🎄Are You Merry and Bright: part two
“Yeah… Fa la la. La la.”
“Dexter, that’s Deck the Halls.”
Mr. Chilton cleared his throat. “It is a local tradition. You will have seen this story recounted in your Christmas Day newspaper, of the generosity of a Mr. X. Of course, if the two of you are recent arrivals…”
“No,” Dexter said, “guy gives out checks. Picks twelve needy folks and hands ’em each five hundred bucks. Sure.”
“My employer has no interest in the charity rolls. He does not draw from them. Mr. X’s fortune is of his own making, therefore he prefers seeing money put to pragmatic use. Your turkey dinner, Mr. Baumgardner, is available at many a church kitchen. Relief societies are there for hospital bills and rents in arrears. Mr. X wishes the recipients of his largess to possess the entrepreneurial spirit. It is hence my duty to explore these outlying boroughs with eyes and ears alert to discovering…the right sort of case.”
Dexter maneuvered himself to Mabel’s free side, caught her arm and squeezed. She felt his fingers through her coat sleeve. Yes, she’d been thinking of waving Chilton off, with a “Good luck, sucker”—but she wasn’t going to. She gave her swain a return jab of the elbow, just to let him know she got the hint.
“So what about my aunt Ernestine? You wanna give her a check?”
Dexter cut in. “You know, the two of us are just headed over that way. I can save you some shoe leather.”
“Mrs. Ernestine”—Chilton answered Mabel—“is a businesswoman…she runs a boardinghouse. The property is her own, from the days of her marriage. Well…I will tell you the rest.”
She half expected he would, given his way of phrasing questions. But he said: “Mr. X and I don’t in the least apologize, if our habits are deemed peremptory—for after all the reward is five hundred dollars. Any candidate who doesn’t want it can make way for the one who does.”
Dexter filled this pause with a chuckle. Chilton drew back the corners of his mouth. “I will dine with Mrs. Ernestine tomorrow evening. At six. You must persuade her to play hostess, however downhearted she becomes at Yuletide, for it is Mrs. Ernestine’s mettle I mean to try. Mr. and Mrs. Baumgardner, I may have misheard—
“Hazard of listening in,” Dexter murmured.
“—but I take it your means are slight. How many boarders altogether reside with…your aunt?” He raised eyebrows, pince-nez glinting up at Mabel.
“That’s right, my aunt. We call her Ernestine. But it’s only Frankie and us, just the two upstairs apartments. The downstairs is a prop shop…you know, for theater? Frankie’s a salesman…he’s not even here right now.”
Dexter was dancing foot to foot. She wanted to tell him, “Cool it! I know what I’m saying.”
“Tight quarters,” Chilton observed. He seemed a little smug, suddenly. The cross-street came to its end; the next thoroughfare, lit brighter, lined with down-at-heels businesses like her aunt’s, was also their destination, and the tricky part, if Chilton thought he was coming home with her.
Mabel’s Aunt Ernestine, whose knuckles were not knobby—she was only about…forty-nine, not even grey-haired yet—yanked the plug on the radio. That was how it worked, turning on and off, and most of the time, it worked in quarter-hour increments, before going haywire. A minute ago church bells had been bonging somewhere in France.
“It’s good. I mean, Christmas the same as ever this year. That’s what the man said.” She shrugged. “You know, maybe with the Pope and all talking peace…maybe they can really stop the war.”
Mabel’s chin rested on her crossed arms. “Maybe they will.”
She had left Dexter at the second landing of the back stairs, given him his second goodnight kiss, and told him, “Don’t come in. I gotta break it to her.”
It wasn’t Chilton, with those uptown manners, her aunt would kick at. The two of them never had big plans for their holiday dinner, so if sharing a jumbo roaster scored them Mr. X’s beneficence, fine. It was Dexter. Her aunt kept telling her, “Don’t get started with that one. Hang on, you’ll do better.”
This was rich coming from a woman who knew people…sure, prop people (but prop people had friends, didn’t they?)…and still made a stink over asking favors.
“Sorry, toots, I got a living to make. My clients trust me. I’m not being the umpteenth person in town with a niece can tap dance and carry a tune.”
Well, Dexter might just get someplace in life. He had hustle. Hustle was exactly what Ernestine disliked about him.
The knob rattled. “Hey, Mabel, you there?”
Their apartment was oriented such that the door going out to the hall was next to the kitchen stove. The kitchen table was where they sat to hear the radio.
Mabel jumped from her chair. “Dexter! Criminy!”
Ernestine said: “Are you kidding? Don’t open that door.”
“It’s an emergency!” He slipped the hand that held his hat through the space Mabel allowed, and waggled this at her aunt.
“Oh…all right. Come in and tell us who’s dying.”
“Nah. It’s the craziest thing. He’s out there, walking back and forth. I couldn’t leave. Got a little notebook,” Dexter added, taking a seat.
Ernestine dug in her apron pocket.
“Nuh-uh. Him. Looking at this place, and the next one. Jotting stuff down. I told him I was only putting the cat out…then I had to hightail it back up here.”
At this, Ernestine strode from the kitchen to the living room, and pulled back the curtain. “I don’t see any cop down there. I was gonna yell out the window, come on up and get him.”
The three of them were on their knees, in a row, the living room light switched off, their heads at eye-level with the window sill. They peeped over this. They whispered, though the notion of doing so came ambient to the room’s darkness. Chilton was odd—his lingering on the cold street below, marking things down in his little book, maybe even disturbing—but no one suspected him of supernatural hearing.
Mabel looked at her watch and made a noise, letting out air between her teeth. “It’s only been about an hour. Well, sure, he could be flim-flamming.” She was answering Ernestine. “But he’d have to be a kook. Why’s he gonna tell people a thing like that, unless it’s true?”
There was an obvious answer—the one Mabel had just given—but the prospect of five hundred dollars lent profundity to her summary argument.
“You got a spare blanket, I can bunk on that armchair. Don’t you think,” Dexter added, speaking to silence, “there’s no sense taking a chance? Suppose we see him go off round the corner…and then he comes back for some reason, just when Baumgardner looks like he’s sneaking out for the night?” More silence. “I’m gonna be here tomorrow anyway.”
This got Ernestine’s attention. “Mabel!”
“Well, it’s a big enough chicken.”
“For two people. I’m letting you have a wing and a drumstick, buddy, and you’ll have to like it. Unless you want gizzards.”
“But I have a better idea,” she said. On hands and knees, Ernestine moved backwards; at the kitchen threshold she stood, crossed to the counter, tilted the cookie jar. The others, omitting the last, imitated her example: Mabel, then Dexter, sidling round the door sash, rising and heaving held breath. With the grim mouth of one who’d thought better of complete austerity, Ernestine popped the lid, then nudged two gingerbread men into Dexter’s pocket. But her specific object had been the key, hidden under the jar.
“Frankie Barber isn’t coming back for a week yet. I don’t see why you can’t use his place, if you’re clean about it.”
Old Mama Hubbard, Dexter thought, oughta be feeling in the gravy, if she ever saw cupboards like these. Not even a salt shaker. There was water, coming from the tap. A kettle on the stove, but not a lousy tea bag. His wristwatch told him it was after nine, and he decided…better not go knock at Mabel’s door again.
Altogether though, Barber’s was not a bad little place. He was blessed with a whole kitchen: stove, fridge, table and chair under the window. Son of a bitch must eat in restaurants.
Dexter carried his glass into the living room, and noticed at once, and with a pang, that the table by the sofa—where a minute ago he’d laid down a saucer, freighted with two gingerbread men—was empty. Empty of all but a National Geographic and a lamp. Rats.
No…rats don’t eat china.
“Barber!” Dexter shouted this; then, remembering the ladies, followed up softly: “What the hell!”
A vast sigh came echoing through the window-drapes.
“I offer the excuse,” the specter said, augmenting this, “that you have probably eaten today, and I have not.” The drapes shivered, a moment before Dexter moved to soundly buffet them with a sofa cushion, and a man slid out. “Call me Maxwell.”
“What the hell again, Maxwell.”
“You see,” the stranger said, “Mr. Barber, one of our salespeople, has been kind enough to entrust me with his key. I have been unemployed since October.”
He mamboed round, to plunk himself on Barber’s couch, and raised an unshaved face. “I’d developed foolish habits…hubris, of which you may well accuse me…thinking that a man so intimately in the confidence of his superior need shrink at no indulgence. I had nothing saved…and the address I’d chosen—seventeenth floor, The Chetley—became quite insupportable, rent-wise, given my reduced circumstances.”
“Heck,” Dexter said. He sat beside Maxwell. “You mean you got no food, even? What you gonna do?”
“Very little, at present, tomorrow being the Christmas holiday. Afterwards, I have resolved to bury the hatchet with Mr. Throckmorton, apologize profusely, and if he will no longer permit me to play his Chilton…”
Dexter blinked. He raised a hand, to stop Maxwell speaking.
“Now this, I don’t get.”
“What you wanna bet in this weather he doesn’t even show up?”
Mabel stood with her aunt’s stocking hat in one hand, an oven glove on the other. She was as contrite-faced as she knew how to be. Not that Ernestine was fair, holding Chilton’s messenger to blame for the hours he kept. They were nooners, aunt and niece, when it came to Christmas feasts, and had planned to heat up the place with a roast chicken, play a game of rummy, listen to some Nutcracker…Hallelujah chorus, maybe, not to push their luck…on the radio.
“But I have to go out.” Ernestine patted her pockets. “Where’s my list?”
“It was flour, milk, potatoes, onions.”
“If we’re lucky. And since I can’t borrow all that from one neighbor, I’ll have to make the rounds. You be sure that chicken goes in the pot at three. And don’t let those two,” she added, swiping the hat, wrenching it on, and saying this, small as the apartment was, wrathful as Ernestine was, well within the hearing of Dexter and his friend Maxwell, “clean us out of any more food.”
Breakfast had been watery oatmeal, milk off-limits, the kitchen chill.
His tap at the door had caught Mabel still in her robe, and yawning. She’d forgotten Dexter. “Can’t you go away for a while? We’re not dressed.”
“Come out in the hall a minute.”
“All right, but open the door a little.”
She put her head out.
“Mabel, I learned something big. I gotta get Maxwell to tell it to you.”
She’d looked up, past Dexter’s face, and seen another face in Frankie’s door crack, smiling at her like an apologetic fish.
“What a little creep. I used to like him, too.”
Dexter tried a diffident tilt of the head. “But…maybe that’s all the work he could get. Or maybe Barber believes in it.”
He found Maxwell’s delineations of Throckmorton’s swindles hard to grasp; and wasn’t either sure—supposing the takings weren’t too bad—he’d draw the line, himself. That’s what it took, getting by these days, right? A little boost.
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)