Ferry Point, where the river narrowed, the swell from our waves set the anchored boats all a-bobbing.  The Gipsy opened fire with machine guns, causing me to hit the deck and reach for my bent silver dollar.  One bullet splintered a board no farther than three feet away.  A cannon shot landed wide, creating a great splash off the starboard.  The Gipsy‘s searchlight clung to us like a cobweb.  Heading straight for Rikers Island, Rodman waited until the last second before turning.  With the rocks almost upon us, he spun the wheel faster than a con man working a shell game, momentarily throwing the Gipsy off course.  We went west and the Gipsy east.  Rodman, thinking the police would try to intercept us at the south end of the island, immediately turned our boat around and pointed it in the direction from which we’d just come.  But that decision proved wrong, because the Gipsy also turned around and came bearing down upon us from the north end of the island.  Once again Hank was forced to turn the boat and head for lower Manhattan.  The Gipsy kept firing, waking the waterfront.  Lights snapped on along the shore.  Our heavy haul was taking its toll.  The police boat was gaining.  

            “Quick!” yelled Rodman, the roar of the engines and the wake of the water making it difficult to hear.  “Throw some of the wooden crates into their path.” 

            I leapt to the hold and in my fear didn’t even notice their weight, as I tossed overboard at least a dozen cases of booze, which were tossing about on the waves.

            With her cannons and machine guns blazing wildly, the Gipsy ran into several cases, causing a terrific crash and leaving behind a sinking mass of splinters and broken glass.

            “More!” hollered Rodman.  So I just kept heaving.  Wards Island appeared up ahead.  Hank tried again to force the police boat to go one way while he went the other.  But the Gipsy stayed right on our tail, as we raced past lower Manhattan and under a number of bridges.  Desperate to shake our pursuers, Rodman attempted one more trick.  At Governors Island, he turned west and made a series of large S curves, enabling the Coast Guard to drive straight ahead and shorten the distance between them and us.  Rodman, familiar with the shoals in these waters, cut around some underwater rocks close to shore.  The Coast Guard, in their attempt to overtake us, failed to swing wide.  What happened next was just downright scary.  Their boat hit the submerged rocks at high speed, shot out of the water like a flying fish, fell on one side, and skidded along the sand until one great rock ripped through the hull, exposing her ribs.  The engine, its pipes bent and wrapped in every direction, looked like a piece of modern sculpture.  One man flew through the air like a doll, rolling over and over among the rocks and the sand.  Another lay motionless.  According to the next day’s papers, he had suffered a mild concussion.  Two others staggered to their feet and swore at us.  Rodman, having cut his engines to assess the mayhem, sailed close to shore.  While he peered from the cabin I stood on deck.  Mistake!  The men on the shore saw me clearly.  A great roar suddenly drowned out their curses.  Steam shot high in the air.  The waves created by the impact had swept over the Gipsy‘s red-hot mangled engines, causing a blast that dismembered what remained of the boat.

            It was time for a powder.  Rodman bore down on the throttle and continued along the east side of the island, shooting through The Narrows and Lower New York Bay, aiming for Coney Island—in particular, for the area around the West 17th Street Bridge and the Brooklyn Boro Gas Company, the best place he said to land the “merchandise.”  Docking at Sea Gate, at the west end of the beach, we were so close to the elegant Atlantic Yacht Club, we could hear the small talk taking place on the terrace. 

            “You stay with the boat,” Rodman said, leaping onto the pier.  “We need a place to stash all the booze.  This is Frankie Yale territory.  He’s a big operator and a friend.”  As Rodman

disappeared into the darkness, my overactive imagination was already envisioning the scene I feared would take place if the Coast Guard spotted the boat before morning. 

            “Me, sir?  I was just taking a late night walk on the beach and came upon this deserted craft.  The owner?  I was just wondering that myself.” 

            During the chase, the Gipsy had no doubt wired a description of the Daedalus to all the feds on land as well as sea.  The New York waterways would be swarming with patrol boats by sunrise.  My reveries were interrupted just before daybreak, when two large trucks rolled up to the dock.  Rodman and three young men, all wearing double-breasted suits and loud ties, dashed for the Daedalus and started transferring the cases from the hold to the trucks.  At first, I failed to recognize one of the young men, Salvatore Zucania.

            “I missed ya, cutie,” he said.

            “I’m not your cutie,” I snapped.

            Balancing a case on each shoulder, he said, “Give me a break.  I’ll make life good for ya.”

            But I turned my back.  Apparently Zucania rented himself out to a number of hoods, and went wherever the pickings were good.  By the time the sun rose, inflaming the ocean and warming the surf, the two trucks had left and Rodman had put the Daedalus into dry dock at a small shipyard on the banks of Coney Island Creek, where he told them to repaint the boat and rename her Henrietta.

            “You never whined once,” remarked Rodman, a comment which I prize above all others to this day.

******

            “Mio amico,” Yale cried.  “Good always to see ya.”  Looking over Hank’s shoulder at me, he asked, “Who’s the chick?”  Before Rodman could extricate himself from the hug to explain, Yale’s face took on the expression of someone in pain.  “You ain’t thrown over that gorgeous doll for this one, have you?”

            Even though my looks couldn’t come close to Lily’s, I wasn’t that bad!   

            “She works for A.R.  Top drawer.  Lily loves her.”

            “Sit down, Mamma will make ya a big breakfast.”

            The Mamma he referred to was Mrs. Maria Yale, a short, dumpy, good-natured woman, proud of her Italian roots and better-spoken in the old language than in the new. 

            “I makea you uova, prosciutto, frittelle . . . whatever you else want.”

            What I wanted was a place to sleep, bathe, and call my mother.  But the offer of a real breakfast was too good to resist.  As we hungrily ate, Hank asked Frankie where the goods had been stored. 

            “Not on the premises, I hope,” said Rodman. 

            “You won’t believe this.  South of here . . . in the Fun House.  I own some concessions.”

            Rodman blinked and nearly choked on his coffee.  “In the Fun House?” 

            “The safest place in Coney, ’cause no one knows what’s for real.”

            “Sounds like life,” replied Rodman.

            After a good night’s sleep at the Yale house, shortly before noon, I called my mother to tell her that I was home from my trip and having a good time in Coney Island.

            “Cruises . . . amusement parks . . . such a good life you lead.  From where comes the money?”

            I ducked that question to inquire about her health and about Mr. Schneiderman and Jimmy-Jimmy.  Everyone, she told me, was fine. 

            “And Carmel?”

            “So how should Carmel be?” she said, meaning all was well. 

            I concluded our conversation by promising to visit just as soon as I could and by asking about Ben. 

            “He misses you.”

            “Send him my love.”

            “Send him yourself.”

            I bathed, dressed, and knocked on Rodman’s door.  No reply.  So I went downstairs, where I found him on the phone, talking to Lily.  I gathered from what I heard that she would drive to Coney Island and collect him.  He then called A.R., who reminded Hank that numerous nightclubs were anxious to purchase his booze. 

            When Lily arrived, I greeted her warmly.  I knew better than to ask for a ride back to the city, knowing that Hank and Lily wanted to be alone.  So I insisted that I wanted to enjoy a day at Coney Island, and I would take the train back to Manhattan.  As they drove off, I ran out in the street and waved.  Unexpectedly, Sal appeared.  Putting a hand on my shoulder, he invited me to see all the sights.

            Against my better judgment, I joined him for a jaunt south of Surf.  Although I’d never been to Coney before, I’d heard all about it:  the hot dogs bathed in mustard, the peanuts roasted in a contraption that whistled, the bricks of rock-solid popcorn, the shooting galleries with their leaping tin rabbits, as well as their German submarines and torpedo boats.  Sal and I rode the Ferris wheel and the roller coaster, the first ever built in America.  At the Roulette Wheel, which is not a gaming table but a ride, the attendant offered us overalls.

            “How come?” I asked.

            “So ya won’t dirty yur clothes when ya tumble.”

            I declined the offer and sat on the edge of the wheel.  Most people sat at the center.  I soon figured out why.  As it picked up speed, moving faster and faster, those of us on the perimeter were sent sprawling into a dusty saucer, while those at the center, where the centrifugal force was the least, were able to hold their positions.  Dizzily, Sal and I staggered away toward the weight-guessers and fortune tellers, passing the skeeballers, dart throwers, and ring tossers, all trying to win candy and kewpie dolls.  Stopping at the penny arcades, we watched the kids jostling to see the skimpily clad ladies and suggestive action in such peep shows as “Queen of the Harem,” “After the Bath,” “Bare in the Bear Skin,” and “Puss in the Corner.”

            Thousands of automobiles moved slowly up and down the street, continuously blowing their horns, for no other reason, said Sal, than that this was Coney Island.  With dance halls blaring jazz music, and a brass band wheezing over and over some saccharine tune, and barkers repeatedly shouting their unoriginal “come ons,” Coney was deafening.  Overhead, ranged a forest of looped wires holding little yellow electric lamps. 

            “At night,” observed Sal, “it’s real nice with duh purple sky and duh yellow lights.”

            Sal steered me to the top of the Slide, where we waited our turn.  In front of us stood mostly young kids already screeching in delicious anticipation of the speedy descent.  The Slide, a highly polished, undulating toboggan of hard wood, on which the sliders sat or lay, plunged into a huge wooden bowl, cushioned by an air mattress at the foot of the shoot.

            When our turn arrived, Sal took my hand and together we went over the top.  Halfway down, I saw on the walkway two of the men involved in the crash of the Gipsy.  They were in the company of four smartly dressed gents whom I took to be feds.

            “Cops!” I screamed into Sal’s ear, pointing them out.  The cops had also seen me.

            “There’s the girl!” yelled one of the survivors.

            As soon as we hit bottom, Sal grabbed me by the arm and we started running. 

            “Where to?” I cried.

            “Duh Fun House.  Frankie’s got it rigged up wid places to hide.”

            Racing past the ticket-taker, who never batted an eye, we took off through the Hall of Mirrors.  For some crazy reason, a question flashed through my mind:  How can you ever see things clearly when your head, like those in the mirrors, is always obstructing the view?

            Sal led me into the dark depths of the Fun House.  It was like crossing a river into the bowels of the earth.  Behind the mirrors and the revolving barrels and upending floors stood the guy wires and supports and electrical circuits that controlled all the fun.  It was musty and gloomy.  I could hear breathing, mine and Sal’s.  He led me to a peephole that looked into a dimly lit room of silver cobwebs and ghosts, reinforced by a recording of shrieks. Then policemen entered the room, peering into the paleness.  At that moment, Sal grabbed me from behind and forced me down on the ground, where he took me, not because I said yes but because I couldn’t cry no.

                                                                        ******

            When I swore I’d report him, he said the cops would like nothing better.  So I vowed to tell Rodman.  But he said he’d deny it.  Powerless, I called heaven as my witness I’d have someone shoot off his balls.  He said he’d inform my family and friends about my gangster connections; and what would they think?  While he was there, I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry.  But as soon as he left, I went to pieces, uncontrollably shaking and weeping.  Stumbling around in the dark, I found an exit and ran into the street.  A car stopped.

            “I’ve been raped!” I cried hysterically.

            “Aw, who’d want to rape you?” the man said, and drove off.

            A second car stopped, with a man and a woman.  They drove me to Frankie Yale’s house to grab my belongings, and then dropped me off at the train.  I mounted the concrete stairway to track D.  The sun was just setting.  When the BMT arrived, I jammed my way in with a thousand others so closely-packed my feet hardly touched the floor.  I could make out between bodies our city-bound express taking curves and switches without even pausing.  Presently the train slackened its speed and moved up a long slope out of a tunnel.  Pushing past a fat, sweating man holding a baby, I reached a window.  Far across the river, shrouded in violet haze, lay the city, against a sky of silver and purple and pearl.  Row on row the lighted windows ascended, some in flat cliffs resembling coffins, some in sleek towers.  Which, I asked myself, would best comfort me?

            All I could think of was how to undo what had happened, how to become unraped.  My first reaction had not been of fear but of filth.  As a way of cleansing that memory, I tried to figure out what had led him to do it.  Was it the clothing I wore?  Was it my walk?  Was it something I said?  Going over in my mind how I might have handled the day differently, I ended up feeling that the rape was my fault because I’d done something “dumb.”  But what that something was I didn’t know.

            “K’nalstee,” said the guard, and two hundred coneys in the    image of God shoved and panted their way past me out of the suffocating car and into the airless station.  I left the train convinced that my revenge would be my resurrection.

 

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