EASY ESSAYS
EASY ESSAYS
Syndic Literary Journal

AA – The Adventures of Henrietta Fine – Chapter Seven

The Adventures of Henrietta Fine

Chapter Seven

 

By Paul Levitt

Narrated by Elizabeth Mansfield

Published by LeRoy Chatfield

            When I called A.R. to give him my answer, he told me not to worry about digs but to take a cab from the station directly to his house at 355 West 84th, north side of the street, and three doors east of Riverside Drive.  I was to stay with him and his wife, Carolyn, who met me at the curb and insisted on paying the taxi.  She’d once been a showgirl and it showed:  gray-blue eyes, reddish-brown hair, dimpled cheeks, small mouth, close-set teeth, and instead of the usual chorus girl button nose, a real one, which slightly flared at the nostrils.  Stylishly, she hid her forehead with a scarf tied to one side.  She was slim and buxom, spoke politely, and moved gracefully.  As I learned later, her mother was Irish Catholic, her father, Jewish.  Having imbibed her mother’s faith and her father’s fidelity, she never divorced A.R. even though she knew he had numerous girlfriends.

            An attractive white stone, bow-fronted house, with a columned front porch, the Rothstein’s place, unlike Rodman’s, was tasteful not tawdry.  The interior, however, surprised me.  Expecting spacious rooms, I found instead miniature ones, almost all of them covered in priceless Oriental rugs and hung with Whistler etchings.  On the ground floor was the kitchen, which I soon discovered almost always smelled of fresh-baked cookies.  Four steps up, on the first floor, you reached the butler’s pantry, as well as the dining room and living room, the walls covered with beautiful oil paintings and watercolors.  On the second floor were Carolyn’s bedroom and bath, and also a drawing room, where she kept her cosmetics and a large collection of women’s novels.  The third floor belonged to A.R.  He slept, bathed, and dressed there, as well as conducted business from an adjoining study, his “den,” which conspicuously displayed a prized box of autographed baseballs sent to him from Babe Ruth.  A.R. and Carolyn kept separate quarters because of his nocturnal habits.  He returned from his Broadway haunts at three or four in the morning and awoke mid-afternoon.  His bedroom windows, which looked out upon an extension of the adjoining house, were protected with iron bars—he took no chances—and covered with dark screens when he slept.  The fourth floor, where I stayed, had a guest bedroom and W.C., and a balcony that looked out on the street.  In the bright early mornings, I often stood there watching the horse deliveries below and the taxis flying by on Riverside Drive.

            The first chance I had, I stopped in to see Mr. Courtney, who told me about all the safecracking jobs going on around town.  He said that the yeggs no longer drilled the locks.  Instead, they used nitro to blow the steel plates apart, even though valuables were often lost in the blast.  I also learned that trucks hauling booze were being hijacked and the stolen goods stored mostly on the Upper West Side.  Mr. Courtney had been approached more than once about picking a few locks on some unmarked warehouse doors.        

            So had Harry Houdini, whom I met at his brownstone in Harlem.  I took the train to 110th and walked a few blocks east, past the church of St. John the Divine, to West 113th, number 278, where Harry and Bess had a house stuffed full of books.  On the walls were framed letters of famous people, and theater bills featuring many of the great vaudevillians, like Eva Tanguay, Sarah Bernhardt, and Marie Lloyd, and photographs of Tony Pastor, Eddie Cantor, and David Belasco.  A sepia print of Abraham Lincoln, the man Houdini admired most in the world, hung over the fireplace.  Giving Bess a buss on the cheek, Harry took my arm and we headed for Central Park, just a few blocks away, where we walked for at least two or three hours, while I told him about all my adventures. 

            “Keep away from that Rothstein character.  He’s a goniff.”

            I didn’t have the heart to tell Harry that A.R. was putting me up.  So when Harry asked me where I could be reached, I told him that I was in the city just for the day and planned on returning to Carmel that evening.  

            “I’ll be staying with my mother till fall.”

A.R. was reclining in a leather chair, his feet resting on a hassock and his eyes closed.  Hearing me enter the room, he said from this position:

            “Ask me a question, any question about numbers.  Sixty-seven times eight times four subtract twelve, for example.  I’ll give you the answer in a sec.  Two-thousand, one-hundred and thirty-two.  It’s a game I play in my head all the time.  Go ahead, test me.”

            I had heard Legs say that A.R. was a human adding machine. 

            “All right.  What’s three forty nine divided by seventeen multiplied by seventy-one?”

            “Easy.  One-thousand, four-hundred and fifty-seven, with a fraction left over.”

            “Yeah, but how do I know you’re right?  My own arithmetic

stinks.”

            “Here, I’ll show you.”  He took a gold-tipped fountain pen from his shirt pocket, unscrewed the top, and scribbled the numbers on the brown paper bag holding the figs.  “See.  The same as I said!”

            “How about this one,” I asked, falling in with the game and trying to stump him.  “Nine-eight-one-two times four-nineteen times eighty-eight divided by forty-seven?”

            He swiveled his jaw a few times, as if savoring the numbers before spitting them out.  “Seven-six-nine-seven-six-one-eight-point four,” A.R. answered.

            “What’s six and a half percent of that number?” I parried.

            “Five-zero-zero-three-four-five-point two.” 

            “You’re tops.  I never saw your like before.  My arithmetic teacher would envy you.”

A.R. said that in the future he’d like to take up banking.

            “As a kid, I used to go to the bank with my father.  One day, while we’re standing in line waiting for some guy in front of us to make his case for a loan, the bank president tells the guy he’s a bad risk, he’ll have to go next door.  As soon as my father gets his loan—and why shouldn’t he, everyone called him Abe the Just?—he asks is there a bank next door, ’cause he’s never seen one.  The president says it’s just a little hole in the wall, where a fellow with a card table, two chairs, and lots of ready dough makes loans to bad risks—at sky-high rates.  That’s when I got the idea.”

            A.R. spoke of his bankroll as if it were a person, one day troublesome and dangerous, the next, happy and peaceful.  He saw it dancing up the steps of a rising value or tumbling down at breakneck speed; he saw it assisting one person and obstructing another, or giving people lessons in industry and temperance.  Only the clever and capable could hope to do business with such a person.  There was money for the asking, but it all depended on who asked, and how.

            One of the phones rang.  A.R. had several.  He answered it.  I heard him angrily say, “That’s the last time!  Yeah.  Find out which warehouse.  I got a kid who can pick locks.  We’ll drive off with the whole stash, ours and theirs.”

            Hanging up the phone, he pointed to the sofa and nodded for me to join him.  Carolyn, who had been in the kitchen cooking, came to the door to announce that dinner was ready.  A.R. apologized and said that he was needed elsewhere, because of the message he’d just received, but that I could join her.  She graciously smiled and retreated.  A.R. said it was time to put me in the know.

            “My last shipment of Scotch from Jamaica was hijacked as the boys trucked it in from Montauk Point.  Legs says that by morning he’ll know where it’s being warehoused.  I want you to spring the locks so the boys can roll up a truck and clean out the joint.”

            “What if the place is guarded?”

            “These two-bit hoods think they’re smart by storing the stuff in unguarded warehouses, so as not to attract attention.  If an earthquake shook the Upper West Side, the gurgle of giggle water would be so loud it’d drown out the horns in Harlem.  I’ll pay you a grand for each lock you crack.  In a month, you’ll be richer than the president—and can start paying your debts.”

            “I’m not in that business.”

            “You kidding?”

            “Only once I opened a lock when I shouldn’t have.”

            “You’ve done worse than that!  You’ve handled hot ice . . . been the go-between.  One telephone call and you’d be seeing the world through prison bars . . . or worse.”

            Boy, how I wished I could return to Littleton Avenue and lose myself in the attic.  

            “For Chrissake, you’ll be the richest kid in America!”  A.R. loosened his tie, something he rarely did.  “We had an understanding.  The farm, your Mom, your legal expenses.  It all cost me a pretty penny.  I get ninety percent on my investments.  That’s what Arnold Rothstein gets—even from the toughest guys in New York.”

            As his eyelids drooped and his lips parted, revealing the alabaster false uppers his dentist installed, fear seized me.

            “I’ll help you get your own liquor back . . . which seems only fair.  And maybe I’ll do a few other jobs, just to pay off my debts and get a leg up.  But more than that would be wrong.”

            “Anyone who can cut the prosciutto as finely as you, Henny, oughta go to college and study philosophy.  I never saw a kid so good with the morals and logic.”

            I couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic.  But I knew this much:  I was getting in deeper and deeper. 

            “Come on, go and have dinner with Carolyn.  When I’m out, she eats alone.  In the kitchen, A.R. took two bottles of milk from the Frigidaire, and a batch of chocolate cookies from a hatch next to the stove.

            He smiled at Carolyn and me and said, “Milk’s good for the digestion,” and opened a cabinet and removed a box of bicarbonate of soda.  A few grepses later, A.R. left, but not before whispering a reminder that as soon as Legs located the booze, he wanted the lock picked, not pried.  “It’ll make ’em wonder,” he said.            

            After dinner, Carolyn and I cleaned up.  She had a similar effect on me as Lily.  Here was someone I wanted to model myself after.  Though not as beautiful or brainy as Lily, she was clearly indifferent to social standing and steadfastly supported A.R.  From Legs and others I knew that A.R. had girlfriends, but whereas Lily wanted to kill Gertie Densmore, Carolyn felt sorry for A.R.’s ladies.  After all the dishes were put away and the pots scoured, I could see that Carolyn wanted to talk.  She filled the coffeepot and put it on the stove.  The pilot light wasn’t working, so she struck a match on the burner and lit the hissing row, till all the holes popped up blue.          

            “A scorcher today,” said Carolyn.  “I was afraid it would never cool off.  How Arnold can wear a suit on a day like today is beyond me.”

            “He’s the best-dressed man I’ve ever known.”

            “He takes such pride in his clothes.  It’s been that way ever since he left home.  He wants his father to notice he’s become a success.”

            “Are you hurt that his father has never accepted your marriage?”

            “He told you?”

            “I heard it from Legs.”

            “That man is evil.  Don’t trust him.”

            “Then it isn’t true?”

            “Oh, it’s true all right, even if the story does come from Legs.”  She paused, remembering.  “I was nineteen, Arnold twenty-five.  We were married in Saratoga, August 12, 1909.  Took the “Cavanagh Special” from Grand Central and stayed at the Grand Union Hotel.  Such service!  I loved the baths and the tennis courts.  They even had a theater.  In the evenings, Arnold and I would walk, enjoying the cool nights and fresh breezes.  During the day, we’d go to the casino and racetrack.”

            She poured two cups of coffee and lit a cigarette.  I noticed the brand, Sweet Caporals.  “Like one?” she asked. 

            “Never touch them, but thanks anyway.”

            “Arnold hates it when I smoke.  So I wait till he’s out of the house.”

            Taking a few sips of coffee and several drags on her cigarette, she continued:

            “No one from Arnold’s family attended the wedding.  Our best man was Herbert Bayard Swope . . . you know, from the newspapers.  Margaret Powell, who married Herb a short time later, was maid of honor.  When Abraham Rothstein heard we were married, he performed the Orthodox Jewish ritual for mourning.  He tore his clothes, removed his shoes, and covered the mirrors.  He even put on his prayer shawl and recited the Kaddish for the death of his son.  Arnold’s brother Edgar told him about it.

            “Now I live here in this glass case and rarely go out, unless it’s with girlfriends.  Arnold’s in love with the boulevard.  When he isn’t doing business on the corner of Broadway and 49th, or lending money in doorways, he’s finagling at Lindy’s, Reuben’s, or Jack’s.  That’s of course when he’s not wooing some beauty.  Before I met Arnold, I acted in The Chorus Lady, with Rose Stahl in the lead.  We played in New York for eight months and then toured, playing a long series of one-night stands.  My most vivid memory is hurtling through the night on a train in Kansas and looking out at the little country houses, with their kerosene lamps burning so cozy behind curtained windows, and thinking how I’d like to be sitting behind those curtains talking to my husband in the soft glow of a lamp.  To this day I think of the safety and peace I felt from the flashing glimpses of those quiet homes.

            “Arnold and I were married only a few months, when I told him about the incident and asked if we couldn’t move to the country.  He said that all he wanted to do was make fifty thousand dollars; then we could leave.  But when he reached fifty thousand, he upped the figure to one hundred thousand.  Then it was two, three, and finally a million.  I knew, of course, that not even a million would matter.  He couldn’t stop.  It’s not love of money that drives him, but love of playing the percentages.  He takes pride in out-thinking the next guy, in being a big shot.”

            Tears clouded her eyes, which she rubbed away with her knuckles.  “I still love him.  I can’t help myself.  But I’m glad you’re here.  Maybe we can go to the theater together.”  Smiling, she told me that A.R. had turned down a chance to invest in Abie’s Irish Rose.”

            I had read about the play.  It had opened to scathing reviews and was on the verge of closing when an unnamed investor put up the money to keep the doors open for an extra few weeks.  Suddenly the play caught fire and the author, Anne Nichols, was a huge success, raking in customers and cash.  According to Carolyn, Miss Nichols had offered A.R. a half interest in the play, which he refused.  Boy, was he wrong.

            It was now past midnight, so I excused myself and climbed the stairs to the fourth floor, admiring the unusual patterns in the rugs, which A.R. had proudly told me to notice, explaining that the rugs were knotted, not woven, and that they were one of a kind.  While undressing, I noticed in the single bookcase a slim volume of proverbs.  Immediately, I found myself relating the proverbs to my own life.

  1. “Better a bad peace than a good war.” Given the bad blood between Masseria and A.R., I needed to locate the diamond.            2.  “The biggest ball of twine unwinds.”  Whoever had taken the diamond would eventually tip his hand.  Maybe.
  2. “Death keeps no calendar.”  I just wanted to live to be thirty, which seemed to me like old age.
  3. “He that hath children in the crib had best be at peace with the world.”  I couldn’t help but speculate whether this proverb explained the Rothsteins’ childless home.
  4. “No choice is a choice.”  Boy, did that ever size up my situation.  Find the diamond or else!
  5. “In the mirror everyone sees his best friend.”  Maybe Rodman had doubts, but I felt sure that Lily had none.
  6. “Beware of your friends not your enemies.”  When it came right down to it, I trusted only Mom.  Pop was dead.
  7. “Surmise is self-deception.”  But what else did I have to go on?  I had to count on hunches.
  8.   “Talk too much and you talk about yourself.”  Those words were burned into A.R.’s brain.  Talk about secrecy!
  9. “If you behave like someone else, who’s to behave like you?”  I wanted to be like Lily:  dress like her, talk like her, look like her.  What harm could there be in that?

            Closing the book and turning off the light, I lay in bed asking myself, how do you ever know for sure that what you’re doing is right?  Take A.R., for example.  He lent money to mugs and violated the Constitution by bringing booze into the country.  But banking the crooks reduced their need to break into banks; and bootlegging quenched the thirst of Americans who hated Prohibition and loved liquor.  So would the world have been better off without him?  I’m sure a lot of people, without so much as a pause, would have said “yes”; but they saw the world as black and white.  My problem was that I saw it in shades.

            For the next few days I lived in a whirlwind:  matinee theater performances, movies, and restaurants, the warehouse break-in, and Rodman’s trial.  But first things first.  Carolyn and I attended a matinee of Abie’s Irish Rose.  The Fulton Theater was packed and Alfred Wiseman terrif in the role of Abie’s father.  After the performance, I asked Carolyn if she wanted to walk to 84th Street. 

            “Arnold hates walking,” she said, “let’s do.” 

            Strolling up Broadway, we chatted about the play.  I couldn’t help but compare Abie and Rose to A.R. and Carolyn.  Both had made mixed marriages.  In both, the man came from a Jewish home, the woman from an Irish.  Although in the play both fathers wanted their kids to marry their own, the Jewish father was the real screwball when it came to interfaith marriages.  He sounded just like A.R.’s old man. 

            “If you had kids,” I asked, “do you think A.R. and his dad might have kissed and made up?”

            “Life isn’t like a play,” Carolyn replied, an expression of sadness lining her face.  “Besides, Arnold didn’t want any.”

            “And you?”

            “Very much.”

            “Maybe someday . . .” I said stupidly.

            Taking my hand, she gave it an affectionate squeeze.  We said nothing for a long time, and then talked about shoes and chemises till we returned to the house.  I felt bad for Carolyn—and for opening my big mouth.

            As she unlocked the front door, the phone, which never stopped ringing in the Rothstein house, was at it again.  I heard her say, “Right-O, Bill, I’ll do what I can,” and hung up.

            “By any chance do you know where I can reach Arnold?  It’s Bill Fallon.  He wants to find Rodman and thinks Arnold might know.  He says it’s important.”

            “As a matter of fact, I have Rodman’s card.”  Emptying my pocket book, I found it amongst all the junk.  “Three-two-five West End Avenue, northwest corner of 75th Street.  That’s just a few blocks away.” 

            “Bill says he rang the apartment, but no one answered.”

            “He might be occupied.”

            “What do you mean?”

“Never mind.  I’ll dash by and see if he’s there.”

            “When you get back,” said Carolyn, “we’ll have a nice meatloaf.”

            Before leaving the house, I stopped at my room and took Sully’s tension wrench and pick.  In my imagination, I could see Hank and Lily lazing about, and before I could reach them, someone breaking into the apartment and shooting them both.  Given Rodman’s business, he could have been plugged or knifed any time.  Images from the Saturday movie serials ran through my mind.  I would arrive just in time to save them from death.

            While hurrying from A.R.’s to Hank’s, I had the eerie feeling I was being followed.  A black Buick slowly made its way down West End Avenue, never getting ahead of me till I darted into Rodman’s building and seemed to lose my tail, as it moved out of sight.  A doorman asked me my business and I flashed Rodman’s card.  He gave me a smile and stepped aside.  The central hallway, decked out with two swanky red couches, end tables, and Chinese ceramic lamps, was lit by a three-tiered chandelier.  Polished marble steps, looking like tombstones, swept upstairs.  Ignoring the elevator, I climbed two steps at a time till I reached the third floor.  Number 325, at the end of the hall, had a brass number plate on the mahogany door and a small door knocker in the shape of a porpoise.  I rapped a few times but no one responded.  The quiet in the hall reminded me of the undertaker’s showroom, when Mom and I picked out a casket for Pop.  It gave me the creeps.

            If I got caught picking the lock, I knew Rodman would come to my aid; and if I didn’t get caught and found him inside needing help, I would be a lifesaver.  So I tackled the lock, taking about ten minutes to line up the tumblers.  Opening and closing the door with a feathery touch, I tiptoed through the love nest.  My imagination had led me astray.  No one was home.  Like his Long Island estate, the apartment had swank written throughout.  Lightoliers with shirred green silk shades and deep fringe hung in both bedrooms, decorated in golden oak, with a colonial look.  In the larger room, a canopied bed, with wooden pulleys to close off the curtains, shone under a coverlet of red, blue, yellow, and green crewels depicting a pastoral scene.  A closet held Rodman’s clothes and a wardrobe Lily’s.  I recognized one of her dresses, a pink and white print.  The other bedroom, I assumed, doubled as an office, because it had a desk and wooden filing cabinets.  A long overstuffed couch faced two large wing chairs, each with its own floor lamp.  I tried the couch and wondered how often Hank and Lily had enjoyed the spring cushions.        

            Fancying myself a beauty, I pretended I had all the goods.  But when I looked in the mirror, I came to my senses. Telephoning Carolyn, I told her to forget about dinner.  I wanted to wait a while in hopes of Rodman’s return.  She thanked me and suggested that if Rodman failed to show, I might try Barney Gallant’s nightclub in Washington Square. 

            “Barney’s number is unlisted.  Arnold has it.  Take a taxi.  I’ll pay.”

            As I hung up, it crossed my mind that A.R. had the money, Carolyn the generosity.

            In the bedroom-office, I picked through the drawers, where I uncovered a packet of letters sent from Lily to Hank when he was stationed in France during the war.  The ones I read—and there must have been more than a hundred—were pretty hot stuff, but also heartfelt.  And here I wish to make a confession.  I stole two of the letters, which I own to this day, because I found them so moving. Given how things turned out, I can’t say I am sorry.  Haunting memories induced me now to reread them again.

            ‘My dearest Hank, I live from one letter to the next.  When the mails are delayed I imagine the worst.  Will this terrible war never end?  I read about the trenches and tanks and the gas attacks and the endless amputations.  If you were to return without an arm or a leg, how could I stand it?  Not for my sake but for yours.  I know you write every day but your letters sometimes fail to arrive for weeks.  And when they do come, they show up in bunches, and never in the order you wrote them.  I have saved every one.

            You know, time has no meaning for me now; it’s merely an enormous expanse stretching out endlessly.  The days are physical obstacles, obstacles to being with you.  It’s very strange to live, as I do, so intensely in imagination and memory.  I have developed the ability to withdraw at will into daydreams of you.  Often I wake up at dinner to find that I’ve missed everything mother and father have said.  It’s wrong of me, I know, but life when I’m not daydreaming is so painful that the dreams—painful as they are—are my private relief.

            The worst days of all are those when I imagine that you’ve found someone else.  Perhaps a shapely Parisian.  Such fears leave me feeling helpless and imprisoned.  I ask myself:  Without Hank how would I live; what would it mean for our romance to end?  For me it would not be an end to the longing, which is constant; or the loneliness, which is terrible; or the memories, which are beautiful and unendurable—unendurable because they are so beautiful.  The end would mean simply an end to anticipation and hope.  And that is the cruelest feeling I can imagine.  So I go on longing, and remembering, and dreaming dreams in which you tell me that I alone live in your heart.

            Mother has begun to grow impatient with my moods and keeps asking why I don’t join my friends at the dances and dinners.  I did once.  But a hulking halfback from Chicago kept cornering me and pushing his chest against mine while telling me about his college fraternity and his polo ponies.  He was awful.  Mother knows his family.  She keeps saying he’d make a good catch.  The first time she said it, I went to my room and cried for an hour.

            You must hurry home.  I can’t stand the waiting.  As it is, I have to bite my tongue not to offend some of the dim bulbs who come calling.  With you it’s so easy.  I don’t have to rearrange my mind.  You make me glad to be what I am.  (Whatever that is!)  Just this morning mother said you were handsome.  She also said you were poor.  When I told her that you planned to buy a yacht and take people on cruises, she asked if you were really in France or part of Rum Row.  I’m afraid she believes only in old money and has no confidence in our being happy unless we are rich.  In all honesty, I would hate to be poor.  But who wouldn’t say the same thing? 

            Reading what I have written so far, I worry that I’m making you sad.  So I’ll try to cheer you up.  There’s a journalist you must read.  His name’s Damon Runyon.  Whenever you do your gangster imitations, you sound just like him.  Or rather he sounds just like you.  Anyway, I know you’ll like what he writes.  He’s awfully amusing.  This comes from him.  “Of all the scores made by dolls on Broadway the past twenty-five years, there is no doubt but what the very largest score is made by a doll who is called Maisy Lexington, when she ties the noose with a Chi-town playboy by the name of Theodore Balderuff, for the size of Maisy’s score is three million and a lifetime of heartburn.”

            I promised mother I’d join her at mah-jongg, so I really must run.  I’ll write again tomorrow—and tell you if mother played her tiles well enough to win even a dollar from dear Mrs. Mann.

            I am kissing this letter with my new “Hot Scalding” lipstick, a deep red I just bought.  If you put your lips on mine, I hope you can feel the current that runs through my body when I’m thinking of you, which is always.

                                                                                    Lovingly, Lily.

            The second letter I had found near the bottom of the packet and reread that one too. 

Dear Hank,

            When I tell you that unless you return immediately we have no future, I’m hurting myself infinitely more than I’m hurting you.  You’re stronger than I am; you can get along without me.  But I am lost without you, and I know it.  That is why I am so frightened.  I am being pointed toward a marriage that I know I’ll regret.  Unless there is a miracle, and I have never known one, mother and father will insist I marry Brad Gillespie, the fellow I told you about.  They will say that by having entertained him and accepted his gifts, we have led him to believe that his feelings for me are returned.

            But the more often Brad courts me, the more often I suffer your absence.  I do not seem to improve.  No project is so absorbing that some part of my mind is not occupied with memories of you.  Your ghost is everywhere, reminding me what fun there used to be in a day.  I long for your touch so intensely that I begin to think of my longing as a punishment for my having loved you.  And nothing is so frightening to me as that all this should be true, at the very time I am pressed to marry another.  How could I reconcile my passion for you were I to say yes to Brad?  How could I go on month to month married to him, all the time yearning for you?  Who is to pity us?

            I have never known it was possible to be so frustrated.  All the emotional possibilities you taught me are now a torture.  But not for one moment do I regret what we shared or my decision to give myself to you.  My only choice was to affirm life or deny it.  To have an affair was to celebrate the changes that had taken place in my life.  To keep my distance was to mourn those changes.  I “chose” to celebrate. 

            Don’t misunderstand me.  I am not trying to convince myself that our affair was wrong and letting Brad court me is right.  But without any guarantee that you’ll return, and that you’ll have the means to support us, I am asking myself if wanting the ideal isn’t self-defeating.  I don’t know how else to say it, but if you don’t return soon I fear I will have no choice but to marry Brad.  His attentions and certainty are pushing me to it.  He knows that he wants me; and I am here and you are there.  So he has the advantage.  Please, please, please, hurry home. 

            If I should prove frail, you have my permission to hate me, but not to forget the great and gentle love I bear you. 

                                                                                                Desperately yours, Lily.

   

                      *****                                             

            By eight o’clock Rodman had not returned.  The phone had rung twice.  The first time a voice said, “Hank, it’s Montauk at two on Monday,” without waiting for an answer.  The second time a caller said, “Hello?”  When I answered “yes,” the person hung up.

            Grabbing a cab on West End Avenue, I told the cabby, “Washington Square, Barney Gallant’s place.” 

            “You ain’t old enough—or rich enough,” replied the cabby.            “We’ll see.”

            At Barney’s, a doorman looked at my casual clothes, sniffed, and asked if I had reserved a table in advance.  I handed him Rodman’s card and told him to show it to Barney Gallant.  He disappeared briefly, returning with a smile.

            “Right this way,” he said.  “Mr. Rodman hasn’t arrived yet, but his table is being held for him.”

            He turned me over to an unctuous waiter who led me to a linen-covered table, with fine silver, set for two.

            “Mr. Rodman,” he explained, “neglected to say a third party was joining him.”

            “I’m his sister . . . from out of town.  It’s a surprise.” 

            “No trouble at all . . . none whatsoever,” he said, preparing a setting for me and moving away.

            The Club Gallant, situated on the south side of Washington Square, number forty, occupied the lower floor of the building and was decorated with panels bearing the likeness of noted socialites and actors.  The joint reeked of wealth.  Although the Village housed mostly artists and bums—some people said they were one and the same—Barney’s place attracted people dressed to the nines.  Tall silk hats and coattails crowded the opera-style boxes, which replaced the usual tables and looked onto the stage.  Eyeing the crowd, I saw Masseria and Zucania walk in, so I slid down in my chair.  But they spotted me and came to my table.

            “Hurt your back?” said Masseria.

            They both sat without being asked.

            “No, what gives you that impression?”

            “Duh way you wuz slouching.”

            “Just hitching up my underwear.”

            “I know some dames that don’t wear none.”

            “We’re missin’ a diamond,” said Zucania.  “We wanted to talk to ya about it.  Yur mudder said you returned to duh city.”

            “Diamond?  I turned them all over to you.”

            “One was glass,” said Zucania.

            “How come you come back to New York?” asked Masseria.

            “A.R. offered me a job I couldn’t turn down.”

            Masseria scowled.  “You want to tell us about it?”

            “Contact A.R.  It’s not up to me—”

            “Listen kid,” Masseria angrily interrupted, “it’s up to you to cough up the diamond.  It wuz in your care.  If you don’t, your boyfriend and mother are dead!”

            Zucania apologized.  “I wish I could help but I can’t.”

            “We shoulda hung on to ya when we had you.  Influenza my ass!  You look healthy as a mule.”

            “I recovered.”

            “Well,” said Masseria, getting to his feet, “you’d better recover the ice before we ice your lover boy and Mamma.  And you ain’t got much time.”

            “I’ll pick up yur tab,” said Zucania, replacing his chair.  “Duh evening’s on me.”

            Before leaving, they stopped to talk to the waiter.  I saw Zucania hand him some green. 

            Thanks for the kindness, boys!  For almost two hours I sat trembling, waiting for Rodman.  The skits, which Barney Gallant introduced, diverted me only slightly.

            Seeing Hank and Lily arrive, I waved.  Even across the room I could hear her falsetto laugh and throaty voice, “Well, look who it is!”

            Like two ballet dancers, they tiptoed among the crowded tables and pirouetted up to my chair.

            “What are you doing here?” Lily burbled.

            “Waiting for you.”

            “At Barney’s?”

            “Carolyn Rothstein’s idea.”

            Dressed in evening clothes, they said they’d just been making the rounds:  Park Avenue, Broadway, and now the Village.  Lily removed a black silk cape and Rodman a top hat.  I noticed that his grey spats matched his cane.

            “You look drawn,” said Lily, changing from frivolous to serious, as she often did, in the blink of an eye.

            “Something I ate.  Don’t worry, it’s nothing.” 

            I forced myself to be cheerful and never once let on I was in a terrible pickle.  A.R. would have been proud of my discreetness.  Geez, did I need to talk to him!

            “I can’t tell you how delighted I am to see you,” Lily enthused, as the two of them settled in at the table.  “The last time we saw you was in the country, at that . . . rustic farmhouse.”

            “You were on your way to Cape May.”

            “Quite a trip,” Hank remarked flatly.

            “You must,” Lily gushed, “tell us why you are here.”

            “Bill Fallon is trying to reach Hank.  It’s important.”

            Rodman’s smile immediately fled; furrows creased his forehead.  “Please excuse me.  This may take a few minutes.”  He hastily moved toward the lobby.

            “Such secrets!” exclaimed Lily.  “These men . . . you never know what they’re up to.”

            “When does Hank’s case come to trial?”

            “The end of next week,” answered Lily, the gaiety suddenly gone.  “He’s hoping it won’t take more than a day.”

            “Do you mind if I go with you?”

            “I’d love to have you along.  Someone to talk to.”

            “Tell me about Cape May.”

            Looking downcast, she soberly measured her words.  “I picked the Windsor Hotel for a reason.  It’s where Brad stays with his whore.  He took her there for that weekend.  I knew it but never told Hank.  When we pulled up to the curb, I could see Brad’s gray Avondale touring car parked just across the street.  While Hank unloaded the trunk, I booked the room.”     

            “You could have run into them both.”

            “I was rather hoping I would.  But I didn’t.  That came soon enough.  I asked the desk clerk for their room number.  He said 411.  Even-numbered rooms are on one side of the hall and uneven on the other.  I explained that the couple in 411 were friends of ours, and that we hoped to surprise them.  So it was important the desk clerk not give us away.  When I asked if room 409 or 413 was free, he said the latter.  I signed the guest book “Mr. and Mrs. Hank Rodman.”

            “The Windsor Hotel,” continued Lily, “is a sprawling four-story clapboard affair, furnished in late Victorian.  We stayed on the top floor, and had a lovely view of the ocean.”

            “May I take your drink order?” asked our waiter. 

            Both Rodman and Lily were teetotalers, which Lily said always gave them an advantage at parties, because they knew when to be silent and when to be free, timing their outspokenness so that everyone else was too drunk to notice.   

            Lily replied, “Crushed mint and ice—for two—and . . .”

            “Make mine ginger ale on the rocks,” I quickly added, wanting to hear the rest of the story.

“. . . bring a seltzer bottle as well.”

            “It sounds to me as if you didn’t go to Cape May for the fun.”

            “No, I went to catch that son-of-a-bitch red-handed.”

            “What happened?”

            “Hank complained about the noisy couple next door.  He said the sound reminded him of a butcher slapping a slab of meat on the chopping block.  When I heard her greasy grunts I insisted we change our room.  The desk clerk charged us for both rooms, but Hank didn’t seem to care.  We took one down the hall.  The next morning I rose early.  When Hank asked why the rush, I said that I wanted to spend a long leisurely breakfast in the quaint Victorian dining room, where I sat with my back to the door.  When Brad and Gertie came down for breakfast I could hear her whinnying laugh and Brad’s husky voice.  From across the room I could hear Brad order bacon, eggs, and waffles.  When the waitress brought him his order, he barked that he needed the syrup.  I grabbed the bottle from the sideboard, came up behind him, and poured it over his head.  He howled and wheeled round in his chair.

            ‘Yes?’ I asked calmly.

            ‘Where did you come from!?  I mean how come you’re—I mean—I can explain . . .’

            ‘No need,’ I said, smiling sweetly, and slowly returned to my table. 

            Brad followed me.  His hair matted with syrup.  He pushed his face close to mine and said he wouldn’t be spied on.

            ‘You’re making a scene,’ I replied.

            ‘I’ll get to the bottom of this!’

            ‘You’re already at the bottom.  Just look at yourself and your floozy.  You can’t sink any lower.’

            “Brad glared at me.  He radiated pure venom.  Before he stormed off, I thought he would kill me.  At that moment, I swore to change my life.  I knew I had made a terrible mistake.  Now I intended to correct it.'”

            The waiter brought three glasses, my ginger ale, two crushed mints, and the seltzer.  As I stirred the cubes with my swizzle stick, Lily completed her story.

            “We checked out and took a small room in a private house in Old Cape May, where we spent two glorious days reliving the past.  I never told Hank what had happened.”  She pressed the lever on the seltzer bottle, shot a stream into her glass, and drank it straight off. 

When Rodman returned to the table.  He looked grim.  The juror Fallon had bribed, a Mr. Charles Rendig, had blown the whistle.  But it was Rendig’s word against Fallon’s, since Bill had paid him in cash.  What had looked like a piece of cake was turning into scallions.  Rodman had promised Fallon to meet him early the next day in his office.

            “For now,” Rodman giddily declared, as he siphoned seltzer into his mint, “let’s drink up.  Tomorrow and all the tomorrows will come soon enough.”

            It was unlike Hank to sound fatalistic.  He was usually full of promise and hope.  His romantic readiness to sail in search of a new India seemed suddenly becalmed.  The failed bribe must have spooked him.  We sat there studying our glasses, wanly smiling at each other, when a loud greeting broke the mood.  Old droopy-eyed, big-eared Legs Diamond, sporting a Panama hat, had made his way to our box. 

            “This the dame ya been tellin’ me about, Hank?”

            Rodman looked ill.  Without enthusiasm he said, “Lily, Jack; Jack, Lily.”

            Legs pulled up a chair.  Rodman had the waiter bring a bottle of Scotch, another glass and ice.  As Legs slowly sipped his drink, a buxom blond sidled up to our table and greeted Legs.

            “How’d ya like to get friendly?  You know, have a drink, go to my place, make a little whoopee?”

            Lily moved her chair to face the stage, showing us her back.  I felt sorry for Hank.

            “Look, will ya scram!” said Legs. 

            But the woman persisted.

            “I ain’t interested.”

            “You don’t know what you’re missin’,” she said, leaning over and pressing her breasts against him.

            “Look, do I haveta belt you one?  I told you to scram.”

            “All right, if you feel that way,” she said, giving Legs a contemptuous look, “I’ll just leave ya alone.  It’s your life.”

            Legs seemed oblivious to Lily’s disdain.  “What ya been talkin’ about?” he asked off-handedly.

            “Cape May,” I replied.

            “Really?” he said with enthusiasm.  “We had a guy workin’ for us there.”

            “Yeah, you told me.”

            “Maybe your friends would like to hear.”

            With Lily refusing to enter the conversation and Rodman looking dyspeptic, I tried to redirect the conversation to the stage show.

            Abruptly, Lily announced she had no interest in the last couple of skits.  The party broke up.  Out on the street, Legs went one way, the three of us another.  Hank had parked at the end of the square.  I sat in back and Lily hugged the passenger door in front, as Hank drove the yellow circus car up Broadway past the admiring crowds.  For most of the trip, the atmosphere inside the car must have reminded him of waiting in the trenches for the next shell to land.  When we reached Columbus Circle Lily exploded. 

            “Don’t you ever again—I repeat, ever again—expose me to people like that.  I was mortified.”

            Hank, desperate to explain, jabbered, using words like wings to keep him aloft.  “It’s just for now.  I promise you’ll never have to see him again.  Once I have enough—my goal is a million, and I’m not far away—I’ll quit and we can live wherever you like.  Just as we planned.  I promise, Lily.”

            Although I was sitting behind her, I could hear Lily sniffle.  In a tick, she slid over next to Hank, put her arm round his neck, and rested her head on his shoulder.  She remained this way, saying nothing, until we reached 84th Street, where she disengaged herself long enough to turn and bid me goodnight.  He gave me a wink.  I could see she was anxious to return to Hank’s nest, have a good cry, and then make up in his arms.

                                                                        ******

            A.R., armed with a cake knife, was slicing a lemon meringue pie.  The kitchen exuded a swooning aroma.

            “Carolyn baked it.  She told me to wait till it cooled.  I can’t wait any longer.  Want some?”

            “Sure.”

            “Okay, Coakley, here goes.”  He cut himself a slice that must have measured one-third of the pie, and me a thin sliver.  “Grab the milk, will ya?”

            Knowing A.R.’s appetites, I brought out two bottles, his usual portion.

            “I’ve been having stomach problems all day.  Maybe it was the Danish at Lindy’s or the pastrami, tongue, and turkey at Reuben’s.”

            “Which came first, the sweet or the sandwich?”

            “The Danish.”

            “Maybe next time you ought to reverse the order.”

            For a minute or two we savored the pie.  Carolyn’s baking put Lindy’s to shame.

            “I heard you reached Rodman.” 

            “You know that his trial’s next week?”

            “Thursday.”

            “Did you also hear that the juror who was in the bag is now out?”

            “Henny, some day you’ll learn that A.R. hears about things even before they happen.  Fallon’s my man.  He doesn’t pish without first asking me.”

            “What if Rodman’s convicted?”

            “I’ll bail him and arrange for a retrial with a judge that I own.”

“Some legal system!”

            “Can I help it if a lotta judges like to live high?  Somebody’s got to pick up the tab.”

            “If Hank loses, he could also lose Lily.”

            “Hank’s a good boy, but he’s too soft on that dame.”

            “For him, she’s bigger than life.”

            A.R. cut himself another slice of pie.  He had already finished one quart of milk.  Wiping his mouth with a linen napkin, he remarked, “My mother gave us these napkins.  Nice, huh?”  He cracked his knuckles, leaned over the table, and said, “That little job I told you about . . . tomorrow night’s the night.  Legs will bring the car by at ten.”

            “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

            “What’s that?”

            “Masseria.”

            “How many times I gotta tell you . . . as long as you’re with me, he won’t touch you.”

            “He followed me to Barney’s.”

            “What the hell for?”

            “The diamond.  He thinks I took it.”

            “Maybe it’s time for Legs to pay him a visit.”

            “He’s threatening to croak my mother and Ben.”

            “Pay no attention.  He’s bluffing.” 

            “We’re talking about my mom.  I need it back!”      

“Your imagination’s running overtime, Henny.  How do you know Masseria’s not pulling a fast one, trying to get more than his share?  These Sicilians are all alike.  You can’t trust ’em.  Fifteen sparklers and cash for the missing diamond earned them a hefty profit.  They’re not hurting; they just want more.”

Now I knew the reason for A.R.’s refusal to cough up.  The Sicilians had fenced fifteen diamonds, and had, according to all reports, made a hefty profit.  Now they wanted to put the icing on the cake.

            “Masseria was afraid this might happen.  That’s why he tried to drag me off in his car.  He wanted to test the jewels first.”  A.R. shrugged.  “You don’t seem very concerned.”

            “I suppose I could weep,” said A.R. sarcastically.  “Would that help?”

            “No, just see that the jewel is returned.”

            A.R. grepsed.

            A young bird peeped.  Outside the kitchen, a dove and her fledgling had nested.  Carolyn had paid a handyman to attach a box and a birdbath to the windowsill.  Standing there watching the mother tend to her babe, I worried about Mom and Ben.  Should I warn them?  I knew one thing for sure:  I had to find, by hook or by crook, the missing diamond.

            “Remember, tomorrow night’s the night.”

            I began biting my cuticles.  What if there was gunplay?  Who would shield me?  Last Sunday’s paper had described an attempted theft of some liquor warehoused on the West Side, a job that led to the shooting deaths of three men.  Carmel and the Maurice River and hayrides and horseshoes were suddenly much in my mind.

 

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