Stories from the Are You series:
Are You Jealous
Are You Adaptable
Are You Loveable
Are You Jealous
A package. Gabriel heard Eva’s voice . . . her put on voice, he called it. She spoke this way to delivery people, sing-song, thanking them, ushering them out the door. He heard the door close, slue into its frame with a rush of air followed by the metallic thunk of the bolt hitting home. He heard silence, then rustling. Eva talking to herself about scissors. Next, she was on the phone. He guessed she was speaking to Presby. He heard her say, “I did get your email. Fad, you know I have no attention span. Ha. I didn’t know it had a calendar. Oh . . . ”
Gabriel heard uneven, muffled footsteps, with something labored about them, as she climbed the stairs. She approached, and her conversation approached, growing more distinct, Eva interspersed with microbursts of Presby.
“Oh,” Gabriel said to himself. “McFadden, now.”
She laughed. “Well, it sounded funny. I don’t know what you call those things. I know you said bushings.”
He kept his back to her. She had broken his concentration, but he kept his back to her. McFadden Presby. Could anyone on earth have such a name? Eva had rung off. She placed the clock on Gabriel’s desk . . . near, almost touching, his right hand. She leaned over him, and straightened his collar. She placed her phone in front of his keyboard.
It was her little habit. She was always tucking her phone under Gabriel’s eyes: at the dinner table, on the coffee table. At his desk, while he tried to work. She would tap an arrow in a box; a video or song would play. He would have to love it, for her sake.
For her sake, he loved all Eva’s mannerisms. But they irritated.
He found himself looking at a cipher, which spun into a logo. The logo was muted gun-metal; spare in design. The logo faded. McFadden Presby stood before a leather armchair. The chair was a fixture; yet, in the auction house videos, Presby never sat. He pivoted. He occasionally stepped, one pace to the left, one pace to the right. The chair acted as Presby’s magnetic center; he hovered as a gyroscope hovers. He had a pair of eyeglasses which he never wore, but held, and gestured with, inviting his audience to see his point. Presby imparted the esoterica of the antiques trade in a sonorous voice . . . the accent sounding British. After a while, one noticed something continental about the vowels.
Continued from “ . . . about the vowels . . . ”
Gabriel supposed Presby had got the name from someone’s luggage tags. His real name was probably Klaus. Having decided this, Gabriel had come to think of Presby as Klaus. It was childish . . . it didn’t help.
“What do you think?” Eva asked.
Since he hadn’t been listening, he side-stepped by countering with a question of his own. “Have you decided to sell it?”
“My clock?” She treated him to another of her mannerisms: wide eyes, coquettish hand to heart. “I’ll never sell my clock. McFadden says it’s only middle range. But it’s good.”
She wore a long velvet skirt, an Indian tunic. Her black cardie, cashmere, once obtained for a great sum, had fallen moth-eaten. Eva had thrust fingers into the holes; she’d stretched them out. Now bright hues and patterns of her tunic showed through irregular ovals. Eva moved swiftly, and her clothes made their own small whirlwind of motion. She tinkered with the clock. Her clock, she would have Gabriel discover, did not merely chime. . . it carillonned, it deedled, it piped intricately. Eva looked enraptured. She tapped a finger on Gabriel’s bald spot.
“He fixed it. That’s what the man . . . Emil Reiff, McFadden’s guy who has the little shop full of gears . . . and bushings, I guess . . . “
Eva laughed, a fond moment recollecting Presby’s wit. “That’s what he did. McFadden said he’ll send the bill.”
Gabriel thought: Too much joy for one morning. But he said, “Well, I ought to finish one or two things. Then we’ll have lunch, won’t we?”
She looked at him. She slipped her hand, in a rather stealthy way, across the desk, and picked up her phone. She left the room.
Gabriel sat angled to his desk, taking surreptitious views of his client’s product photo. Clients, he found, often had this idea of selling. The expanse of shirtfront, as he preferred to express it, was distressing, off-putting. Her moles and creases made a poor framing device for her kitchen gadget. She would need to send another photo; she would need to omit herself next time.
He opened his email. “Your charms, my dear”—Presby’s baritone, his rolling vowels, intruded upon Gabriel’s imagination—”must come as a happy surprise.” Well, Presby was a self-created being. He stood high with his auction-house clientele. Gabriel envisioned becoming Presby, instructing, mesmerizing with voice and gesture. He would stand high with Eva, presumably.
He saw an unfamiliar name. He saw, a moment before trashing the email . . . a bit tardy loading . . . his wife’s name in the subject line. He was unsurprised to see a spare deconstructed logo dissolve against an ink outline of Palladian architecture. The outline filled discreetly; a modest Tibetan flute accompanied the animation. The background remained dim, dove grey. A photo emerged from the right, captioned: “Henderson Young”. A tiny icon, shrouded, enabled disabling of the animation. The animation had run its course by the time Gabriel had disambiguated this.
Mrs. Pinion. I will call you Eva. It was your own request. You will recall our very pleasant chat at lunch; you, McFadden, and I.
“Why are you reading that?”
Gabriel was startled.
“It isn’t yours,” Eva said.
He made an uncertain finger-flail towards the screen.
“No,” she said. Eva moved to the side of the desk; she placed her hands on the clock. “McFadden,” Eva told him, “wanted to invite you to his gathering. Henderson might have made a mistake. What’s it got to do with you?”
The clock struck four. Through some devil’s bargain, the clock’s chiming mechanism built complications of leitmotif that grew (he could not doubt it) with the passing hours. They waited. Eva’s left eyebrow was raised in defiance. The clock subsided. Gabriel said, “I’m sorry. You say Klaus . . . ”
“I don’t know who you mean.”
“Presby . . . McFadden . . . ”
“I hope you feel better soon,” Eva said.
Her mood seemed to brighten. He thought this brightness had a putting-a-stop-to-it-all edge.
“Where should we put it?” She picked up the clock, hugging it against her cashmere, holding it by its gilded columns. “Would you like it in the kitchen?”
“I would. I very much would.”
Gabriel averted his gaze conscientiously from the stranger’s email. Henderson Young meant to sell Eva another clock. He had found one he felt was within her range, suitable for a beginner. You, McFadden, and I. Not that Gabriel kept to any particular schedule, being always free, in effect. But Eva could have lunch in town. She could have lunch with two men and not bother to mention it.
The next email was from Klaus.
Gabe. Our gatherings are quite informal, and as I must consider you a friend . . .
Gabe. He could not tolerate being called Gabe. The name belonged to someone stepped on, imposed upon, called over to run an errand, dismissed when no longer of use. He was sensitive on the point; he felt shortchanged, baptismally. He’d confided this to Eva.
“I’ll remember that,” she’d told him.
He had always found her ways charming. She’d been nestled on the sofa, arms wrapped around a tasselled pillow. Eva squeezed this, lowered her head, looked up at him.
Perhaps, rather than charming, foreboding.
A horrible intimacy it was, to laugh at someone, take confidences and share them as little amusements. He had no proof she’d done that. Presby might easily be a nick-namer.
Gabriel looked at the next email. Emil Reiff’s request for payment. He looked twice. As though it knew, as though it mocked, the clock gave out a brief, twinkling note, as it struck the half-hour.
Continued from “ . . . for that matter . . . ”
How could the repairs have cost so much? Reiff had not itemized; he extenuated nothing . . . but he had included a phone number. Gabriel stood. His phone would be in his jacket. His jacket ought to be downstairs. The clock ought to be downstairs. Why had he heard it as clearly as if it were in the room?
He approached the thing with trepidation.
Eva had placed the clock on the island, below the pot rack. A thought crossed Gabriel’s mind. If a bus were to go by and shake the foundation, one of those pots . . . but it would have to be cast iron to do real harm. He tapped up his email, got Reiff’s number.
“I accept a credit card,” Reiff told him. “I accept cash. Also, through McFadden Presby. He will arrange for you.”
“I don’t object to paying . . . ”
“My business is such,” Reiff said firmly, “that I must be paid. I expect to be paid.”
Well, as Gabriel supposed, ending the call, everyone’s business is such, for that matter.
The day was not really sunny; it was not really warm. He felt clammy wearing his jacket. He knew that if he took it off, he would feel chilled. The sun, hazy through low clouds, as though a dim shop light were burning, seemed warmer where yellow leaves remained, withdrawing coldly where limbs were bare. He passed three businesses in a row, shuttered and closed, signs advertising their premises available for lease.
Vows and pledges can’t obviate human nature. Passages in life run their course. Eva’s nature was to fix things—to take a shabby thing and make art of it; to take a broken thing and restore its utility. Eva, on the other hand (as in her blithe way she always said), had a short attention span.
“You don’t, you know. You choose to.” He had said this back to her. He saw Eva’s face.
Yes, she cast things aside; she moved on to new enthusiasms. She was mistaken, Gabriel thought, if she believed her work was finished.
And yet . . . could it be? Eva had once explained her obsession to Gabriel. As a child, she had coveted this clock. Her eyes turned upwards, Eva could see the clock . . . she could not reach it . . . not even standing on a chair. Forbidden, withheld, the heirloom sat atop the wardrobe. The wardrobe itself was a fortress, a castle keep, crafted from rosewood, fitted in greened copper. It had hulked in its family corner for an age; it had been burnished to umbrageous depth; its drawer pulls had the faces of angels, and nuances of hue, from black oxidation to brilliant glints of red-brown. She had studied them all, sketched verdigris in her spiral-bound book.
Eva’s grandmother bore a resemblance to the wardrobe; she held this family possession in esteem. She did not love the clock. She used it, pointed to it, opened the door, closed the door. And the clock, the splendid clock, the gilded clock, the chiming clock, enchanted the child Eva. The clock, aloof, speaking of prosperity’s legacy, lost and deserved, enticed.
She had not even told him. For a week, he’d found her singing pop tunes, pulling down artisan cookbooks, fixing odd dinners. She got on these jags of experimentation when hatching a scheme that pleased her. He had found Presby’s card. She’d meant that. Eva liked clues and secrets. She had reached across the table, arrested his hand.
“I’m expecting a package,” she’d said.
But he could not suppose this downslide had begun that day. An object, an inheritance, had not shattered the fragile egg of their married life. The fissures in its surface had always been there. Merely, the clock—tinkling, echoing, crescendoing—had chipped away at the shell.
Gabriel had a vague picture of Reiff’s shop looking like the inside of a cuckoo clock. He walked around the block, found the address again. The narrow brick exterior, sand-colored, had a window that said nothing, blinds which admitted no interior view. The door was black, a muted semi-gloss. On frosted, beveled glass, the name Emil Reiff was de-etched, as it were, in clear, nearly invisible lettering. The lettering was like the typeface of a ’40’s wartime dispatch.
Inside, Gabriel had a moment to look around. The shop seemed empty. He felt that a tone had sounded as he’d opened the door, an oddly discreet and undefinable note which was not a bell nor an electronic bleat, but resembled the high register of a Buddhist temple chime. The room itself reminded Gabriel of a meditation chamber. Everything approached white. He’d nearly described the color as vanilla, but vanilla was a coffee-shop designation. The Reiff milieu wanted something industrial: gypsum, perhaps. The shop was the next plane in post-Reductionist design. It asked of the observer, why have more than one color, if color has nothing to say?
The walls had shelves, the shelves had drawers, the drawers had tone-on-tone lettering—Reiff’s signature lettering. Scanning inventory, Gabriel strained to read, from among hundreds of uncapitalized possibilities: “balance wheels”; “counters”; “impulse levers”.
Pins . . . rollers . . .
Reiff, white hair in minimalist proportion to brow; this, deeply furrowed with the demands of craftsmanship, blue eyes riveting . . . also, was capable of emerging from a trap, it appeared. Gabriel, in surprise, said, “You know me?”
“I expect you,” Reiff answered.
With Gabriel’s credit card, he vanished again, into an alcove, one optically concealed by the sheer whiteness of the space. Seemingly, he had no other customers today. Gabriel had come in person to do what he might, saving time, have done over the phone. He had reason. A friend of Presby might know information to Presby’s discredit.
But Reiff’s forbidding manner had come somewhat athwart Gabriel’s scenario. He could no longer imagine engaging the clocksmith in chit-chat.
Reiff returned. Without a word, he held out the card and receipt.
“You work with Presby,” Gabriel said, tucking the card into its slot, the receipt into his right pocket, the wallet into his left.
“For Presby, I sometimes work.”
“You admire Presby?”
“Why should I admire Presby?”
“You . . . like Presby?”
“Why should I like Presby?”
“You dislike Presby?”
“Why should I dislike Presby?”
Checkmated, Gabriel fell silent.
“You dislike Presby, of course,” Reiff said. “A troubling thing, a clock.”
“A clock, a complication, a conjecture, a theorem, a pattern, a wheel, a pivot, a pendulum. The earth’s rotation.”
“Here is a story,” Reiff said, and telling nothing, disappeared into his alcove. He had in his hands, as he issued from the half-light, a clock. It was black, but abraded with antiquity to a matte umber. The numbers on its face had both a sturdy peasant lumpishness, and a fine, thin grasp at elegance. The face was yellowed to amber. The hands were stopped at 3:14. The clock had a little arched door with a keyhole, and a delicately painted floral design.
“In Großherzogtum Weimar,” Reiff said. He had spoken the name with a great enunciation. Gabriel attended. Reiff went on. “This clock was sold. Eighteen forty-five, that was. That is all we can say of it. Certainly, it was made three hundred years ago, maybe older.”
Gabriel hoped Reiff had never shown it to Eva. He’d been on the verge of calling it striking; once more, he checked himself, and said, “I’m impressed. The painted bit. Done by hand, I assume?”
Reiff gave him a hard look. “The clock is broken. So long as this clock has been known, no one has found the part to fix it. But a part is nothing.”
“Ah.” He found himself answering Reiff in this manner. “Is a part nothing?”
“I, through great luck, have come to own the clock. For my life, I have worked to solve it.”
Continued from “ . . . to solve it . . .”
Gabriel forced an effort. He had no idea what sort of exercise this was.
“For such an old clock, I would think, you’d have to make a part . . . fabricate one . . . you wouldn’t find anything.”
“You can of course make the part. If you know where the part must go. If you know what function the part must have. Now see.” Reiff pulled a remote control device from his pocket; he aimed at the blind on the shop window. Soundlessly, slats shifted, sunlight weakly filtered in. Reiff gestured. Gabriel looked. The street was empty. The clouds sagged, seeming nearly to touch the russet hills, seen beyond the plodding shabbiness of the neighborhood, with its brick buildings weeping mortar from their upper stories, flickering neon below. Yet he saw a small opening of blue sky, a welling blaze of setting sun, too painful to more than glance at.
Reiff said again, exactly as before, “You can of course make the part. If you know where the part must go. If you know what function the part must have.”
Another name cropped up. Saturday, Gabriel, at his end of the sofa, had been reading an article; while Eva, at hers, leafed through catalogs. She stood, gathered her recycling, and went to the garage. Gabriel, submerged with the methane bubble which threatened to burst from the thawing permafrost, blinked when Eva placed a note-card on the screen of his tablet. She’d reached around from behind; he hadn’t seen her come back in.
From the desk of Kuaia Bodmin-Hodges, it read. Calligraphic script bumped over what looked like seed hulls and insect wings entombed in hand-pressed paper. The paper had been cut to the size of a large biscuit; it was held to another of its kind with a strip of raw linen. Ms. Bodmin-Hodges was a senior partner of Henderson Young’s antiques concern. On Presby’s behalf (though she called him McFadden, as though they were all become chummy), she wished to extend a personal warm invitation to Gabriel. He had no idea, now, who was hosting the event.
“I have to go early.”
Eva, wearing black, many layers, but all black, rooted in her bag. She pulled out her turquoise beads. She said, “Gabriel, do the clasp.” She had all her hair out for this day; normally she kept it bound in a scarf. He tried to not annoy her by tangling the metal fastenings. She said, “Oh! Gabriel!” And repeated, “I have to go early. Henderson has a clock. I’m working with McFadden, anyway.”
“Working for?” he asked. He never really knew what she was doing, professionally.
“Working with. Helping him set up.”
“And . . .” he said. She was at the door that led from the kitchen to the garage. Her expression was not friendly.
“You’re collecting clocks . . .? That’s what you mean to say?”
She took her keys from her bag. Among all her layers, she had no pockets. Some effect she’d meant to create was spoiled by the futile search. Eva clenched the keys. Then shrugged. “I’m buying a clock from Henderson.”
He thought she had decided to do so at that moment.
On this Monday, then, to attend an afternoon party—a working event for those who did not strictly work—Gabriel made his way alone, and became familiarly lost. He had located Landingfield Road. He had driven up, he had driven down; in some disconcerting way, Landingfield Road intersected the same highway at both ends. The house he sought (alone), was called Waldhütte. Which proved nothing in particular. The owner might be Ms. Bodmin-Hodges, the firm might own it. Renewing acquaintance with a stone pillar recently passed, Gabriel noticed the design more an ornate W, than the Druidic etching he’d at first supposed. That, for signs, was all.
The drive carried on through a windbreak of pine, then opened onto hedge and pasture. He arrived at the forest lodge, overall Tudoresque in style and taste, one of the fresh-planted country châteaux.
Or, he might discover this Willowbrook, Winterhaven, Whitsuntide, Weltschmerz. It seemed a likely neighborhood. The place was imposing, multi-gabled, fronted with many half-concealed entrances. Its wings spread; its portico was like an outdoor showroom of fittings, glass and brass, lantern-chain and sidelight . . . weighty paneled doors, shut. On one, an arrow. The sign, mere insouciant cardboard, hand-lettering done in black marker.
Friends, please join us at the studio!
A second arrow pointed in the opposite direction, indicating parking. With such people, you had, of course, left your car wrong as well. He would give it up, he told himself . . .
But no. Gabriel had noticed, venturing at a creep past the stone pillar, a flash of blue light. Perhaps quiet electronics made an improvement over iron gates. He couldn’t be certain they were not all gathered round the security monitor, back there beyond the barn, exchanging quips, while he dithered on their doorstone.
Upon his hosts (whomever they were) he bestowed an Irish blessing. Might fortune so smile on their hospitable home, that ten thousand souls, an ocean of humanity, cross its threshold. Might they one day have cause to spend many happy hours perusing their collection of photos.
The studio, steely smoke-toned glass, and smoky steel-toned framing, had been married by design to its water feature. The studio cantilevered to touch, through the medium of 47 millimeters of negative space, “defined by the shadow-play of sunlight on water”, the first of a ring of boulders, arranged in a semi-henge. The boulders emerged from a reflecting pool; this, algaecidally clear. One could contemplate the arrangement, one’s experience augmented by reading the structure’s “storyline”, on metal signs embossed with metal words.
Forty-seven = the atomic number of silver.
Silver, whiter than gold.
Continued from “ . . . whiter than gold . . . ”
A girl, waiting, gave Gabriel a choice of modern cocktails.
“Does it need to be basil gin?” he asked.
“It’s lemon basil. So it’s almost just lemon gin.”
He accepted that. A woman, wearing a masculine, military red jacket, rose from a bench at the studio’s periphery. The man beside her rose. Gabriel seized the vacancy. He chose to face the water, turning his back to the room. In the mirror of the dusky-tinted glass, he saw Eva, with Henderson Young. Young was much taller than his picture. McFadden Presby completed their circle. Presby’s voice could be heard everywhere.
Another voice said, “We have little to do with ephemera. I advise you to think of cross-disciplinary conceptual linking. A piece may gain, one would say . . . ha, ha . . . currency . . . certainly, a greater significance, given context . . .”
Gabriel scooted round forty-five degrees. The speaker caught his eye, as though he were part of the conversation. Gabriel nodded, for no reason. The woman in the jacket moved, displaced air, sent out a gust of perfume mixed with dry cleaning fluid, and backed with a jolt against the bench. She sat, then shifted in a companionable way, until the skirt of her jacket touched Gabriel’s knee, the miasma of her perfume getting into his own jacket at once. She patted the empty space beside her, and the man—Gabriel’s new friend—joined her. She was large, willfully dressed for the occasion; he was stocky, grey-haired, wearing jeans and flannel. They appeared to belong to one another, matrimonially, or collegially.
“Other purposes, as I was saying,” the woman began. “Is she coming back?”
They turned their heads. They smiled. They sat in the braced manner of those who have had enough of a particular person. Gabriel adjusted his position half-way. He would have to yield, socially; they were drawing him into their little drama. An intern, or graduate student, heaved towards the couple . . . bringing a new idea about ephemera, perhaps. The girl made eye-contact, nearly spoke. She was intercepted, arrested, by a hand on her arm.
“My dear,” Presby said, “will you be exceedingly kind?”
She stared as though a beam of hallowed light had fallen, making her squint. Presby’s smile was benevolent; he gestured, with a sweep of the eyeglasses, showing her Eva and Henderson Young. Eva and Henderson held out their tiny celadon plates, their empty tumblers.
Comprehending . . . blushing . . . then calculating, weighing odds, the girl said, “Can I bring you anything, Mr. Presby?”
“Have you, my dear,” he said, “tried the Blood Orange Shandy?”
“I don’t know.”
She seemed overawed.
“I recommend highly that you do so. And you may bring another for me.”
They watched her collect glasses, plates, slow at a cluster of conversation, break free. Presby’s indentured servant achieved the catering table.
“My dear,” said the man who shared Gabriel’s bench. His companion elbowed him, and repeated, “My dear.”
He rather liked them for that, decided he might face the room. The resumed their discussion.
“Glazes vary in composition,” the woman said. “Raw materials may have been more abundant in certain periods, or in certain regions. The chemists were jealous.”
A new server approached. Canapés were offered, rounds of dark bread with melted cheese, topped possibly by truffles; at any rate, by some pebble-shaped fungus. The man took two. The woman declined. Gabriel scrupulously accepted one. He had been admonished, at the age of ten, for “taking too much”; he had been self-conscious on such occasions ever since. Another server came their way, with drinks.
“Of their formulas,” the man said, imparting in increments, eating and sipping. “Some factories . . . ” He paused, finished a canapé.
“. . . kept meticulous records, however.”
“Uranium,” the woman said. Here she glanced at Gabriel, including him. As before, he participated with a nod. On such small evidence, he could offer no opinion.
“Uranium,” said the man, with a certain tenderness. “Manganese, also, fluoresces weakly.” They spoke as though memories of a profound shared experience had been stirred. “And yet, in the great furnace, elemental traces—water, ink, the blue of a butterfly’s wing, the nameless color, softer than silver . . . ” He was quoting, himself likely enough (if not Emil Reiff); or composing, for some publication of the firm.
“ . . . beryllium, you know, thorium.”
“It may be so.”
Gabriel, head turned auditing this exchange, was startled when someone grabbed his hand.
“Why won’t you say hello?” Eva smiled at the woman, nodded at the man. “Dr. Cjevac.” She tugged. Gabriel stood. She tucked her arm through his and propelled him. He puzzled over which half of the couple answered to that name, or whether they answered to it collectively.
“You embarrass me,” Eva whispered.
“Much of little note,” Presby was saying to Henderson Young. “Yet . . . ”
He turned. He cast upon Eva a look of warm sympathy; he extended the eyeglasses, sketching encompassing circles. “We find desirable items from the interwar era.” His vowel-work on the word “era” was extraordinary. “Individuals, rather than starve, relinquished heirlooms.”
“It was a period of great poverty in Europe,” Young remarked.
“Great poverty,” Presby agreed. “Factories unable to obtain capital. Whole inventories sold below cost.” The sequence was pronounced orotundly, a melodious tone poem.
Gabriel, smote once by the suspicion that Presby had locked eyes with Eva on the word “desirable”, was struck again. Presby affected her like the chiming clock. Her face was the same.
“Gabe,” said Presby, acknowledging him.
“Klaus,” he answered, unthinking.
Presby stood straighter, peering. He placed the eyeglasses on his nose, and scrutinized Gabriel a second time, finding doubtful provenance.
Eva gave an exasperated snort.
Continued from “ . . . exasperated snort . . . ”
“He calls you that. He thinks it means something.”
“He dislikes me.” Presby looked down at Gabriel with a close-mouthed half-smile. He looked at Eva. He looked at Young. Young said, “I’m sure we are all friends.”
“I am not sure,” said Presby, “that it is necessary for us all to be friends.”
Eva said: “Gabriel doesn’t want to be anyone’s friend. He wants to make his sarcastic little comments. He wants to sit there, with that look on his face. He won’t talk to me. He won’t listen. I don’t think he knows me at all!” She addressed all this to Presby. She turned and met Gabriel’s eyes, her own welling. She walked to the glass facing the reflecting pool, and stood looking out, arms crossed. Presby followed. Gabriel saw him raise an arm across her back, lightly rest fingers on her shoulder.
It was wrong.
And what had he not noticed, what did he not know? All she was willing to tell. All he had learned, watching her. The flare-ups of passion and the restlessness. The talismanic objects from her childhood, from her life before their marriage, with which she couldn’t part. These she would recreate, collaging them, sewing them, shadow-boxing them. She would do so, until no trace of hurt remained. He knew her habits and intrusive intimacies. He knew he would feel bereft at the loss of them.
Yet he did not know if his love’s alteration were some folly of his own, or if she had bent towards the removing influence of Presby.
A woman, dressed in a long beaded skirt, a short-sleeved black turtleneck, her greying unruly hair mostly pinned up, touched his arm. “I’m Kuaia. Come with me.”
This expressive disorganization, her expensive vintage fashion, exemplified all Eva struggled to put across.
“You’re a friend of Henderson’s,” Ms. Bodmin-Hodges told Gabriel, confidently. “I will introduce you to the famous Young.” She leaned against his arm. “We love Henderson. We’re only teasing.”
They fetched up on the rim of a circle whose center was another Henderson, somewhat further elongated, similarly pale-eyed and hawk-nosed. Gabriel knew of no famous Youngs. He could not place the man he assumed to be Henderson’s brother. He supposed it delightful to have a famous friend. He had become attached to Henderson’s email list by mistake. Perhaps the error would propagate itself.
“Glass,” the famous Young said, “is a flowing liquid. It lives. It speaks to its environment; it wishes to be spoken to by its environment. An old window has a signature, a personality . It wants a space. The space should contain no distracting elements. There must be a dialogue.
“Why do we enter a space? We are there to have an experience. Our experience must be a whole experience.” The famous Young shot a beatific gaze round his audience. Kuaia Bodmin-Hodges backed away from the presence, rather than interrupt the flow by introducing Gabriel.
“This space.” Young made an arc with his empty glass. The ice clinked. “Is not seen to its best advantage. My idea had been to have only one bench. My work does not ask for more than one observer. I design with an ideal of the Observer in mind. People are a distraction.”
A woman stood at the famous Young’s side. Young’s attention had seemed to linger upon Gabriel following his latest comment. The woman looked at Gabriel; their eyes met. Hers pleaded, fixed on his with a desire to communicate. She wore a bulky cabled sweater . . . she had absurdly long hair, as though she’d been kept in a room for many years.
“A doorknob,” Young went on. “As I go about here and there, I am summoned by powerful connections—wrought by forgotten masters, burnished by centuries of human touch, secreted in unworthy places. I am quite willing to obtain what my work demands. I have done so. I envision each room a dialectic, a philosophical discourse, the old speaking to the new . . . ”
Again, the woman with the hostage eyes seemed to seek Gabriel’s help.
Are You Merry and Bright
“Always on, always off. That’s the life. Thirty bucks in my pocket. I don’t have to worry.”
“Just to keep your hand in.”
“If I wanted…” Dexter said. He’d given her two things, for this quip. A comic take, leaning away from her shoulder, still with his arm around her waist, but letting chill air come between them…and a mock-wary “um, hmm”.
“I could write you up a little Xmas piece this night…we’d have to find someplace to sit down. But, I mean, plots are easy. Help me out, we can do one now. Old widow lady, lives alone. My…” His own humor was making him smile, queering the tremolo he affected for pathos. “It’s a sad scene. She’s drawing back the curtain. Clutching its folds in her knobby knuckles, staring…um, gazing…Mabel.” He stalled while she took another step. Pressing momentum’s advantage, Dexter swung her round to face him.
“Oh, let’s go in,” she said. The drug store displayed bottles of perfume stacked on a pyramid of velvet boxes. Electric bulbs, red and green, framed the window inside. “It’s freezing. Buy me a hot chocolate.”
The movie hadn’t gone well. He’d disappeared for a cigarette at intermission, content leaving Sherman to march on; and leaving Mabel—wishing she’d saved this one for Saturday, and her Aunt Ernestine—only glad to meet up with Dexter, found still loitering outside the ticket office.
“Who won?” he said, lighting another.
“You’d like to know.”
She’d thought of better gags: the Ruskies, maybe, or Joe Louis. Seabiscuit by a nose. But then he’d think she was playing along. She took his hand out of her coat pocket, once and twice, and brushed past him through the door.
“Mabel,” he said, coming up on her heels at the perfume counter. “I was gonna ask. What’s the word I’m looking for?”
“For that sheep-eyed thing.”
“You mean your old lady? Googling. Mooning.”
“Mooning out at the falling snow in the light of the street lamp. Eh…we might throw in carolers. Maybe the jing, jing, jing, of a horsecar passing by.”
“What year is this?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Say when your grandma was a gal.”
She held out a wrist for a spray of Soir de Paris. Dexter pantomimed putting on a gasmask. “Come on, hot chocolate,” he said, and took her off by the waist again.
There was exactly one booth, and it was free.
“All right, the poor old thing,” Mabel took him up, when he came back from ordering. “She’s a widow lady, you said?”
“Lost her son in the war.”
“Now wait a second…” Maybe he did get something from the movie. If he meant way past, he must mean Gettysburg. “Four score and seven years ago…?”
They struck the contemplative pose, while the waitress lowered their plates and cups. Dexter gulped, winking at Mabel when she cautiously sipped. The cocoa was not very hot.
“Okay, I get you. I should take notes.” He put his cup down, rooted out a Zippo and a pen, nudged this across.
“Or you take ’em. You’re the office girl.”
“Enchanté, sweet-talker. Dexter, what’s the problem? I mean, we have to help this old lady out, don’t we? She’s by herself, and it’s Christmastime. We don’t want her to just die!”
“Ha, ha, sentimental.” His crunched into his grilled bologna, and spoke high-pitched, with his mouth full: “Ma, I’m comin’ for ya.”
“No, she’s renting rooms in her house to make ends meet. Young couple…like O. Henry?”
“What, they’re gonna sell their most treasured possession…radio, let’s say…to buy old Mrs…” He paused. “Ernestine, a turkey dinner?”
“Ernestine. Wow, Dexter, you got that writer’s imagination.”
Mabel scribbled on the placemat, looked up, eyebrow arched. She put on an ingénue’s voice. “Honey, we’re young.”
He got her again, shooting back: “World ahead of us, babe.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she muttered. “Darling.” That was how a married pair of paragons ought to talk. “Why, any one of us could end up alone, like poor, poor Mrs. Ernestine. Only yesterday, I saw her mooning over Reginald’s…photo.”
Not photo, exactly. Back then it was some old-timey thing that started with a d. She took a stab at mouthing the first syllable.
“Oh, yeah? First Reg, then the mutt, huh? Lady’s got a lotta troubles. I guess maybe an angel is trying to tell us something. Dearest sugarplum, Mrs. Ernestine’s happy Christmas is up to you and me.”
Oh, seriously…I don’t believe you sell your stories, if that’s how your people talk, she’d been about to say. But there was a man, an old duffer in a Derby and fur-trimmed coat, sidling round their booth from the circular magazine rack, a “Night Crimes” and a “Shamus Omnibus” in his clutch. He’d been eavesdropping, inching closer, she knew it for certain, and now—with about this, no subtlety either—was sizing them up.
“You’re full of bologna, you can walk me home.” She shoved down her own last wedge of sandwich, wiping mustard from her cheek, swigging hot chocolate. Cold chocolate.
She had to lean in close to whisper. They’d gone a block from the drugstore; shoppers still huddled along the street, headlamps still flashed by…but turn one corner and they’d be among houses, two blocks yet from her aunt’s.
“Dexter, take a look behind you. Only, don’t really.”
“That old guy.”
He turned full around. He did worse, stuck a hand inside his coat and pulled out a card case.
“You got that detective rag. I just sold ’em a story. B. Dexter Baumgardner.”
The stranger had been reading by lamplight as he tailed them. He rolled his magazine, and with a good show of heedlessness tucked it under his arm, spilling Dexter’s card to the gutter.
“It’s not a lucrative profession, selling stories. I am Mr. Chilton.”
His eyes were communicating with Mabel’s. He got in next to her, jerking his head towards the lagging Dexter.
“Oh, heck, I’m Mabel…”
At mid-self-introduction, she cut herself short. She had just a week ago changed her name to Montmorency. This was classy-sounding—a dame of the theater’s moniker, far better than Biggins—but she couldn’t show up for a temp job with it. She wasn’t smooth yet, going back and forth.
Mr. Chilton said, “Mrs. Baumgardner.”
Dexter said: “Ain’t that a kick in the pants.”
“You may have heard,” Chilton went on, “of the twelve days of Christmas.”
“Yeah… Fa la la. La la.”
“Dexter, that’s Deck the Halls.”
Mr. Chilton cleared his throat. “It is a local tradition. You will have seen this story recounted in your Christmas Day newspaper, of the generosity of a Mr. X. Of course, if the two of you are recent arrivals…”
“No,” Dexter said, “guy gives out checks. Picks twelve needy folks and hands ’em each five hundred bucks. Sure.”
“My employer has no interest in the charity rolls. He does not draw from them. Mr. X’s fortune is of his own making, therefore he prefers seeing money put to pragmatic use. Your turkey dinner, Mr. Baumgardner, is available at many a church kitchen. Relief societies are there for hospital bills and rents in arrears. Mr. X wishes the recipients of his largess to possess the entrepreneurial spirit. It is hence my duty to explore these outlying boroughs with eyes and ears alert to discovering…the right sort of case.”
Dexter maneuvered himself to Mabel’s free side, caught her arm and squeezed. She felt his fingers through her coat sleeve. Yes, she’d been thinking of waving Chilton off, with a “Good luck, sucker”—but she wasn’t going to. She gave her swain a return jab of the elbow, just to let him know she got the hint.
“So what about my aunt Ernestine? You wanna give her a check?”
Dexter cut in. “You know, the two of us are just headed over that way. I can save you some shoe leather.”
“Mrs. Ernestine”—Chilton answered Mabel—“is a businesswoman…she runs a boardinghouse. The property is her own, from the days of her marriage. Well…I will tell you the rest.”
She half expected he would, given his way of phrasing questions. But he said: “Mr. X and I don’t in the least apologize, if our habits are deemed peremptory—for after all the reward is five hundred dollars. Any candidate who doesn’t want it can make way for the one who does.”
Dexter filled this pause with a chuckle. Chilton drew back the corners of his mouth. “I will dine with Mrs. Ernestine tomorrow evening. At six. You must persuade her to play hostess, however downhearted she becomes at Yuletide, for it is Mrs. Ernestine’s mettle I mean to try. Mr. and Mrs. Baumgardner, I may have misheard—
“Hazard of listening in,” Dexter murmured.
“—but I take it your means are slight. How many boarders altogether reside with…your aunt?” He raised eyebrows, pince-nez glinting up at Mabel.
“That’s right, my aunt. We call her Ernestine. But it’s only Frankie and us, just the two upstairs apartments. The downstairs is a prop shop…you know, for theater? Frankie’s a salesman…he’s not even here right now.”
Dexter was dancing foot to foot. She wanted to tell him, “Cool it! I know what I’m saying.”
“Tight quarters,” Chilton observed. He seemed a little smug, suddenly. The cross-street came to its end; the next thoroughfare, lit brighter, lined with down-at-heels businesses like her aunt’s, was also their destination, and the tricky part, if Chilton thought he was coming home with her.
Mabel’s Aunt Ernestine, whose knuckles were not knobby—she was only about…forty-nine, not even grey-haired yet—yanked the plug on the radio. That was how it worked, turning on and off, and most of the time, it worked in quarter-hour increments, before going haywire. A minute ago church bells had been bonging somewhere in France.
“It’s good. I mean, Christmas the same as ever this year. That’s what the man said.” She shrugged. “You know, maybe with the Pope and all talking peace…maybe they can really stop the war.”
Mabel’s chin rested on her crossed arms. “Maybe they will.”
She had left Dexter at the second landing of the back stairs, given him his second goodnight kiss, and told him, “Don’t come in. I gotta break it to her.”
It wasn’t Chilton, with those uptown manners, her aunt would kick at. The two of them never had big plans for their holiday dinner, so if sharing a jumbo roaster scored them Mr. X’s beneficence, fine. It was Dexter. Her aunt kept telling her, “Don’t get started with that one. Hang on, you’ll do better.”
This was rich coming from a woman who knew people…sure, prop people (but prop people had friends, didn’t they?)…and still made a stink over asking favors.
“Sorry, toots, I got a living to make. My clients trust me. I’m not being the umpteenth person in town with a niece can tap dance and carry a tune.”
Well, Dexter might just get someplace in life. He had hustle. Hustle was exactly what Ernestine disliked about him.
The knob rattled. “Hey, Mabel, you there?”
Their apartment was oriented such that the door going out to the hall was next to the kitchen stove. The kitchen table was where they sat to hear the radio.
Mabel jumped from her chair. “Dexter! Criminy!”
Ernestine said: “Are you kidding? Don’t open that door.”
“It’s an emergency!” He slipped the hand that held his hat through the space Mabel allowed, and waggled this at her aunt.
“Oh…all right. Come in and tell us who’s dying.”
“Nah. It’s the craziest thing. He’s out there, walking back and forth. I couldn’t leave. Got a little notebook,” Dexter added, taking a seat.
Ernestine dug in her apron pocket.
“Nuh-uh. Him. Looking at this place, and the next one. Jotting stuff down. I told him I was only putting the cat out…then I had to hightail it back up here.”
At this, Ernestine strode from the kitchen to the living room, and pulled back the curtain. “I don’t see any cop down there. I was gonna yell out the window, come on up and get him.”
The three of them were on their knees, in a row, the living room light switched off, their heads at eye-level with the window sill. They peeped over this. They whispered, though the notion of doing so came ambient to the room’s darkness. Chilton was odd—his lingering on the cold street below, marking things down in his little book, maybe even disturbing—but no one suspected him of supernatural hearing.
Mabel looked at her watch and made a noise, letting out air between her teeth. “It’s only been about an hour. Well, sure, he could be flim-flamming.” She was answering Ernestine. “But he’d have to be a kook. Why’s he gonna tell people a thing like that, unless it’s true?”
There was an obvious answer—the one Mabel had just given—but the prospect of five hundred dollars lent profundity to her summary argument.
“You got a spare blanket, I can bunk on that armchair. Don’t you think,” Dexter added, speaking to silence, “there’s no sense taking a chance? Suppose we see him go off round the corner…and then he comes back for some reason, just when Baumgardner looks like he’s sneaking out for the night?” More silence. “I’m gonna be here tomorrow anyway.”
This got Ernestine’s attention. “Mabel!”
“Well, it’s a big enough chicken.”
“For two people. I’m letting you have a wing and a drumstick, buddy, and you’ll have to like it. Unless you want gizzards.”
“But I have a better idea,” she said. On hands and knees, Ernestine moved backwards; at the kitchen threshold she stood, crossed to the counter, tilted the cookie jar. The others, omitting the last, imitated her example: Mabel, then Dexter, sidling round the door sash, rising and heaving held breath. With the grim mouth of one who’d thought better of complete austerity, Ernestine popped the lid, then nudged two gingerbread men into Dexter’s pocket. But her specific object had been the key, hidden under the jar.
“Frankie Barber isn’t coming back for a week yet. I don’t see why you can’t use his place, if you’re clean about it.”
Old Mama Hubbard, Dexter thought, oughta be feeling in the gravy, if she ever saw cupboards like these. Not even a salt shaker. There was water, coming from the tap. A kettle on the stove, but not a lousy tea bag. His wristwatch told him it was after nine, and he decided…better not go knock at Mabel’s door again.
Altogether though, Barber’s was not a bad little place. He was blessed with a whole kitchen: stove, fridge, table and chair under the window. Son of a bitch must eat in restaurants.
Dexter carried his glass into the living room, and noticed at once, and with a pang, that the table by the sofa—where a minute ago he’d laid down a saucer, freighted with two gingerbread men—was empty. Empty of all but a National Geographic and a lamp. Rats.
No…rats don’t eat china.
“Barber!” Dexter shouted this; then, remembering the ladies, followed up softly: “What the hell!”
A vast sigh came echoing through the window-drapes.
“I offer the excuse,” the specter said, augmenting this, “that you have probably eaten today, and I have not.” The drapes shivered, a moment before Dexter moved to soundly buffet them with a sofa cushion, and a man slid out. “Call me Maxwell.”
“What the hell again, Maxwell.”
“You see,” the stranger said, “Mr. Barber, one of our salespeople, has been kind enough to entrust me with his key. I have been unemployed since October.”
He mamboed round, to plunk himself on Barber’s couch, and raised an unshaved face. “I’d developed foolish habits…hubris, of which you may well accuse me…thinking that a man so intimately in the confidence of his superior need shrink at no indulgence. I had nothing saved…and the address I’d chosen—seventeenth floor, The Chetley—became quite insupportable, rent-wise, given my reduced circumstances.”
“Heck,” Dexter said. He sat beside Maxwell. “You mean you got no food, even? What you gonna do?”
“Very little, at present, tomorrow being the Christmas holiday. Afterwards, I have resolved to bury the hatchet with Mr. Throckmorton, apologize profusely, and if he will no longer permit me to play his Chilton…”
Dexter blinked. He raised a hand, to stop Maxwell speaking.
“Now this, I don’t get.”
“What you wanna bet in this weather he doesn’t even show up?”
Mabel stood with her aunt’s stocking hat in one hand, an oven glove on the other. She was as contrite-faced as she knew how to be. Not that Ernestine was fair, holding Chilton’s messenger to blame for the hours he kept. They were nooners, aunt and niece, when it came to Christmas feasts, and had planned to heat up the place with a roast chicken, play a game of rummy, listen to some Nutcracker…Hallelujah chorus, maybe, not to push their luck…on the radio.
“But I have to go out.” Ernestine patted her pockets. “Where’s my list?”
“It was flour, milk, potatoes, onions.”
“If we’re lucky. And since I can’t borrow all that from one neighbor, I’ll have to make the rounds. You be sure that chicken goes in the pot at three. And don’t let those two,” she added, swiping the hat, wrenching it on, and saying this, small as the apartment was, wrathful as Ernestine was, well within the hearing of Dexter and his friend Maxwell, “clean us out of any more food.”
Breakfast had been watery oatmeal, milk off-limits, the kitchen chill.
His tap at the door had caught Mabel still in her robe, and yawning. She’d forgotten Dexter. “Can’t you go away for a while? We’re not dressed.”
“Come out in the hall a minute.”
“All right, but open the door a little.”
She put her head out.
“Mabel, I learned something big. I gotta get Maxwell to tell it to you.”
She’d looked up, past Dexter’s face, and seen another face in Frankie’s door crack, smiling at her like an apologetic fish.
“What a little creep. I used to like him, too.”
Dexter tried a diffident tilt of the head. “But…maybe that’s all the work he could get. Or maybe Barber believes in it.”
He found Maxwell’s delineations of Throckmorton’s swindles hard to grasp; and wasn’t either sure—supposing the takings weren’t too bad—he’d draw the line, himself. That’s what it took, getting by these days, right? A little boost.
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.”
“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.”