🎄Are You Merry and Bright: conclusion
“Got yourself a little doggy-pal,” Dexter murmured, during this lacuna.
“Give and take.” Ernestine shrugged. “I figure…”
She moved the cake plate to the table, sat, and looked Chilton in the eye.
“…you could skip the others…save a thou, even, give me five 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 this house. 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, 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. Mabel took the liberty of popping the cover from the cake. 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. 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 bump from 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…”
Ernestine rose without ceremony to unplug the coffee pot, and brought it to the table.
“A guy like me doesn’t have it that soft, you know. 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.
“Sure, eat my food. Smoke at my table. Maybe you’ll do me a favor.”
Puffing, Chilton said, “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. You got ideas?”
“Throckmorton, I got hustle. If I was editing…let’s say, ‘Night Crimes’… For one thing, it needs to be about twice as spicy. New cover art. That’s what anyone eyeballing the rack expects, 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 display of Dexter’s go-getting gift, tried catching her aunt’s eye. Its object 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 character. “Madam, have you a pen and a piece of writing paper?”
(2017, Stephanie Foster)