🎄Are You Merry and Bright: conclusion
Mrs. Felcher got in, before Mabel could do more than drop her jaw.
“It’s all right for you, because you own this house. But the rest of us pay rent. If Mort there fixes up the attics, and shuts down the store, and turns everything into units, he’s gotta get his investment back…so he asks more money.”
“Then,” said Mrs. Rosemont, “some of us who got no place to go are stuck, cause the whole neighborhood goes up.”
“She wouldn’t sell. She loves the business.”
“I hate the business! No…” Ernestine shook her head, softening this for her niece. “You probably don’t know how I got started. Unless your mother told you. Nuh-uh? Well, kid, I was a grass widow. Late in the game. Merwyn had an idea about farming apricots in California. Says to me, I can live in the back of my truck. Take me two or three years bringing in the first crop. When you come out, I’ll build us a house. You decide if you want a 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. I told him no thanks, hon, you have fun with the fruits… So I bought this place, the business and the upstairs. Nineteen-fourteen, just when we got into the war. But, let me tell you, over along MacArthur, there used to be a bunch of theaters. Only a couple of em, that are movie houses now, still running.
“See, my regulars started dying off, and I’m outside the action these days. And how could I blame the new people for not coming all the way down here to get what they can get closer? Mabel, you know the whole backend of this place used to be a storeroom. Now it’s just empty shelves and junk.”
Mrs. Felcher sighed. “Oh, well, everyone’s got their troubles.”
A clink and clatter circuited the table. Mabel took the liberty of popping the cover from the cake. She had just raised the knife, when Mrs. Felcher went on:
“It’s too bad, though, some bloodsucker had to come along stirring things up. We were doing okay…we could have gone a couple more years. Maybe I’d be dead by then.”
Mrs. Rosemont said, “That’s very true.”
The timing seemed rotten, to use Mrs. Felcher’s phrase, for handing the guest of honor a big slice of devil’s food. Chilton glared at his fingernails.
He stood. “Bloodsucker! The businessman’s always the criminal, is that it? You’re worried about rents? Listen, before anyone ever laid those bricks, that put a roof over your head, someone had to finance the construction.”
It was a weak point; its reception not boffo.
“Okay. Before your parents could cross the ocean, there had to be a shipping line…steerage doesn’t pay for itself, you know…you need cargo! And someone had to get those ships built. Without investors, where is America?”
Mabel, at a bump from Dexter’s elbow, and a waggle of his plate under her chin, dished him the first slice. She cut another for Maxwell. Maxwell passed this up the table to Mrs. Felcher.
“All right,” said Chilton. “You don’t care. No one cares. But I want you to know…”
Putting her back to him without ceremony, Ernestine unplugged the coffee pot and brought it to the table.
“A guy like me doesn’t have it that soft, you know. It’s a struggle every day. Take those rags Maxwell was talking about.” He sat again, gave a minute or two to his dessert, pulled a cigar from an inside pocket and bugged an eye at Ernestine.
“Sure,” she told him. “Eat my food. Light stogies at my table. Maybe you’ll do me a favor.”
“Yeah, those rags. It’d be a great thing, shutting em down…if I happened to own the competition.” He exhaled a brooding cloud.
“Well, you got two, right? If you got two horses to bet on, you can give your jockey a little freedom with the reins.”
“You, Baumgardner. You got ideas?”
“Throckmorton, I got hustle. If I was editing…let’s say, Night Crimes… For one thing, it needs to be about twice as spicy. Cover art. That’s what anyone eyeballing the rack expects, right?”
“I can bang you out four stories a week, easy. Set the editorial tone. Save you a little money.”
“Huh. Your thing about the horse. You’re saying I could afford the risk.”
“What I’m saying, Mort.”
Mabel, at this display of Dexter’s go-getting gift, tried catching her aunt’s eye. But the focus of Ernestine’s slumped in his seat, kneading his pince-nez.
Suddenly, he lurched upright. “What time is it?”
“A little after seven.”
“Well, that’s okay.” Throckmorton patted his pockets. “I need to get a cab, though. I have another dinner at eight…after that, cocktails at midnight.” He seemed to be easing back into his Chilton character. “Madam, have you a pen and a piece of writing paper?”
Maxwell pulled a billfold from his own pocket, and to Dexter handed a business card. “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.”
“Thresh out. 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.”
(2017, Stephanie Foster)