Second Thoughts: Hammersmith (eight)
Hogben had broken a rule of his own, one that had always served…and Hogben had been a traveling man for twenty-odd years. He’d had scrapes. He’d not often had a partner to rely on. But even these past few, when with the Professor he’d gone the route from Philadelphia to San Francisco—north to Bismarck, south to El Paso—he’d known better. He and the Professor had talked about two things: what sort of crowd they expected to draw, and what sort of crowd they’d drawn.
Hogben, to his audience, talked up the wonders of the telephone. He loathed the telephone. He blamed the object for ruining his act. The first instinct he’d had, greeted at the Hammersmith opera house with free cable service (he’d sent one to an old creditor…why not?), with blankets, hot coffee, chicken and dumplings, a folding chair to sit on, Mack’s daughter the second person to offer him a temporary home (angry, for some reason, when he told her he’d accepted Mrs. Bard’s)…had been to strike while this iron was hot. Hearts don’t stay soft forever.
He’d met the manager, Mr. Braithwaite. Hugh.
“Looks like all you got going is a couple of picture shows,” Hogben had started off.
“Well, it’s Holy week coming up.”
“Ah.” Here was a snag about which Hogben could gauge nothing. He persevered. “I wonder, Hugh, if I could ask…a kind of personal favor.”
He’d tried getting a whiff of the place, then—going into town at Mack’s invitation, chatting guardedly about the shares. Willing, though, to drum up an audience, with a little publicity. Once upon a time, you’d have been safe enough. You figured business hours being over for the day, nobody was rushing off to send a telegram, just to learn if your company was listed. There’d been no ringing up for information.
He had the morning Signal on Mrs. Bard’s dining room table, in front of him. He had the house to himself, excepting Mrs. Frieslander. She was in the front parlor with her mending basket, and Hogben had been dodging her company.
“Now, that’s not good news, that about the Spanish ships. That governor, what he is, knows best.”
She spoke, having heard him rustle the paper, and Hogben glanced over the front page. Governor. Cuban gent, maybe, didn’t trust Spain’s diplomatic note. That was all the news today.
“No, ma’am. Don’t think so.”
No, you couldn’t sit and have a quiet thought. It seemed you couldn’t take a stroll up the road, either. Thursday had loomed, and Hogben hadn’t felt completely in command of the exigencies, and he’d broken his rule.
“Mrs. Bard, I can’t quite make up my mind what to do.”
This was all the sense of the place he’d been able to get. That Hammersmithans kept an eye out. They seemed to. If you paused in front of the library to scratch your chin, someone would sidle up…but neighborly…and mention that dandy bald eagle Mossbunker had donated to the curiosities. “See it in the cabinet, there.”
“Stuffed, you mean.”
“I know how it is for you,” she’d said, Mrs. Bard. “It was like that for me when I was widowed. Maybe not just like that,” she’d added. “But, you know, wanting for things to be the same. Doing what you would have done anyway. Mr. Hogben…”
They’d been on the porch, amid Shaw’s project, with all the boards skinned down, two or three washed over with a first coat. Shaw had bought a small can of white, another of pale grey. Hogben watched Aimee’s gaze dart to these swatches…saw a face of what he would have thought exasperation.
“I’d go with grey,” he told her. “Carry more dirt.”
She’d had something in mind. She changed it—though at his comment she’d nodded—and said, “Mr. Hogben, it’s no disgrace if you like to cancel your show. You didn’t give any money to Hugh?”
“Portion of the proceeds.”
“You didn’t sell any tickets?”
“Always collect at the gate.”
“Then my advice is, give it up. Wait, I mean, until you feel ready.”
But was that what she meant? He thought she’d held his eyes with an extra oomph in her own (as eyes went, these fairly oomphy from the start), when she’d said the words, “give it up”. While, on the other hand, waiting—for a man with no fixed abode—was the same as staying. He could hardly do that, unless he began paying his rent, or helping out with chores, like Shaw.
So it was that, as Hogben had always known it to be, when you asked for advice, you got nothing but the rug yanked out from under you. Doubt cast on things you’d never question, another’s plans substituted for your own.
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)