Hammersmith: To State the Matter Frankly (chapter nine)
Aimee Bard, having that in common with the settled object of her campaign, began the morning wondering if she could get a moment to herself. She had gathered Mrs. Frieslander’s bundles, an errand she never did for mere kindness (“Please don’t thank me! You know I’m always in town for one thing or another”), so much as to make the next thing possible. She would collect a few dollars, and because her tenant expected her to extract the rent, she could pay on last month’s tab, allowing for this week’s extra groceries.
Minnie, who seemed a born shoulderer of responsibility, and willing to take it (to her own implied criticism of Hogben, Aimee shot back at herself…well, you don’t want a man who bosses—that is exactly the point, dear), had cut her short when she’d begun:
“Minnie, I ‘ve got some marketing to do…”
“Oh, good! Come get me when you’re ready to walk down.”
They had all three walked down, Minnie beside Aimee, Nico trailing.
“I’ll just go round the shops with you, if you don’t mind. I want to know what sort of place it is.”
“Of course,” Nico’s voice rose to them, “you know what sort of place it is. You have here a great capitalist who employs at his factory the proletariat, the many. And along this Main street, all these shops you would like to go round, as you say…these men who sell to the workers and take their wages, they are the few. Their concentration of wealth is the more. They increase their wealth by forming a cooperative, a merchants’ guild, or what have you. They invest together…in this opera house, or this hotel. You see what a lie it all is, that they hate the workers for hoping to cooperate, but cooperate themselves to make their own wealth grow large!”
“Nico!” Aimee, brightly, hoped to change the subject. When Minnie had brought him to the supper table, he had shown this same singlemindedness, that defied all topics. They were informed, after an interval of broader discourse, that on principle Nico did not patronize hotels, but would return that evening to the underside of the bridge where Hogben had discovered him. This declarative silence, coming when the others could be caught with surreptitious forks in their mouths, had allowed a clap of thunder to intrude.
“Foolish!” Mrs. Frieslander said.
“Nonsense!” Aimee said herself. What choice did she have? “Mr. Shaw won’t mind…”
“No, ma’am. I’ll even take the armchair. I’ve been having a touch of sciatica since the floodwaters.”
He was quick. He might even mean this, without rancor. She had stepped on Shaw’s toes in an almost instinctive veering from Hogben’s. Hogben sat serving himself another slice of meat loaf.
“Well, that settles that.” She said this to Minnie.
She said now, to Nico, fingers crossed, “What, dear, do you like to eat?”
They had reached Mossbunker’s building site. Three houses were going up at once, on a little spur of a street already named Meadow Lane. A fourth leveled lot was being picked over by a flock of grackles. Hammers pounded. Mossbunker had blighted the trailing end of Main Street with an overnight warehouse, where his carpenters gathered and got their supplies. Nico, without a word, turned on his heel to stride up Meadow Lane, calling out an address that might have been, “Comrade!”
Minnie took up the burden. “Nothing fancy. We’ve had plenty of beans and chops, me and Nico. I wish you’d show me how to make that meat loaf! You know, my mother was a very plain cook. Always chicken and spuds. But I can stir up a cake batter. I can fix the whole dinner if you like. That would sort of make up…”
She stopped herself. Aimee wished she hadn’t. Here, she must either pooh-pooh the notion that her guests (producing guests of their own) were becoming a nuisance, or give license to a sort of permanence by assigning chores. Which seemed to be Mr. Shaw’s idea.
“Of course you can,” she temporized. “I’ll just tackle that pile of laundry…”
“I don’t know where Ruby’s gone off to. I just have a feeling she knows how to ice a cake.”
The Warples, staying at Vic’s under the care of June, had left Hammersmith as soon as word came that the waters were down to a foot in the low places.
“Mud’s just dirt,” had been Mrs. Warple’s parting word. “I lay my carpets in the sun til they get dried up. Beats right out.”
The laborers whose small houses clustered along the waterfront had left Elton Bott’s backyard awning (the house roomy, but for being a funeral parlor, unlucky) after chafing a day or two, waiting the same sign that had drawn away the Warples. Aimee’s salesmen, and her two performers, were beginning to attract remark.
“Oh, hello, Mrs. Bard…and that’s Miss Leybourne, is it?”
Minnie stepped up, and when the notion store’s proprietress did not accept the extended hand, snapped open her fan, saying, “Mrs. Toucey, how do you do?”
Aimee saw that Mrs. Toucey was offended. Yes, in fact—she thought this for the first time—the hierarchy of gossip tended to work like that. A townsperson could know a stranger, but not the other way around.
Minnie came sideways over Mrs. Toucey’s threshold, avoiding, but barely, bumping a display of remnant gimping, and continued telling Aimee what a wonderful mind Nico had.
“I suppose,” Aimee got a word in, “I’d have to read a book to understand all that.”
She was asking Minnie, roundabout, whether Nico’s politics were her own, whether she could have read Marx, or whether Nico’s long hair and collarless shirt, the intensity that colored his humorless passion, were more the thing. She’d have sat up for such qualities in a man, herself—if, at Minnie’s age, she had not been so drearily under her mother’s thumb.
“He will get up in the middle of the night, and light the lamp. He just thinks of ideas and has to write them down.”
“For some reason,” Aimee said, at the same time moving herself between Mrs. Toucey’s counter and Minnie’s prattle, “I’m not seeing any quarter-inch pearl buttons.”
“And then I have to get up!”
Well, rumor flies. Meeting Mrs. Toucey’s gaze, Aimee saw affront, of a triumphant sort, though the picture in the woman’s mind was her own.
To State the Matter Frankly
Carey Explains Himself
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)