Hammersmith: Hogben and Shaw (chapter one)
Hogben and Shaw climbed down into the root cellar, one after the other; Shaw, a respectable parasite, from wanting to be useful. Hogben, because he hadn’t seen it yet. He had otherwise sized up every inch of Mrs. Bard’s place. He also wanted to learn if Shaw was suggestible.
“Quite a few’s gone rotten,” was his first remark. There was about room for Hogben to stand facing the shelves, and for Shaw, as indicated by the restless nudging of a toe against the heel of Hogben’s shoe, to block the only space available for turning, if fleeing asphyxiation looked advisable.
“I don’t think the Widow Bard ever mentioned,” he said, swinging a burlap sack behind him, one with a notable black patch of wet on the bottom, and a weltering…Hogben knew of no descriptive term adequate to the smell of rotting potato. He jogged the sack up and down. “If she was tossing em in a stewpot, or a frying pan, or what all.”
Shaw seemed to stand inert. “But…well…I suppose we’ll lay them out on the grass, and if very many are bad…” He fell away from this speculation. “Widow! Is that the story you got from her yourself?”
Here was the moment to be wise. “You get on up those stairs, Shaw.”
Hogben heard, and felt, a drop of liquid from the sack hit his polished brogue. “Take that with you. Now listen. We’ll walk out into the town after lunch and have a private talk along the way.”
And here was mystery. Their hostess had given Shaw a different story. Or Shaw had surmised differently.
Hogben snatched another sack; held it as near arm’s length as the wooden steps allowed. The two ladies, Ruby and Minnie, came out, Ruby winding and tucking up her hair. He thought it could not be much after ten—it had been ten sharp when he’d checked his watch before giving Mrs. Bard his answer.
“Yes, ma’am, don’t mind. Get to it from the outside or the inside?”
He always checked his watch when asked to do a chore. It was a treat, how that little trick could make them go ask someone else.
But ten in the morning—Hogben finished his thought—seemed late for a woman to be finishing up dressing.
“Ruby Magley,” he said. “Now why wouldn’t you call yourself Leybourne, and be Minnie’s sister?”
“What are you saying? Magley’s not a euphonious sort of name? It’s my own, mister.”
“You’re a comedienne?”
“I perform with my birds. But I couldn’t do a thing about it…I had to set them free.” Her voice broke at this.
“Each one had its own cage. Picture that on a little rowboat.” Minnie said this sotto voce.
“Well, stuff em all in together. Why not?”
Ruby produced a sob.
Monty Albert Hogben looked forward. He had been giving Shaw a taste of this glowing prospect, his regular pitch. “March, already, Shaw. Less than two years, now. And a new century! What a breathtaking vista of magnificent modernity, upon the precipice of which we stand…”
Shaw, he thought, had cleared his throat and mumbled something.
“Nineteen-oh-one, first year, what it really is.”
“I don’t get you.”
“I only read that…I don’t swear to it.”
“Some erudition you came across in the papers.”
“Maybe I’m wrong.”
It was a matter of schooling—though Shaw had a number of qualities that made him a doubtful assumer of the Professor’s role. Hogben had begun toying with the idea of a woman… Folks trusted Lydia Pinkham, didn’t they?
“Shaw, you don’t want to interrupt me when I’m talking, supposing a horsecar ain’t about to run me down, and my coattail ain’t on fire, and the only thing you got to say is you read some article somewheres, and you don’t say you even swear it’s right! I was telling you…”
Hogben’s spiel was engraved so in memory, that he could rattle off the list of inventions: the automobile, the telephone, the kinetoscope, and as he did so, cogitate. Shame, his partner drowning. The rest of them had managed not to. He was reminded of Ruby’s birds. He gave to this question a serious inner eyeball. What did the woman ever think of doing in case of fire? Happens in hotels all the time, Hogben said to himself, not unheard of neither, on a railcar…
While, aloud, he was saying something about flying machines. She probably didn’t have them insured. Now there was a case of not thinking of the future. He pictured Ruby Magley in his audience. Would he want her in the audience…? Always took a good hold on em, hearing spontaneous testimony, but on the other hand…
He looked at the brick pavement under his feet, and fell silent. There were no rails laid along here. An outpost the size of Hammersmith, he guessed had no call for a horsecar. Now if the street had been dirt; if there’d been no hotel, no bank, no emporia, only a couple houses and a church, he might have despaired of the place. But Hammersmith was at least an incorporated borough. It had government, it had trade. These were proofs of the townsfolk being forward-looking. Hammersmith had no depot proper…but again, Hogben put a lot of faith in the automobile. Any burg might grow reckonable, these coming days.
The town had a paper, the Daily Clew, and here, emerging from the tobacconist’s, was Victor B. Mack, its proprietor. Mack had been up to Mrs. Bard’s, and held such a long and feeling interview with Minnie Leybourne that he’d done no more, for his deadline’s sake, than shake hands with Hogben and Shaw.
“Sirs!” he now called out.
“Mr. Mack,” Hogben said. “Your Main Street Hotel over there…they happen to have an oyster bar, anything of the kind?”
“Roast beef sandwiches and tonic water. My treat, though.”
Lunch, what with the potatoes, had ended up late, and a little scant. Mack let Hogben lead; Hogben crossed the street, and in turn, let Mack precede him through the door.
“I wonder, Mr. Hogben,” Mack said, after the three of them had mounted their stools, “if you remember the Maine?”
Hogben and Shaw
Mack Talks War
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)