🎄Are You Merry and Bright: part three
Then he thought of another thing. “How much?”
“I don’t get you.”
“Did you like him?”
She rolled her eyes. “Just to say hello to. But I mean…” She spoke to Maxwell. “It’s people’s money. And they think they’re learning about investing.”
Maxwell gave her in return the classic look and gesture of hopelessness, cause-wise. He folded his hands back in his lap. “But you are more interested in the twelve days of Christmas.”
It was a prompt. Well, she’d only been curious about Frankie.
“So go on.”
“Truthfully, I don’t know whether there is a Mr. X…Throckmorton easily could have a silent partner. He says he does. But if Mr. X is an invention, he serves his purpose. You see, as Chilton, I worked from two angles. Foremost was our interest in properties with a future, neighborhoods within reach of the city’s finer districts, and these I sought out—”
He broke, having spotted a crumb on his saucer, the last of Ernestine’s stale bread she’d been saving for stuffing. He licked his finger and went on.
“Consider. If I purchase all the houses occupying a particular corner, I may knock them down and put up an office building. My tenants will be professional sorts…lawyers, shall we say, insurance men… To interest them in leasing in this part of town, we tout its affordability. A new apartment building, some better stores, would of course be mutually improving. And a new constituency in a position to make demands, will bring municipal amenities—rail transport, upgraded water lines, etc.—that greatly increase property values…and make further development worthwhile.
“It is often the case a block will have that stubborn organizer, the one who urges holding out. But there we have the second angle—the foreclosure lists, the bankruptcies. When Throckmorton’s Chilton would find a weak link, someone sinking, financially—upon that person he bestowed the Christmastime visitation. He invited himself to the table…he did this, as you may guess, to survey the personalities, discover what sop would mollify the balking party. The five hundred dollars, being a lifebuoy to its recipient, was Throckmorton’s toe in the door…if you’ll pardon the mix of metaphor. He, in person, assuming his process not delayed by exigencies, would call around mid-January. Throckmorton was bold enough to suggest the five hundred be considered a down payment. I mean…to give an example…let us say the property could never, in the present market, sell for more than four thousand. He would then offer thirty-five hundred. Promise a check that day, even go as far as to claim the value of the gift had been doubled.
“People, you see, are softened by the burden of gratitude. It renders them ovine. They acquire a—dare I say?—simple-minded certainty that they are indebted to Mr. X, that his partner Throckmorton actually is doing them the good turn he represents…and this keeps them from taking the time and advice to which they are entitled.”
“Great you’re telling us now,” Mabel said. She was building up to a scolding, not finding Maxwell so much the charity case Dexter took him for. Now this first Chilton was out of work; now by chance he’d run into one of Mr. X’s mugs…now, he was being a helper.
But she liked him all right. She even had, growing in her mind, an inspiration—a patter routine, something her and a guy like Maxwell, the way he talked, could try out amateur hour, one of those downtown/uptown sketches…
Dexter could write the jokes.
And while she’d let this reverie derail her moral stance, the knob turned, and Ernestine came back in. She had two people with her, two elderly ladies. All three carried things: a sack, a box with a sack inside, a milk bottle and a flour canister. Ernestine, a board.
“For the table.” She answered Mabel’s stare. “I don’t know where the leaf that came with it ever got to. What about the chicken?”
“I put it on to boil, just now.”
“This is Mrs. Felcher, and Mrs. Rosemont.”
Mrs. Felcher, moving like a surgeon who’d been called to treat an emergency case, stepped at once to the stove, took up the wooden spoon, and prodded…then turned up the burner. From the sack, Mrs. Rosemont withdrew a cloth, wonderfully embroidered.
Mabel sang out, over this eruption of bustle, “I’m Mabel. That’s Dexter, and that’s Maxwell.”
“Both of you boys,” Ernestine said, “go across and get all the chairs from Frankie’s place you can carry.”
Two hours had seemed like plenty of time to pull her aunt aside and clue her in. After Mrs. Felcher had showed them the right way to roll a dumpling, Mabel even got as far as, “It wouldn’t make much difference, I guess, if it turns out Throckmorton doesn’t like us.”
For a second, she’d felt canny as a private eye, dropping this name.
Not starting with surmise, however, but only abandoning the radio’s tuning knob, hands flung up, Ernestine said, “Work on this thing, would you, Mabel?” Then added: “What’s-his-name better darn well.”
The armchair from the living room, at the head of the table, managed a creditable guest of honor’s place. It was five forty-five. The change of menu had made the apartment steamy, rather than toasty. The smells, though, were getting good.
Mrs. Rosemont’s cloth—“Forget it. I’ve washed that thing a hundred times. But I haven’t looked at it in six years, you know?”—bumped out where the board stretched wider than the table. Maxwell, having got the radio just so (fingers crossed), now tinkered with this conundrum. Dexter whistled, polishing glasses. Mabel had arranged place settings, a mix of everyday dishes and china—this cup, that saucer; old platter, new celery—to make things look…bohemian, at least. Arty on purpose.
“Someone’s here,” Mrs. Felcher said. “Must be the guy.”
“Mr. Chilton.” Mabel’s aunt edged the door back, and the crowd of them edged back with her. “I’m Ernestine. Do you like Throckmorton?”
He seemed to blanch and recoil. The basket Chilton held over his arm took a wild swing. It yapped.
“Oh, my manners!” Ernestine took this gamely, with only a glance at the writhing cloth, giving precedence to these. “I meant to say, is it Mr. Chilton you’d rather…or…you have a nickname?”
“Call me Mort.” His pince-nez had located Maxwell. His tone was dry. Maxwell coughed.
“Oh, I didn’t speak.”
Mabel swam to the fore, and Maxwell coughed a second time: Ahem. Maybe. To her ears, more like: It’s him. She put her hands out for the basket. “Mort,” she said, “is this a puppy?”
Crunched between the door frame, the six diners and the newly enlarged table, he gave her the small indication of a bow. A head, homely and wire-haired, parted the cloth, panting.
“What’s this Mrs. Baumgardner? Have you two been off to city hall?”
A second passed, then Dexter said, “Yeah, that’s right. Me and my little honey…”
“’Cause, I said to Lynette,” Mrs. Rosemont went on, “I don’t think that Baumgardner has ever left. I think he’s still over there. So you’re married. I wish I’d known.”
“By the way, is Frankie home? There were lights on in his place,” Mrs. Felcher said.
“That was Mr. Maxwell.”
“It’s Maxwell? It’s not Barber anymore? When did that happen?”
Dexter, giving up and sliding to a seat, clarified the point he’d seized on. “Mabel and me just figured times are tough and you never know, right? One day’s good as any other. ’Course, we got no money, no place of our own…”
The two neighbors eyed Maxwell.
“Have a seat, Mort,” Ernestine said. “Supper’s on.”
“Rotten timing,” Mrs. Felcher said.
“Come on, sit.” Dexter caught Mabel by the wrist.
He’d upset the basket. The puppy’s claws could be heard skittering across the linoleum. Mabel jerked her hand free, and spun…into a side-to-side with her aunt. Canting from the waist between Dexter and Maxwell—but managing an iron balance—Ernestine laid the chicken on the table. She straightened, and crossed her arms.
“Your dog gets lonely, Mort?”
“The dog is yours, madam.”
Having said this, Chilton took a sip from his eggnog. He took a second sip from his water glass. Ernestine’s face had not in this interval lit with the joy of the season. He added, “I had heard of your loss.”
“Well, you’re one up on me.”
“Not to labor the point,” Chilton went on, a cold eye on Dexter, “but the purchase was achieved at some expense and difficulty…my man being an hour in search of a pet store willing to accommodate me privately…and the available prospects on such a morning, of course, somewhat restricted…”
“Is the puppy a he or she?” Mabel asked.
“Does it matter?”
Maxwell spoke: “Your man.”
Chilton gave a minute’s attention to the arrangement of his napkin. “I do have one or two servants I trust implicitly.”
“Ah. You don’t count yourself the sort of employer who might mistake blind obedience for trustworthiness?”
“I count myself a man of sound judgment. I have no use for second-guessers. And…it is just as possible to mistake cowardice for prudence, bear in mind…”
“I do bear it in mind. I’m curious to know, though, on what basis one judges one’s own judgment. I,” Maxwell raised his voice, and included the table with a look, “once worked for a man whose fondness for detective yarns induced him to purchase, at a loss, two lowbrow periodicals. A thing called ‘Night Crimes’ and…oh, yes, ‘Shamus Omnibus’.”
“Never heard of ’em,” Mrs. Rosemont obliged him.
Maxwell grinned. “And that is only one example of his pig-headed faith in what he calls his ‘business sense’…”
“People like the whodunits,” Chilton muttered. He stood. “Did you say your name was Maxwell? I think I know the guy who sacked you. Told me you were a hoity-toity, backstabbing son of…” Having dropped something, refinement-wise, he lowered himself to his seat, and renewed his grip. “Mrs. Ernestine…”
She blinked. “Call me Mrs. Tolhurst, why don’t you?”
“What about your attic? In terms of, I mean, adding tenants. Why does the space go unused? Are you not the owner?”
“Sure I’m the owner. Takes money, doesn’t it, fixing up a place to rent?”
Maxwell tapped his water glass.
“No, I’m sorry,” he said, when they all fell silent. And though he then lifted the glass and tilted it towards Chilton, as one offering a toast, he added, “I have no proposal to make, myself.”
Abruptly, and with something distrait in the movement of her hand, Ernestine left them. She stood immobile, her back to her guests, at the kitchen counter. This hint of dramatic feeling was ambiguous—for all Mabel knew, her aunt might have a headache…or she might be stifling a laugh…
She put the puppy from her lap, swung her chair and reached across the two or three feet between them, to tap Ernestine on the elbow.
“Look,” Ernestine said, turning. “Mr. Chilton, I have a proposal. I know about your twelve days, okay? Maybe you’re used to people giving you a whole song and dance…snapping at the biscuit, let’s say. That, I don’t know. I don’t know who’s good enough for your five hundred bucks. You’re gonna give it to me, or you’re not gonna give it to me…and I didn’t lose anything if you don’t. I guess I’m lucky, even. It’s nice, Mrs. Rosemont and Mrs. Felcher coming over…”
Busy now with the percolator, she glanced back and nodded across the table. “Mr. Maxwell. I wouldn’t have thought of it…so maybe I owe you. But what I’m saying is…decide already.”
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)