🎄Are You Merry and Bright: part two
“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, swell. 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.
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 over this place, and the next one. Jotting stuff down. I told him I was 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 below the window sill. Now and then, 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 who-knew-what 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 off 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 eat gizzards.”
“But I have a better idea.” 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 more charitably of complete austerity, Ernestine popped the lid, then nudged two gingerbread men into Dexter’s pocket. But her specific object had been a 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.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)