Hammersmith: Second Thoughts (chapter eight)
Hogben had broken a rule of his own, a rule that had always served…and Hogben had been a traveling man for twenty-odd years. He’d had scrapes. He had not often had a partner to rely on. But even these past couple, when with the Professor he’d gone the east-west route from Philadelphia to San Francisco, the north-south from Bismarck to El Paso, he had known better. He and the Professor talked about two things: what sort of crowd they might expect, and what sort of crowd they had drawn.
Hogben, firing up his audience, cited the wonders of the telephone…
He loathed the telephone. He blamed the object for imperiling his living. His first instinct, greeted at the Hammersmith opera house with free cable service (he had sent one: “Never under water. Have no worries”, to an old creditor…why not?), and blankets, hot coffee, chicken and dumplings, a folding chair to sit on, Mack’s daughter the second person to offer him a temporary home (angry, for some reason, to learn he’d accepted Mrs. Bard’s)…had been to strike while the iron was hot. Hearts don’t stay soft forever.
Boosterly, the house manager had said, “None of this Mr. Braithwaite. Call me Hugh.”
“Looks like all you got going is a picture show. Ladies’ Watercolor Society…” Hogben started off, reading the pasted-up notice.
“Well, it’s Holy Week coming up.”
“Ah.” Here was a snag about which Hogben could gauge nothing. He persevered. “I wonder, Hugh, if I could ask…a kind of personal favor.”
He had tried getting a whiff of the place, then, going into town at Mack’s invitation, chatting guardedly about the shares. Expecting, though, to drum up an audience, generate a little publicity. Once upon a time, you were safe enough. You knew business hours being over for the day, nobody was rushing off to send a telegram, just to learn if your company was listed. In those days, there was no ringing up for Information.
He had the morning Clew on Mrs. Bard’s dining room table. He had the house nearly to himself. Mrs. Frieslander sat in the front parlor with her mending basket, and Hogben had been dodging her company.
“Now, that’s not good news, those Spanish ships. That governor…whatever they have in that place…knows best.”
She spoke, having heard him rustle the page of ads, and Hogben shot a glance over the news. Cuban gent, maybe, didn’t trust Spain’s diplomatic note—a headline of small meaning to Hogben. But headlines were it; he was not reading articles. And that was all the war today.
“No, ma’am,” he called agreeably. “Count on the local man.”
No, you couldn’t sit and have a quiet thought. It seemed you couldn’t take a stroll up the road, either. Thursday had loomed, and Hogben hadn’t felt wholly in command of the exigencies, and he’d broken his rule.
“Mrs. Bard, I can’t quite make up my mind what to do.”
This was all the sense of the place he had been able to get: that Hammersmithans kept an eye out. If you paused in front of the library to scratch your chin, someone would sidle up…but neighborly…and mention that dandy bald eagle Mossbunker had donated to the curiosities.
“See it in the cabinet, there.”
“Stuffed, you mean.”
“I know how it is for you,” she had said, Mrs. Bard. “It was like that for me when I was widowed. Maybe not just like that. But, you know, wanting for things to be the same. Doing what you would have done anyway. Mr. Hogben…”
They had been on the porch, amid Shaw’s project, with all the boards skinned down, two or three washed over with a first coat. Shaw had bought a small can of white, another of pale grey. Hogben watched Aimee’s gaze dart to these razor-edged swatches…a gaze of what he would have called exasperation.
“I’d go with grey,” he told her. “Carry more dirt.”
She had something in mind. She changed it—though at his comment she nodded and sighed. She said: “Mr. Hogben, it’s no disgrace if you’d like to cancel your show. You didn’t give any money to Hugh?”
“Always portion of the proceeds.”
“You didn’t sell any tickets?”
“Always collect at the gate.”
“Then my advice is, give it up. Wait, I mean, until you feel ready.”
But was that what she meant? He thought she had held his eyes with an extra oomph in her own (as eyes went, these fairly oomphy to begin with), when she’d said the words, “give it up”. While, on the other hand, waiting—for a man with no fixed abode—was the same as staying. He could hardly do that unless he began paying rent, or helping out with chores, like Shaw.
To State the Matter Frankly
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)