🎄Are You Merry and Bright: part three
“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 types…shall we say, stockbrokers, insurance men… To interest them in leasing in this part of town, we tout its affordability. A new apartment building, some better stores, will be mutually improving. And a new constituency in a position to make demands, will vote in municipal amenities—rail transport, upgraded water lines, etc.—such as 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. Wherever Throckmorton’s Chilton would find a weak link, someone sinking, financially—upon that person he bestowed the Christmas visitation. He invited himself to the table…he did this, as you may guess, to survey the personalities, discover what sop would best 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 multiplied.
“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 passed, plenty of time for Mabel to pull her aunt aside and clue her in. She would have thought. 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, 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 hand-washed that thing thirty years. But lately, I haven’t even looked at it, 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 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,. “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.”
(2017, Stephanie Foster)