🎄Are You Merry and Bright: conclusion
“Got yourself a little doggy-pal,” Dexter murmured, during this lacuna.
“Give and take,” Ernestine came back at him, with a shrug. “I figure…”
She sat, and looked Chilton in the eye.
“…you could skip the others…give me five thousand for the whole place. I’d be happy to sell it to you.”
“I hope you’re not thinking of it,” Mrs. Felcher got in, before Mabel could do more than drop her jaw.
“It’s all right for you, because you own the place. But the rest of us pay rent. If Mort there fixes up the attics, and shuts down the store, and turns everything into units, he’s gotta get his investment back…so he asks more money.”
“Then,” said Mrs. Rosemont, “some of us who got no place to go are stuck, ’cause the whole neighborhood goes up.”
“She wouldn’t sell. She loves the business.”
“I hate the business! No…”
Ernestine shook her head, softening this for Mabel.
“…you probably don’t know how I got started. Unless your mother told you. Nuh-uh? Well, toots, I was a grass widow. Late in the game. Merwyn had an idea about farming apricots in California. He said to me, ‘I can live in the back of my truck. Take me two or three years, bringing in the first crop, then when you come out, I’ll build us a house. You decide if you want a swimming pool…’
“Sure. Now, I had a secret from Merwyn…a little legacy from my granny. I saw where that was going if Merwyn got his hands on it. So I told him no thanks, hon, you have fun with the fruits… I bought this place. The business and the upstairs. Nineteen-fourteen, just when we got into the war. But you know, over along MacArthur Square, there used to be a bunch of theaters. Only a couple of ’em, that are movie houses now, still running.
“See, my regulars started dying off…and I’m outside the action these days. And how could I blame the new people for not coming all the way down here to get what they can get closer? Mabel, you know the whole backend of this place used to be a storeroom. Now it’s just empty shelves and junk.”
Mrs. Felcher sighed. “Oh, well, everyone’s got their troubles.”
A clink and clatter circuited the table as they all, grown thoughtful, forked and chewed. Mabel took the liberty of popping the cover from the cake plate.
She had just raised the knife, when Mrs. Felcher went on:
“It’s too bad, though, some bloodsucker had to come along stirring things up. We were doing okay…we could have gone a couple more years. Maybe I’d be dead by then.”
Mrs. Rosemont said: “That’s very true.”
The timing seemed rotten, to use Mrs. Felcher’s phrase, for handing the guest of honor a big slice of devil’s food cake. Chilton seemed conscious himself of having become an object. He glared at his fingernails, and stood.
“Bloodsucker! The businessman’s always the criminal, is that it? You’re worried about rents? Listen, before anyone ever laid those bricks, that put a roof over your head, someone had to finance the construction.”
It was a weak point; its reception not boffo.
“Okay. Before your parents could cross the ocean, there had to be a shipping line…steerage doesn’t pay for itself, you know…you need cargo! And someone had to get those ships built. Without investors, where is America?”
Mabel, at a nudge of Dexter’s elbow, and a waggle of his plate under her chin, dished him the first slice. She cut another for Maxwell. Maxwell passed this up the table to Mrs. Felcher.
“All right,” said Chilton. “You don’t care. No one cares. But I want you to know…”
The coffee was ready. Ernestine rose without ceremony to unplug the pot, and bring it to the table.
“A guy like me doesn’t have it that soft. It’s a struggle every day. Take those rags Maxwell was talking about.” He sat again, gave a minute or two to his dessert, pulled a cigar from an inside pocket and raised an eyebrow at Ernestine. She shrugged.
Puffing, Chilton continued, “Yeah, it’d be a great thing, shutting ’em down…if I happened to own the competition.”
“Well, you got two, right? If you got two horses to bet on, you can give your jockey a little freedom with the reins.”
“You, Baumgardner,” Chilton said, correctly identifying the speaker. “You got ideas?”
“Throckmorton, I got hustle. If I was editing…let’s say, ‘Night Crimes’… For one thing, needs to be about twice as spicy. New cover art. That’s what anyone buying it’d expect, right?”
“I can bang you out four stories a week, easy. Set the editorial tone. Save a little money for you.”
“Huh. Your thing about the horse. You’re saying I could afford the risk.”
“What I’m saying, Throckmorton.”
Mabel, at this exhibition of Dexter’s go-getting gift, tried catching her aunt’s eye. Ernestine’s was fixed on the guest of honor.
The mogul slumped in his seat, kneading his pince-nez. Suddenly, he lurched upright.
“What time is it?”
“A little after seven.”
“Well, that’s okay.” He patted his pockets. “I need to get a cab, though. I have another dinner at eight…after that, cocktails at midnight.” He seemed to be easing back into his Chilton characterization. “Madam, have you a pen and a piece of writing paper I may use?”
Maxwell pulled a billfold from his own pocket, and handed from it a business card, to Dexter. “I think this is the idea,” he said. “You are to call on Mr. Throckmorton, at his offices…Monday, next?”
Throckmorton nodded. “Gnash out the details.”
“Sure thing,” Dexter said, two-fingering the card, squirming on his seat after his wallet.
“Cocktails at midnight,” murmured Maxwell. “That would be with old Chetley’s relict, at her penthouse. She does this event seasonally, to prove to her detractors she remains spry and brimming with vim. You have it in mind to purchase a vacant apartment from her…one on the seventeenth floor.”
“I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”
“Because an honorable man does not violate another’s agreement, even of the tacit sort.”
“Ha. Maxwell,” Throckmorton spoke low, “you know how uncomfortable I get around those people.”
“I know it.”
“Well, you know, as long as I’m hiring…” He shot Dexter an accusing look.
“I can accompany you to these events. I can, if it seems your essay of the Chilton role has led you into unwise territory, even offer to you my humble counsel. We’ll have to go to your place, sir…I have no evening clothes…”
Throckmorton whispered, as the two rose to their feet. “You got another card…give it to the lady.”
A rat-a-tat-tat pounding came from the street, and the door being pummeled was that of the shop. The puppy, snoozing and forgotten under the table, sprang up yapping, to ricochet from ankle to ankle.
“Well, cripes,” Ernestine muttered. “Who doesn’t know to come around the back?”
“Anyone at home?” The voice was robust. It had an outdoorsy resonance. “Is that a light on up there? I’m looking for Mrs. Tolhurst!”
“You’re the lucky one.”
Mabel was a bit lukewarm, in offering to her aunt these valedictory words. She did not herself feel especially unlucky. Dexter had lined up a job. The two of them—once over that tricky business of getting married for real—had a nice apartment to live in. Nice for what you could get these days. Specifically, the same she’d been sharing with Ernestine the two years since she’d come to the city.
Merwyn, shuffling, hat in hand, into the kitchen before a goggling audience, had said, by way of introduction:
“I got to thinking, back when it started to get about Christmastime, and I was remembering, Ernie, how we hitched up day after, back in ’12… Howdy, you all.”
Howdy, they’d said back. Mabel had never met Merwyn. There was nothing greatly distinguished about his looks. His hair was thinning; his grey eyes squinted at them, puzzled.
“Got to thinking,” he repeated, “twenty-five years gone by…maybe she’d doesn’t really mean to come out after all. Maybe I oughta go back and get her.”
His timing was fortuitous, at any rate. When the business week began that Tuesday, Mabel and her aunt had opened the blinds to find three visitors peering through the glass—each a rival in the theatrical supply trade. At the beckoning of the grapevine, they’d come earliest, hoping to beat one another…at eyeing over the inventory.
Word on the street was, Ernestine Tolhurst was headed for California.
As to Throckmorton, he’d taken an option on the building, five-hundred earnest money, of which her aunt had given Mabel, not Dexter, half: “That’s your wedding present…you hang on to it!”
This was gratifying to the neighbors, that nothing was going to happen very soon. No renovations, no fancy people arriving to nudge them out. And no reason not, since the agreed-on rent was a nominal dollar—and as Maxwell, Throckmorton’s right hand, advised—to move headquarters of the periodical “Night Crimes” to this this handy site; later, possibly, “Shamus Omnibus”, as well.
“Those offices uptown were half the expense, just for the lease of ‘em.”
The weather was as it had been—raining, freezing overnight, gaining a layer of snow, turning back to rain. People pushed along on the street, hands in pockets; the laden clouds seemed to hover just above the rooftops. Mabel had a puppy to walk these days. (She had named him Max.) She was stuck going round the block, coming home nose running, stockings sodden.
“It’s a lot better for the dog, not having that long car trip.” That had been her aunt’s reasoning.
Dexter said, “Soon’s you’re settled, we’ll come out and visit. Honeymoon.”
“Yeah,” Ernestine said. “I’ll let you know.”
“But what,” Mabel asked both of them, “are we telling those two nice ladies? We should invite Mrs. Felcher and Mrs. Rosemont, now we’re all friends…”
Her swain had neglected to actually propose. But she forgave him that; Dexter hadn’t stuck at buying the license. It seemed they were going to do it—a step and a half ahead of the rumor mill. She kept running across well-wishers offering congratulations.
“Aunt Ernestine’s leaving tomorrow, right?”
Ernestine, for this familiarity, gave Dexter a sour twist of the mouth.
“So then, we just have to tell everyone, it was like…a gift. Couldn’t really pull it off in time, what with the paperwork, but didn’t wanna spoil the old lady’s happy Christmas.”
Mabel stood with her aunt. Not yet could she linger behind visiting in Frankie’s apartment, where Dexter had spread himself large. His plaid robe was tossed over the armchair. The ashtray overflowed.
“So all’s well that ends well, huh?” she said.
“What I told you. Making up stuff’s easy.”
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)