A story within a story. 1928, the year of the Republican convention that nominated Herbert Hoover for the presidency. Reporter T. O. Mulhall’s train is stalled on the way to Kansas City via St. Louis. He crosses paths, In a small Illinois town, with Alfred Oliver—and Oliver’s protégé, aspiring actress Paulette St. Genevieve. Stuck sharing one of the Bay Tree House’s poorly ventilated rooms, the trio make small talk, leading to Oliver’s account of the infamous (or as infamous as his own exclusive coverage could make it) Bradshaw case.
Daisy wants to lose George, gain a modest fortune, and move to Florida. She exerts her influence on the Bradshaws’ live-in handyman, Oland Coleman. Oland’s grip on reality is a little weak…but his view perhaps not so far from the iron-clad expectations of his small-town milieu.
Are You Loveable
“Clear out. We don’t allow no one loitering in the lobby. And I ain’t got room for any a-one of you. So clear out.”
Mulhall found this lobby unpromising, more the size of a bookmaker’s corner booth. Within the meaning of the act, the Bay Tree House offered a roof overhead to travelers. One might, then, have called it a hotel. The front desk was of the roll top variety, its back to the foyer. Grease-penciled on plain panel-board meant to face a wall, black scribblings, indelible carpenter’s specifications, greeted clientele.
One flight of stairs led to the first story, a second to the remaining. Mulhall suspected the Bay Tree House of being in its day a gin mill, or discreet bawdy-house (or, of course, both—the Mickey Finns of the lower chambers a source of rifleable pocketbooks to the upper). He had concealed himself here among the ranks of the press…but these were thinning. Most of his colleagues had conceded the point.
Rain enfiladed the pavement, bulleting in sheets across brick. Thunder shook the window frame. They were stranded in this backwater burg, this southerly Podunk of the state of Illinois. Its two hostelries could not accommodate the traffic.
One man stood holding the door, rain pelting his left side, darkening the fabric of his brown suit. Mulhall shook his head.
“I said, clear out,” the hotelier repeated.
“You aren’t speaking to me,” Mulhall said.
“No, sir, I’m singing a church hymn,” the man answered. “Hoom am I speaking to?”
This was mockery. A sideways glance told Mulhall the others had gone.
“I mean to say…Miller, is it?…you misunderstand me. I haven’t come here expecting to be given a room. I’m only waiting.”
Miller puffed out air in exasperation, left his station behind the roll-top and confronted Mulhall, indicating this and that with jabs of his pocket watch.
“Did I say, or did I say, we don’t allow no one to loiter in the lobby?”
He moved to the door, still jabbing.
“But surely, in mere civility, what with the rain,” Mulhall began. The innkeeper jerked his head; his lips rounded on a word that Mulhall thought, given full birth, would be, “Out!”.
“My fiancée is…” He tried, on the fly, to conjure a picture.
“…driving carefully, I don’t doubt. If I were with her, I would insist she drive carefully in a storm like this. I can only hope…”
Miller stood unpersuaded. “She’s probly run in the ditch somewheres.”
Mulhall hated consigning his fiancée to this callous ditch of Miller’s. He hadn’t even named her. He assumed an expression of great anxiety; that of a tender heart shocked by lack of decent feeling—yes, that explained it—into a reaction somewhat tardy. He wrung his hands.
Continued from “He wrung his hands”
“Lookee,” Miller said.
This time tapping the back of a loosely clenched fist against Mulhall’s sleeve, he pointed through the door glass. “They got a good-sized entryway over to the bank. Train’ll be running in the morning.” Miller stepped into the foyer, an arched space the width of an (empty) umbrella stand, and placed his hand meaningfully on the knob.
Someone was bouncing down the short flight of steps from the first floor landing to the lobby. The two men heard muffled thuds and the warning bleat of a floorboard soon to give way.
“Turtledove! You’re here!”
Withering humidity had raised the young woman’s dark hair into a drifting cloud. Her face was pale, her nose shiny, her arms mosquito-bitten. Her feet were bare and she wore a navy sleeveless frock.
“This is Alfred,” she said to Miller. “I told you my husband was coming along.”
“I thought,” Miller said, “I seen you with another man.”
She cocked her head. “I’m talking to you, Mr. Miller. You’re a man. See how it happens?” She reached out and tugged at Mulhall’s sleeve. “Let’s go upstairs, Alfred. Mr. Miller wants to shut up for the night.”
“Hold on,” Miller said. “You, mister.”
Mulhall was bemused. The woman might be some sort of confidence artist; she might be helping, but she had placed him in an awkward position.
He coughed. “My fiancée, whom I mentioned…”
“We don’t tolerate no immoral doings under our roof,” said Miller.
The girl cast a glance at Mulhall, meeting his eyes…a flash of something vivid in hers. The distance, these seemed to say, was doubtful, but she meant to try the leap. She threw her arms around Mulhall’s startled mid-section, heaving afore as though struck by a cannonball. She sank, allowing her head to fall back.
“Alfred, can you forgive me?”
He gave her hair a tentative pat. “I forgive you, darling. If you can forgive me.”
She released him, rounding on Miller. “He doesn’t have a fiancée. He made the whole thing up.”
“That,” Mulhall agreed, “is entirely true.”
They heard heavier feet descend and a voice yell, “Paulette! What are you doing?”
“That’s the man!”
Right about this, Miller said it to Mulhall in an almost friendly way.
The man…squat, bulldoggish, the armpits of his white shirt stained with sweat, stepped off the lower landing. “You quit making trouble. Get upstairs.”
“Oh, he’s a brute! You’ll have to confront him, Alfred!”
“Alfred!” The stranger glowered. “Is that who you got there?”
Twice, she thrust her fingers against Mulhall’s ribs. He saw belatedly what she had in mind. “Say something!” she hissed, under cover of the awkward arm he dropped across her shoulders.
“Please…Paulette…don’t run away with men. I wish you wouldn’t.”
At this, she stepped a pace away, and looked him over with something like scorn.
Miller said, “You’uns…”
Paulette’s friend said: “Mr. Miller, you know me. I’ve stayed with you before.”
“Huh.” Miller peered. “Reckon so.”
“Mr. Miller,” the friend began again, “I was on my way over to St. Louis from Evansville.”
“May be,” Miller said. “Don’t care. She come, signing herself in as Mrs. Oliver.”
“Well, now,” said the man. “I sent Paulette on ahead to book a room, case I couldn’t hire a car anyplace. Turned out for the best. Yessir, I have fond memories of the Bay Leaf.” He bared his teeth.
“What I want to know is,” Miller said, “which one are you?”
“I, sir, am Alfred Oliver. I tell you no lie.”
“And this here’s your wife?”
Oliver shrugged. “She says she’s married to that guy there. His name’s Alfred. Small world.”
“Then one of you clear out.”
“Now Miller,” Oliver said. He took two or three steps in Miller’s direction, placed a hand on Miller’s shoulder, favoring him with a second gangsterly grin. “You’re not a man to go peeping through transoms, are you? It’s nothing to you what old Uncle Alfred and his niece, and her husband, also named Alfred, might want with a room in your establishment. Our money’s green. Let it go, Miller.”
Miller at this intervention appeared convinced of the trio’s criminality. Duty demanded Mulhall—the man with no business here—break up this bandits’ ring. He must retreat, as the aubergiste had suggested, to the bank’s spacious entryway.
Shuffling towards the door, Mulhall said, “At any rate, we are twenty minutes closer to the dawn.” Stooping to the floor, where Paulette’s assault had transferred his hat, he told them, donning this, “I would like to thank you all for your kind consideration.”
He departed into the rain and crossed the street.
Like Oliver, he guessed it had turned out for the best. Skidding on the depressed center of the bank’s marble step, he squished over its rain-soaked welcome mat. Sitting would be uncomfortable, but why be comfortable? Even had he obtained a room at the Bay Tree House, he could not have allowed himself to sleep. He had competition.
Leaving Evansville in the early morning, Mulhall had sat in ignorance reviewing his notes, while the express chugged soothingly through clearing fog, exposing Indiana cropland. The scene was peaceful. Deer grazed, corn ripened. Some nameless dun-colored birds wheeled about.
The whistle shrieked.
Mulhall’s notes flew into the face of the man seated opposite. An unexpected lurch, just as, murmuring apologies, he’d bent to gather these, sent him sprawling to the carriage floor.
He’d given a weak laugh. “We’ve hit something.”
“Them deer,” the other man said.
They learned, to the contrary, that a coal train had derailed further along the way, spilling its load, burying the tracks…and drawing locals to mix among the ranks of disoriented passengers. A man, fingering a nugget, opined to Mulhall—with a certain ill-concealed gleam in his eye: “This gonna take a good long time to clear up.”
Mulhall would not have believed, beginning his day brightly at six a.m., that he would end it, somewhat after eight p.m., discouraged, dust-coated, unfed and weary…and yet thirty miles shy of the Missouri border. He and the other members of the fourth estate had at first retreated, on foot, trooping overland in file towards a beckoning steeple.
They’d caught a mail train and been taken back to the city, much reproached for the pooling of their pocket change in hopes of making an honest bribe.
“No unscheduled stops! That’s what he says.”
The porter deputized with delivering their message to the engine cabin, left them with it, adding under his breath, “Plain crazy. Cause a wreck.”
A furniture van Mulhall and his friend of the brown suit hitched a ride on had taken them over the river. In Kentucky, they’d got themselves oriented (occidented, it might have been) westwards once more. But along disparate routes, clusters of newsmen had been regrouping, to descend in horde on this unknown village…
They might seek a meal here, or a room; they might attempt to commandeer a vehicle. Choosing any one of these options meant sacrificing the others.
The village retired with the setting sun. But Angermeier’s Drugstore, hard by the station, had been caught open. Regarding this unanticipated boom in business as an affront and an imposition, the counter staff served each order with a reminder: “We’re closing.”
The first of the night’s thunderstorms had been by now breaking, but the heat remained stifling. A block of ice, sadly slumped, affecting nothing, sat before an oscillating fan beneath a Coca-Cola sign. The grill was popping.
Mulhall, last in line, achieved the counter. He might have been looking into the reddened countenance of Angermeier himself. He found this highly probable.
“We’re closing,” the man said, savage in gesture with his spatula. His efficiency, in this exigency, would not permit speech. He banged a plate before Mulhall. On the plate Mulhall discovered grilled ham, grilled potatoes, and grilled peas. He recalled an aunt, a woman who could do a lot with peas…but Angermeier’s, in shrivelment and carbonization, surpassed memory.
He could not find a seat, so stood, shoveling from plate to mouth. He inquired of the woman at the cash register, whether the town had a taxi service.
The idea seemed to puzzle her. “I don’t know who would run a car,” she said. “You ask in the morning, though.”
In the morning, Mulhall wanted to put this sordid business behind him. He would end up buttonholing bellhops and bus drivers, canvassing Kansas City cashiers, shadowing sidewalk strollers—“What are your thoughts on repeal? Wait…who’s going to win the balloting, do you think?” If he did not succeed in leaving town on the earliest train, not even the lowliest Republican party flunky would have an unscheduled fifteen minutes remaining. And Mulhall himself was lowly. His hopes had been high.
Lightning, a sheet of blue segmenting itself along the horizon, caught his attention. A ghostlike figure issued, simultaneous to this, from a narrow alleyway across the street. Where the Bay Tree House stood aloof from its neighbor—a building half its height, the windows of which were labeled, “Snedden” (with no indication of what goods Snedden sold)—Paulette came padding towards Mulhall, bare feet splashing.
“You’re jumpy,” she told him.
“Don’t you have shoes?” he asked.
“Don’t you think it’s hot?” she answered. It was. Doggedly, the heat of the day held, despite the rain.
“And so…” he said. “You thought you might drop by for a chat?”
“Now’s your chance!” She poked him in the ribs, as she had done before. “Come on, come on,” she said. “Follow me. What you wanna stay out here for?”
At the rear of the Bay Tree House, an expanse of brickwork trailed away into weeds, a rain-filled ditch, then a forlorn field. Eventually the field met the railway, a windbreak…and one could see no further.
The dark sky lit up. Mulhall saw a bank of thunderheads, clouds that roiled like the smoke of a mill manufacturing contraband under cover of darkness. He saw the line of distant trees plunge ahead of the wind. It all went dark. Three forks of lightning flared then, illuminating the very grit of the bricks. After this, after a thunderclap, the escalating storm held its fire, rumbling behind intermittent flickers.
The rear façade of the hotel had been painted, for the edification of rail passengers, with a grinning 19th century medico, and the words: EZ Liver Chews, The Pleasant Antidote To Thin Blood. The rest was peeling paint, white over green over brick. Paulette ushered Mulhall up a freestanding flight of iron steps, and onto a creaking platform running the length of the first floor.
He followed her to the end of this, which led to nothing. She leaned and flailed where the planking abutted the hotel’s corner.
“Gimme a boost,” she told him.
Mulhall felt he might be mistaken.
“Am I mistaken?” he asked her. “Are you expecting me to push you over the edge just here…?”
“We have to go up the ladder.” She pointed. Lightning flashed. For an instant, he saw a second glint of iron. “I came down okay. If I was taller, I could climb up, but I can’t get a foothold.”
“I don’t think I will,” he decided. The plan struck him unsound.
“How,” Paulette asked, “is anyone supposed to help you?”
A remnant of loosely-attached railing trailed without conviction along the platform’s terminus. She studied the Bay Tree wall, reached up to brush away a chunk of mortar, then clamped fingers into the gap between bricks. Against another doubtful corner she tested her weight with the toes of her left foot.
“Please don’t,” Mulhall said.
She stood down, and her disapproving face flickered before him as lightning and thunder came almost together.
“One day,” she said, “you’re gonna get married. And your wife is gonna cheat on you.”
“Taking the optimistic view.”
“And you’re gonna say, ‘Please don’t’.” She spread her hands.
“But on the inside, my heart will be breaking.”
“Yeah. Gimme a boost. Get hit by lightning standing out here…jeez.”
He gave in, taking his hands from her waist only when, showing exquisite balance, she smacked off both at once, while scampering upwards a rung. He heard her say, “I didn’t expect Alfred to show up. He was snoozing on the bed, last I saw. Don’t get the wrong idea.”
“I am not interested in your immoral doings.”
From the darkness overhead, he heard a rapping. A door creaked.
“Come on, come on,” Paulette said.
Mulhall heard Alfred Oliver, speaking from a height.
“Squirelliest damn thing.”
The complaint of the door diminished…then, echoing the rolling thunder, came a thud, and weak light flooded the recess beyond the railing. Paulette’s head appeared. She looked down at Mulhall over the edge of a passage, one that opened above a precipice.
“What’s your name, you?”
“See the ladder?”
He saw no harm admitting this was so. “I do,” he told her. She might not have heard. Time elapsed.
Mulhall looked up. Paulette looked down. “There you go.”
A hand came out, and a fingernail tinked against iron.
“Mulhall!” Oliver called down, in a rasp perhaps meant to be subdued. “It’s getting a little drafty up here. I’m not criticizing, but my grandma can climb a ladder faster than that!”
Mulhall leaned testingly across the rail. It swooned, cackling something in metallic notes, causing one shoe to lose contact with the planking, and by default, Mulhall to catch fast at the nearest rung. The ladder, at least, seemed securely bolted. The sky turned white.
“It can’t be any more than ten feet,” Paulette called out. “You saw me climb up. I wasn’t scared.”
But by now the ladder was slick with rainwater, and only the rust gave purchase. He tightened his hold and stepped from safety. Both feet on the lowest rung, Mulhall stalled. A life-imperiling choice deserved a degree of careful thought. Paulette’s help had got him perched on a metal ladder, in the midst of an electrical storm; while in the meantime, she and her confederate goaded him from above with insults to his manhood. He advanced one rung higher, hazarding an awkward wrenching of the neck to peer towards the light.
Oliver stuck his head out, checking Mulhall’s progress. Mulhall had ceased to progress. A massive thunderclap and the deluge that followed had riveted him in place, far short of sanctuary, unable to guess his distance from the ground. He felt he might soon learn the answer.
“Almighty Saint Pete!” Oliver whispered. “How can I take hold of your hand and haul you in, if you don’t shift yourself up where I can get at you?”
Mulhall heard Paulette’s voice, muffled, then growing distinct as she too leaned over the edge, “…out of my way, and I’ll go out there.”
“Don’t you have any common sense?” Oliver asked. “How do you know that ladder can bear the weight of two people?”
Continued from “weight of two people”
“What are you talking about? What if there was a fire?”
“Now, don’t say it. You know I’m superstitious.”
“You’re not telling me…” Her voice receded into the hallway, then came back audible to Mulhall. Bickering, she and Oliver had forgotten themselves engaged in a clandestine affair.
“…anyone’s gonna put up a fire ladder, and it would fall off the wall if you tried using it!”
“You’re assuming they put it up sometime this century.”
Pressured by this new consideration, Mulhall slid a hand from the rung to the ladder’s frame. By inches, if not centimeters, he moved this aloft. He slid the other up the opposite side, never yielding his death grip and full-body embrace. With a slug-like rippling, he obtained an increasing elevation. He hooked a heel, and repeated the process.
Paulette said, “I was only gonna climb down along the side and give him a little push.”
“Hey, look,” Oliver’s voice sounded, suddenly, close by. “Gimme your hand, pal. Come on.” Mulhall resumed his incremental slide. Oliver seized him by the forearm. “Paulette, dang it! Let go!”
Breath heaved, clothing rustled, and the door bumped against the wall.
“I was just getting you by the ankle,” she said. “Be sure you don’t fall!”
“Don’t come at me with a new idea like that all at once,” Oliver muttered. He dragged Mulhall over the unfinished threshold, and stood, while Mulhall remained jelly-limbed and nose to carpet.
“The Lord helps them that help themselves, pal.”
Mulhall kept silent still, as he followed his new acquaintances to their room. The silence was not eloquent, for his shoes, soaked with rainwater, accompanied each step with a damp, desultory squnch. It was not that he lacked towards Oliver, for these saving maneuvers, a profound regard. He noted, merely, that the favor had been gratuitous. Left to his own devices, Mulhall did not break into hotels in the middle of the night.
“You like Hoover?” Oliver asked him.
“He seems a man of strong convictions.”
He had lost a hat, two shirt-buttons, and a fountain pen. Mulhall spoke to quell conversation. Navigating past the sticky door, he came up short before a glass fronted curio cabinet, empty of curio. The Millers, he conjectured, in disposing of a great aunt’s estate, had taken the conservative view. The labor required to dust an over-furnished room was cheap…it was on the house, no doubt, courtesy of Mrs. Miller…furniture, on the other hand, was a commodity.
“Sit over here.” Paulette patted the seat of a an armchair wedged under the window. She leaned across the bed and started bunching up the chenille coverlet. “You’re gonna get a chill, all wet like that. Give him a slug of your hooch, Alfred.”
Oliver rummaged in a cardboard suitcase. Mulhall, not chilled, had thought rather of asking permission to open the window…and saw they had already done so.
“Take a pull on this.” Oliver handed across a flask. Paulette watched with hands that hovered, in search of something to yank or prod. Oliver nodded. “Go on, have another.” In obedience, Mulhall dosed himself a second time, then, trembling somewhat about the lips, while his left eye watered freely, he handed back the flask.
A thought occurred to him. He sat up. He’d dropped his wallet in an unbuttoned pocket after the shifts and changes of Angermeier’s. If the pass-key to his room at home had gone, his building superintendent would sell him another, cheerfully enough…but losing his money was serious. He slid down until his back rested on the seat, and twisted, groping behind him.
“Alfred, give him the rest of that. He’s having some kind of fit.” Paulette bustled to straight-jacket Mulhall in the bedspread’s folds.
Oliver tilted the flask upside-down. “Too late.”
“Why…” Mulhall began, and stopped. “Miss…I’m sorry, I don’t know your last name.”
She turned to Oliver. “See how he’s polite like that?”
“She calls herself Paulette St. Geneviève.” Oliver made a derisive noise. “You pitch it too high, girlie. You oughta called yourself Gladys Smith. When you get to Hollywood, they’ll name you whatever they decide, anyway.”
“What are you talking about? Who says?”
“And if you were class, steada one of the local rubes, you wouldn’t answer everything with a question. Who says?” In gruesome burlesque, he impersonated her. “What are you talking about?” He sat heavily on the mattress, drew up a leg and reached for a shoelace. “You think the first lady talks like that?”
“How should I know? When I’m famous, I’ll go to the White House and have tea. I’ll send you a telegram.” She settled on the bed near Mulhall’s chair, and stretched the arches of her muddy bare feet. “And what are you talking local? I’m not from here.”
“I know where you’re from.” Oliver recovered a half-smoked cigar from an ashtray perched on the bedside Bible. “And it’s not far from here.”
She appealed to Mulhall. “Is it a crime, I’m not famous yet?”
“Why,” he tried again. “Miss St. Geneviève…”
Paulette giggled, and slapped Oliver on the shoulder.
“…did you choose to…
(Dragoon seemed to be the word.)
“Fetch ya in out of the rain,” Oliver mumbled, smoking.
“Oh.” She cocked her head to the side, the way she’d done when speaking to Miller. “I saw you come in. You looked like such a mutt, standing by yourself, with grease all over your shirt. When Miller told you clear out, I couldn’t make out your shtick. You talk funny.”
“I spent my formative years abroad.” Mulhall looked down. There was little of white oxford cloth now to be seen, but the viscosity of the Angermeier grease was such that, where his peas, brought to bay, had wanted buttressing, rainwater beaded his shirt-front. He noticed mustard on his necktie. He began to feel a certain internal unease. A chemical experiment burbled, in something less than silence—indelible drugstore fare combining dangerously with the hooch that still burned in his stomach.
He supposed himself indeed a mutt.
“Yeah, anyone can see the good it’s done you,” Oliver said. “First thing I learned in charm school…you gotta mix in. Now, who you with?”
This, Mulhall did not know how to answer.
“What’s your right name?”
“I don’t quite see…”
“I’ll tell you what. This is my last one of these conventions. I’m taking over the city desk at the end of the year. I might wanna keep you in mind. Who you with?”
“Ah. I get you. I write for the International News Service.”
“Wire guy. I figured. Got that ‘no fixed abode’ look to you. What’s your right name? I might put you on a list. You want steady work, don’t you? A regular address?”
Mulhall nodded. “T.O.”
“Theo? Greek to me. How you spell it?”
“Those are my initials.”
He realized he was up against it, the lure of a regular address and steady work too powerful. He must disclose the truth, or he might miss this chance. Mulhall hedged. “My middle name, as it happens, is Oliver.”
“Well, originality counts for a lot. What’s your other name?”
He expected them to laugh, but confessed it:
They laughed. Specifically, Oliver snorted, and Paulette giggled. She repeated the name to herself, and giggled again.
“My mother,” Mulhall was quick to explain, “had no one to advise her.” He hoped they understood him. The advice of his Aunt Clarice hadn’t signified, her wisdom extending only to an unquestioned faith in the efficacies of castor oil and kerosene. “As my mother tells the story, one day she was leafing through the Daily Mail…”
“Mine used to do the same thing,” Oliver reminisced. “Back when she worked at the Palmer House in Chicago. Nothing boosts the tips like a little icebreaker. You don’t know what you’re gonna find out about people.”
“My mother came across the name.”
She had, for that matter (but it was not Oliver’s business), come across the man who bore it…and once had taken Mulhall by train to Penzance, in hopes his boyish face, as she ushered him into a particular butcher’s shop, would induce, at the least, a guilty start.
“And,” he finished, “she was taken with it.”
“Taken with a fit?” Oliver asked. “They say those things run in families.”
“Oland Coleman.” Paulette hoisted herself upright, punched and re-positioned the pillow she’d been leaning against.
“Daisy Bradshaw’s para-moron? The incompetent accomplice? The star-crossed bungler?”
Oliver depressed the mattress, heaving his cigar stub with contempt. Mulhall flinched as it sailed past, out the window and into the night. “Why you mention Coleman? They shoulda fried him like an egg.”
“Jeez, he didn’t kill anyone. I just thought of him, ’cause,” Paulette said, looking at Mulhall, “he had a funny name.”
“He was a funny guy. The only reason he didn’t kill anyone was because George Bradshaw had idiot’s luck. Why wouldn’t you go stand on the edge of a dam, after your wife tried to poison you already? They say God has a soft spot for fools…and…somethin’ else.” Oliver shook his head. “Heaven must be a real treat.”
“Bradshaw,” Mulhall said. “The name was connected to some sort of scandal, wasn’t it?”
“No,” Oliver said, “big folks have scandals. The Bradshaws were just small fry. I’ll tell you how it happened…”
George Bradshaw heard an incongruous note. He meant to answer a question. He wasn’t certain she had asked anything. He heard emerge from his throat, a gurgle. Air fanned his face.
He was closer. Her voice was not Daisy’s. He wished he felt certain she was Jeannette…but she was not. “George,” she said, and he saw her shadowed eyes. He didn’t know when he had woken up. “George,” she spoke in a low voice, tinted lips looming, close to his ear, “which one of them did it?”
She disappeared. Heavy footfalls reverberated, soft shoes and hard steps, the way Daisy in her slippers stalked the house. These moved from outside, and came in. He knew it because they drummed louder, growing peremptory. The noise jolted George’s nervous system. He flailed…or remapped the positions of his arms, and tried to.
“Is he awake?”
“Sure, he’s awake. See? You made him jump.”
“Miss…” A pause. Breaths that conveyed irritation. “Where were you trained?”
“All over the place.”
The girl was small. Her smock draped her shoes. Her cap, pinned but not anchored, to a quantity of unkempt hair, advanced towards her eyes. The head nurse did not ask that the agency girls perform miracles. She asked merely that they show respect, follow instructions…and make themselves presentable. In her opinion the post-war recruiting drive had much to answer for.
“What is your name?”
“Keep an eye on Mr. Bradshaw. Call me at once if he needs his morphine shot.”
How would I know, Paulette asked herself―but fair was fair. A nurse would probably know, but she was an actress. She looked behind her. The door was meant to stay open. Paulette pushed it quietly, until it rested on the latch.
“George. It was her, wasn’t it?”
Yes, he was awake. He had dreamed of an accident, a persistent fighting and losing, the narrative returning, spinning through familiar conversations. When he was not really asleep—drugged, he thought—he saw pictures of Daisy, watched in helplessness, heard her voice going at him like a hacksaw, steadily taking him down. He felt that his own sub-conscious had acted as a secret advocate through this ordeal, and he had now seen a revelation. He could not turn to the girl at his bedside. The neck brace forced him to stare at the ceiling. He jerked one hand in the air.
“Don’t,” he said, the first word he’d spoken in days.
“Don’t what, George?”
“Don’t leave me alone with them.”
Oland Coleman sat on Daisy Bradshaw’s davenport. Daisy was in the kitchen. The Bradshaws lived in a white clapboard bungalow, among a row of identical bungalows, each on its fifty-foot lot. Oland, from his restive perch, watched Daisy through the kitchen doorway. He saw her cross into view. He stared as she leaned into the icebox. A cabinet door grated on its hinges. Glasses clattered. Oland worried about Daisy’s mood. Cautiously, he lifted one work boot and checked the rug for evidence of tracking. Daisy would take after him something fierce if he tracked.
“I was just now getting the carpet sweeper.”
She appeared in the doorway. “I was going to ask if you wanted saltines with your lemonade. Did you track?”
He massed into the space that led from the living room to the kitchen, filling it, as Daisy, seeking dirt, attempted egress; for a moment, Oland and Daisy grappled with each other.
But—a rarity—she yielded, stepping backwards. She jabbed her finger, indicating a chair too small for Oland.
He sat, and Daisy sat. She skidded the pitcher across. Oland on his elbows hunched over the kitchen table. Lemonade sloshed. She leaned back, seizing the tea towel looped through the icebox door. She dabbed at the spill, then raised a strained face.
“Oland,” she said. “You need to visit George while they’ve still got him.”
Oland’s knees, pressed tight under the table’s edge, clenched. Lemonade sloshed anew. “I would like some saltines,” he answered her, meek.
“You aren’t getting saltines,” Daisy said. “I want you listening. George”—she held Oland’s eye and lifted a penciled brow—“might get confused, what with the morphine. He might take another fall. Down the stairs.”
Oland thought this over. “I don’t see how he’d get up with a broken leg. Maybe he would fall out of bed.”
“Ain’t nobody…” Daisy began. She slurped in dark meditation.
Daisy liked keeping up her standards. The Bradshaw house was a place of culture; culture that would one day exert a leveling influence on her neighbors’ social barriers. Yet the times demanded emphatic speech.
“…ain’t nobody ever died falling out of bed.”
He looked to the bright star visible through the kitchen window despite the light within.
“Speak English.” She stretched an arm to the counter, snaffled the saltine box and rooted inside, withdrawing four. She crunched, spewing an arc of discontented crumbs.
“He was tucked up in a sort of bunk we made for him. Had a bad leg…I mean…” He remembered. “Sort of bandaged on, is how it was…but the medics couldn’t make it through. Then they started shelling us, heavy. Strong kept screaming. Then,” Oland said, wonderingly, “he fell out of his bunk and rolled down into the water, down to the bottom. And we never found him.”
“Did I ask? What’s it got to do with the price of beans, that war stuff?” She shoved the saltines across the table. Oland took a handful. “You and George with the stories. Listen, Oland. You go to the hospital and ask to visit. Tell them you’re his cousin.”
Continued from “you’re his cousin”
He chewed and waited for Daisy. He could not fathom hers, nor formulate a scheme from his own imagination.
“Won’t George know I’m not his cousin?” Oland asked at last.
She waved a saltine in dismissal. “When you talk to George, tell him you came after that money he owes you for the roof.”
She was making Oland nervous again. He tried to hold his own against these intrusions. “I think,” he said, softly, “George paid me already. He always pays me.”
“Oland,” Daisy said. Her eyes narrowed. “When you murder a guy, you don’t worry about cheating him.”
“It’s getting hot,” Paulette told Oliver. The head nurse moved out of earshot. “You heard how she said my name? I told you.”
“So whose fault is that? You’re supposed to be an angel of mercy. You look like you fell out the laundry cart. You know extras don’t get their own dressers over there in Hollywood, right? Your boss has a point.”
“Alfred…” She paused.
Echoing from the stairs, they heard the approach of footfalls, leaden. A sturdy work boot stubbed a riser…
And a male voice uttered an incoherent lamentation.
“Alfred,” Paulette said again. “I have good information for you. If you’re not nice to me, you can lump it.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Oliver replied. “I got five bucks. If it turns out your information is worth anything, you can have it.”
“It was her.”
“He told you?”
“As good as.”
The presence on the stairs moved again. A hand seemed to grope at the door handle, then fall away, irresolute.
“Listen,” Paulette whispered. “What was that word you used?”
“I didn’t say anything. I might have shuddered.”
“Not a minute ago. When you were telling me about Daisy.”
“Blunderbuss? Dreadnought? Battleaxe?”
“Um…any of those.” She leaned towards Oliver, and pinched his sleeve. “When that head nurse came into George’s room, you should have seen him twitch. Her voice went right through him.”
Oliver looked appraisingly at Paulette. “You got some instincts. I’m impressed.”
The door from the stairwell burst open.
A burly man with the white-rimmed eye of a nervous rabbit…and doughy folds of chin where his collar cinched his neck…stood separated from them by no more than twenty feet of linoleum. He went slack through the shoulders, the sleeves of his jacket pulling to mid-forearm.
Oliver’s eyes sharpened into avidity.
“That’s Oland Coleman!” Paulette nudged him in the ribs.
In a reverberating stage whisper, Oliver answered, “I know that.”
They turned as one for a second time, hearing—for a second time—the door thud against the wall.
A diminishing sound of feet, running, striking, stumbling…
A noise like that of three overstuffed mail bags, tossed one by one onto the deck of a barge…
“Let’s find out if he’s alive,” Paulette said. She hurried to the stairs, hitching her smock. “Come on, come on.”
They heard stirring below, a grunt and a moan. Then a second door, creaking on its hinges, swung and banged. It creaked again, as Paulette, stumping with one exposed leg, and Oliver, lighting a cigar—as he did at moments of leisure—reached the pit of the stairwell. With an indifferent clank, the door came to rest, an inch or so from shutting itself.
Scanning up and down the street, they saw no trace of Oland Coleman.
“He probably landed on his head. No harm done. So how’s that sort with your idea?” Oliver went on. “Coleman looks guilty to me.”
“What are you talking about? He came here to protect the woman he loves.” Paulette adjusted her clothes, and gave a shrug. “Don’t ask me. Daisy got two men, I got none. Anyhow, I was telling you. George wants us to get in touch with his sister. Her name’s Dot. He told me he was afraid to be alone with them. Daisy, he means, and the handyman.”
“Is that what he said? They only got Coleman, far as I know.”
“Well, it looks funny, doesn’t it? She’s renting a room to Oland while her husband’s in the hospital?”
“Nah. Coleman doesn’t rent. Just lives there. Handy guy to keep around, you gotta figure.”
“Are you friends with these people?” Paulette shoved her cap, and rolled her eyes.
“Friends! Heck. I could hear the whole story if I spent an hour loitering down the bus station.” Oliver rolled his. “Whataya think? These burgs are full of Bradshaws. I thought you came from Hayseed Acres yourself.”
“Listen.” She changed the subject. “You need to find Dot and Henry Stonemarten. They live in Belleville. Use your contacts, you got so many.”
“I’ll tell you what. You use contacts to do a job any telephone operator can do for you, you’re not gonna have contacts. You get in touch with them.”
“Gimme five bucks.”
“Girlie, old Uncle Alfred didn’t hatch out the chicken coop yesterday. I’m not handing you five bucks standing on a street corner.”
Paulette considered. “You’re lucky I’m the innocent type. A mind like yours could put a picture in a girl’s head.”
She grubbed in her pocketbook as she walked up the street, her nurse’s gear left tossed over the bunk in her dorm room. Paulette was telling herself, yeah, I’m canned. I’ll just do this other thing…Alfred better pay me.
“Hey! Practice what you preach, whyncha?” she muttered, in response to a stranger’s invective. She might have stepped on the woman’s foot…you can’t look out for everything all at once. Paulette was formulating a plan. She nodded with satisfaction. She had just enough change. Why not take the bus to Belleville and give her news to Dot Stonemarten in person?
“I gave my word,” she saw herself telling Dot. She pictured Dot, whose full name consisted of four sharp syllables, as a sharp little person. “I spent my last dime to come here. I promised George I would tell you what he told me. I like George. And I gotta warn you, ma’am, there’s someone who doesn’t…”
There were people, who didn’t happen to be named Alfred Oliver, who would pay good money for good information.
Oland Coleman drank deep from his second ginger ale. He didn’t trust himself with coffee; even now, his hands were shaking, and he could have sworn…that nurse…seen staring at him just when he’d collected himself enough to focus his eyes… She’d called him by name. With a view to eluding capture, running otherwise empty of thought for four blocks, he’d darted into Ostwald’s Drugstore. Some minutes afterwards, a heavy-set man, sporting a few strands of hair combed behind one ear, had taken a seat at the end of the counter.
“The man from the hospital,” Oland murmured…not meaning to. He lurched, and steadied himself. He essayed another sidelong glance, and could make out nothing. He finished his ginger ale, skidded the bottle across, and ordered a third. He dared swing his head a few inches to the side. The man nodded in a friendly way, tipping up two fingers, his palm resting by his cup and saucer.
The truth was more disturbing. Oland knew this man, had seen him somewhere…the man was a danger to him, Oland felt it in his bones…but he was not the man from the hospital. He searched his pocket for change. His quarter dropped. He heard it go waga waga waga, spinning somewhere under the row of stools. Furtive, Oland slid to his hands and knees, then climbed to his feet and put his quarter on the counter.
The woman told him, “No, hon.”
He was dumbfounded.
“No, hon,” she repeated. “Pay at the register.”
Detective-Sergeant Ahern sat watching Coleman push at a door that opened inward. When at length he’d gone, Ahern shot a glance up the counter at the waitress. “Guy seems a little jumpy.”
“As long as Oland Coleman pays for his ginger ale,” she said, wiping down the counter, clearing away the empty bottles, “he’s a customer like everybody else.”
He hated to think of Daisy’s mood.
At times Oland got badly fussed―driven to the extremity of questioning Daisy on a matter of policy―she would say, “Oh, get out! Don’t talk to me.” She would tell him he was seeing things. Of late, she’d taken a new tack. If they didn’t get the insurance money soon; if they didn’t escape this town…
The police are gonna start figuring things out. And that’ll be too bad. For you, I mean. Because I saw you, Oland. I saw you push George. It’s not that I don’t love you, but if it comes down to you or me—
He called to his mind everything he remembered about that day. He couldn’t make himself believe it. Oland knew he was clumsy. He knew he was slow in the head…everyone said so. Still, he hadn’t been standing next to George. He hadn’t even been looking at George.
“Maybe I just bumped into him, by mistake…”
He liked George; he didn’t hate George. Oland knew of no reason he would do this on purpose. She shook her head. She swept the saltine crumbs with her left hand, gathering them in her right.
“I saw it. Everything.”
Oland had been speechless.
“You got no choice now,” Daisy told him. “You’ll make it worse for yourself if you don’t finish the job. You might get me in trouble. Oland,” she’d added, “I can’t help you if you don’t help me.”
Daisy gazed at him from beneath her eyelashes, in a manner that would have made George leave the room. But in his life, Oland had attracted the attentions of few women. He found Daisy tolerably winsome.
She said, “I’m only looking out for you”; and Oland, uneasy about it…this forced view of himself outside himself, had acquiesced.
Daisy had a niece, Mabel, six years younger than herself. “Mabel’s a drip,” Daisy told Oland. “But she has to come along so you can be there.” The day they’d gone to the reservoir, Mabel had walked the three blocks to the Bradshaws’.
And Daisy, throwing open the kitchen door, said at once:
“Mabel, you look peaky. You’re gonna have one of your headaches. I’ll mix you a powder.” She filled a glass with water from the sink. She opened a tin and pulled out a little packet.
“Mabel, hand me a spoon.”
Clenching a cigarette between her teeth, Daisy beat up a milky broth flecked with undissolved grains. “This’ll take care of you,” she told Mabel.
Mabel swallowed, winced and grimaced.
“Tastes bad?” Daisy asked, with a tight little smile. “George doesn’t like it, either.”
And as they’d picnicked, Mabel had begun to look actively peaky…if not green.
George set down his plate of potato salad.
He’d noticed the lack of rapport between Mabel and Oland. “I bet Oland would walk you up along the dam, if you ask sweet.” He chuckled. He tried catching Oland’s eye.
Mabel stood suddenly and staggered from the blanket. George again lifted his plate, and stared down at it. Oland blushed and clutched his stomach as though he retched in sympathy. She stumbled back, mortified and ashen.
“Mabel, go lay down in the car.”
Daisy said this, swigged the last of her orange soda…then flung the bottle towards the roadside ditch. Here George, edging the Ford to a stop, had come close to tipping it.
(“…’cause you always see some gang of half-wit hooligans rocketing along this stretch, that’s why. Blind curve.” He’d buffed his fender with a jacket sleeve, and added, “Jeez, Daisy, slide over and quit griping.”)
She held out a cigarette for George to light.
Both watched Mabel zig-zag to the culvert, bent at the waist. They watched her fumble with a passenger door. Her head dipped from view.
“That right front tire’s a little ragged,” George said.
“George,” Daisy said, “you and me are gonna go walk on that path up by the dam.”
“Ha. I don’t think so.”
“George, what’s Oland got to do with us getting divorced? Why you wanna talk in front of him?”
Lured thus, eyes alight, George jumped to his feet.
(more to come)