The Mirrors (part nineteen)
She was getting places, not yet arriving. “We were married thirteen years. We were together nine. We had a pretense I would go up to Chicago, when he got himself settled. William, my father was Dr. Bonheur. You must have heard of him.”
He started an answer, then said: “My sis, think it was, told me.”
“And so, you could have asked me, did I hear right? Was Dr. Bonheur your father?”
“I know he was.”
This was leveling, at any rate. William had carried home gossip, if you could call it that; his sister, looking out for him, had learned more. But to the Wrights, Charmante Bonheur Demorest was outside. William had gone on being polite and helpful.
“So why…or how…did you ever come up with the butterfly wings? Moth,” she added, correcting. They had got to a street where it was better not to stand and talk, in Carmine’s bedazed company.
“Oh, that was just a way we played, when we was kids. Make angels out of clothespins.”
“Well, I love it. I’m sorry the poor thing got broken.”
“We’re coming right up to the place,” he told her. “Right there.”
“Oh…the Aurelien? Clell’s band played the Rose Room sometimes. I’ve been inside.”
“My uncle Bert was a waiter. So that’s something.”
“Practically family. You’d better tell on.”
“The maître d’ had a little racket going. Leftovers from the kitchen, that wasn’t supposed to go nowheres, only get throwed out… I don’t know why fancy places got rules like that… He would sell em, is how it was.”
William’s brother Harold still ran with the gang, at seventeen. William had been fourteen, his sister, just for information, a month from sixteen…
“Now, she has a name. Because I may meet her one day.”
“Mrs. Breedlove. No…” He gave the tease only a beat. “Jane.”
The gang had been no trouble to anyone. Well, they stole a few times; they carried knives, true. William recalled a lingering fog, the boys hugging themselves by the alley cans, waiting for the door to open. It was never right to knock…knocking either reserved for those who knew what one to use, or in some way illuminating to a kitchen snitch. William and Harold had to do for themselves when they got hungry at lunchtime.
“It was all horse cabs back then, you recollect… Lotta jostle out front the hotel. You never could go put your cap out round the patrons, doorman mostly keep to his step and cuss, but other times come down and put his boot to the seat of your pants. Or maybe get you by the collar and hold you for the police. You could hunker down, tie a shoe quick, and here along the gutter, where they got coins changing hands, maybe spot a little glint. You ever stop at Merrick’s?”
“I don’t see how I could have.”
“You didn’t try.”
The drugstore had a foyer, with a basket for umbrellas, coat hooks on the wall. William was the kid, but Snake Eye…what they called him, puny runt, never grew… Snake Eye had moves. He could get his self in.
“So they had me to do the other job. We always carried rags in our pockets, whatever place we went.”
When a customer stepped to the door, William was to run up behind, catch it above the handle. He would put his fingers close, not touching, offer to give the man’s shoes a polish, or do any little thing he had in mind.
“For a nickel, sir. But I take what you like to give me.”
The customer liked nothing at all, either given or taken…though now and again one would dig out a coin for charity. There were some who felt it. There were kicks, too, and backhands. Most let go of the door, as soon as your hand was on it. They did not like to meet your eye, so they’d look away.
“And that’s when your friend snuck past.”
“Keep low going up the aisle, so he didn’t get seen. Fill his pockets.”
“And how did he get out?”
“Just light for it.”
“You didn’t get away with that very often?”
“Well…you have to hit different places. We was always moving.”
The boys had waited that day, and loitered, and circled the block… Merrick’s just wasn’t doing business. Then came a prospect, a woman. Twice William felt the flat of his brother’s hand on his back.
He kept his feet planted. “Shit, no.”
She pulled the door an inch or so; made a decision, it looked like. Came down, came right up to them.
“Maybe one or two of you would like to help me?” She had spoken to Harold.
“I’m a scientist, with the Metropolitan Cultural Institute, in Boston. Outside of Boston, I should say.”
She smiled, as though the difference was natural knowledge, funny to have forgotten. William watched his brother smile back, watched Harold thrust a hand in a jacket pocket, sway a hip, knock back his hat…a sophisticate. The lady scientist brought out a cigarette case.
“We never seen that before. White lady smoke a cigarette.”
But these smokes had made a line of demarcation; Rance, a boy his brother’s age, and Harold, treated, neither as quick to strike a match as the lady herself. William and Snake Eye outside the barrier. They could listen, they could trail along, but they weren’t wanted.
“While we all walked back that way, she was talking bout the clinic. Dumain’s was some way partnered up with them in Boston, whatever they did.”
And when the older boys were gone after the woman, through a door under the fire escape, William, afraid to stand waiting, had shrugged off his hunger, smacked his friend on the shoulder, and gone home.
“It wasn’t the last time I seen Harold. He come swanning back with a twenty-dollar bill she give him, and Mama traded that for a five. So Harold did all right for nothing. All he had to do was answer questions.”
(2020, Stephanie Foster)