A story within a story. 1928, the year of the Republican convention that nominated Herbert Hoover for the presidency. Reporter T. O. Mulhall’s train is stalled on the way to Kansas City via St. Louis. He crosses paths, In a small Illinois town, with Alfred Oliver—and Oliver’s protégé, aspiring actress Paulette St. Genevieve. Stuck sharing one of the Bay Tree House’s poorly ventilated rooms, the trio make small talk, leading to Oliver’s account of the infamous (or as infamous as his own exclusive coverage could make it) Bradshaw case.
Daisy wants to lose George, gain a modest fortune, and move to Florida. She exerts her influence on the Bradshaws’ live-in handyman, Oland Coleman. Oland’s grip on reality is a little weak…but his view perhaps not so far from the iron-clad expectations of his small-town milieu.
Are You Loveable
“Clear out. We don’t allow no one loitering in the lobby. And I ain’t got room for any a-one of you. So clear out.”
Mulhall found this lobby unpromising, more the size of a bookmaker’s corner booth. Within the meaning of the act, the Bay Tree House offered a roof overhead to travelers. One might, then, have called it a hotel. The front desk was of the roll top variety, its back to the foyer. Grease-penciled on plain panel-board meant to face a wall, black scribblings, indelible carpenter’s specifications, greeted clientele.
One flight of stairs led to the first story, a second to the remaining. Mulhall suspected the Bay Tree of being in its day a gin mill, or discreet bawdy-house (or, of course, both—the Mickey Finns of the lower chambers a source of rifleable pocketbooks to the upper). He had concealed himself here among the ranks of the press…but these were thinning. Most of his colleagues had conceded the point.
Rain enfiladed the pavement, bulleting in sheets across brick. Thunder shook the window frame. They were stranded in this backwater burg, this southerly Podunk, of the state of Illinois. Its two hostelries could not accommodate the traffic.
One man stood holding the door, rain pelting his left side, darkening the fabric of his brown suit. Mulhall shook his head.
“I said, clear out,” the hotelier repeated.
“You aren’t speaking to me,” Mulhall said.
“No, sir, I’m singin a church hymn,” the man answered. “Hoom am I speaking to?”
This was mockery. A sideways glance told Mulhall the others had gone.
“I mean to say…Miller, is it?…you misunderstand me. I haven’t come here expecting to be given a room. I’m only waiting.”
Miller puffed out air in exasperation, left his station behind the roll-top and confronted Mulhall, indicating this and that with jabs of his pocket watch.
“Did I say, or did I say, we don’t allow no one to loiter in the lobby?”
He moved to the door, still jabbing.
“But surely, in mere civility, what with the rain,” Mulhall began. The innkeeper jerked his head; his lips rounded on a word that Mulhall thought, given full birth, would be, “Out!”.
“My fiancée is…” He tried, on the fly, to conjure a picture.
“…driving carefully, I don’t doubt. If I were with her, I would insist she drive carefully in a storm like this. I can only hope…”
Miller stood unpersuaded. “She’s probly run in the ditch somewheres.”
Mulhall hated consigning his fiancée to this callous ditch of Miller’s. He hadn’t even named her. He assumed an expression of great anxiety, that of a tender heart shocked by lack of decent feeling—yes, that explained it—into a reaction somewhat tardy. He wrung his hands.
“Lookee,” Miller said.
This time tapping the back of a loosely clenched fist against Mulhall’s sleeve, he pointed through the door glass. “They got a good-sized entryway over to the bank. Train’ll be running in the morning.” Miller stepped into the foyer, an arched space the width of an (empty) umbrella stand, and placed his hand meaningfully on the knob.
Someone was bouncing down the short flight of steps from the first floor landing to the lobby. The two men heard muffled thuds and the warning bleat of a floorboard soon to give way.
“Turtledove! You’re here!”
Withering humidity had raised the young woman’s dark hair into a drifting cloud. Her face was pale, her nose shiny, her arms mosquito-bitten. Her feet were bare and she wore a navy sleeveless frock.
“This is Alfred,” she said to Miller. “I told you my husband was coming along.”
“I thought,” Miller said, “I seen you with another man.”
She cocked her head. “I’m talking to you, Mr. Miller. You’re a man. See how it happens?” She reached out and tugged at Mulhall’s sleeve. “Let’s go upstairs, Alfred. Mr. Miller wants to shut up for the night.”
“Hold on,” Miller said. “You, mister.”
Mulhall was bemused. The woman might be some sort of confidence artist; she might be helping, but she had placed him in an awkward position.
He coughed. “My fiancée, whom I mentioned…”
“We don’t tolerate no immoral doings under our roof,” said Miller.
The girl cast a glance at Mulhall, meeting his eyes…a flash of something vivid in hers. The distance, these seemed to say, was doubtful, but she meant to try the leap. She threw her arms around Mulhall’s startled mid-section, heaving afore as though struck by a cannonball. She sank, allowing her head to fall back.
“Alfred, can you forgive me?”
He gave her hair a tentative pat. “I forgive you, darling. If you can forgive me.”
She released him, rounding on Miller. “He doesn’t have a fiancée. He made the whole thing up.”
“That,” Mulhall agreed, “is entirely true.”
They heard heavier feet descend and a voice yell, “Paulette! What are you doing?”
“That’s the man!”
Right about this, Miller said it to Mulhall in an almost friendly way.
The man…squat, bulldoggish, the armpits of his white shirt stained with sweat, stepped off the lower landing. “You quit making trouble. Get upstairs.”
“Oh, he’s a brute! You’ll have to confront him, Alfred!”
“Alfred!” The stranger glowered. “Is that who you got there?”
Twice, she thrust her fingers against Mulhall’s ribs. He saw belatedly what she had in mind. “Say something!” she hissed, under cover of the awkward arm he dropped across her shoulders.
“Please…Paulette…don’t run away with men. I wish you wouldn’t.”
At this, she stepped a pace away, and looked him over with something like scorn.
Miller said, “You’uns…”
Paulette’s friend said: “Mr. Miller, you know me. I’ve stayed with you before.”
“Huh.” Miller peered. “Reckon so.”
“Mr. Miller,” the friend began again, “I was on my way over to St. Louis from Evansville.”
“May be,” Miller said. “Don’t care. She come, signing herself in as Mrs. Oliver.”
“Well, now,” said the man. “I sent Paulette on ahead to book a room, case I couldn’t hire a car anyplace. Turned out for the best. Yessir, I have fond memories of the Bay Leaf.” He bared his teeth.
“What I want to know is,” Miller said, “which one are you?”
“I, sir, am Alfred Oliver. I tell you no lie.”
“And this here’s your wife?”
Oliver shrugged. “She says she’s married to that guy there. His name’s Alfred. Small world.”
“Then one of you clear out.”
“Now Miller,” Oliver said. He took two or three steps in Miller’s direction, placed a hand on Miller’s shoulder, favoring him with a second gangsterly grin. “You’re not a man to go peeping through transoms, are you? It’s nothing to you what old Uncle Alfred and his niece, and her husband, also named Alfred, might want with a room in your establishment. Our money’s green. Let it go, Miller.”
Miller at this intervention appeared convinced of the trio’s criminality. Duty demanded Mulhall—the man with no business here—break up this bandits’ ring. He must retreat, as the aubergiste had suggested, to the bank’s spacious entryway.
Shuffling towards the door, Mulhall said, “At any rate, we are twenty minutes closer to the dawn.” Stooping to the floor, where Paulette’s assault had transferred his hat, he told them, donning this, “I would like to thank you all for your kind consideration.”
He departed into the rain and crossed the street.
Like Oliver, he guessed it had turned out for the best. Skidding on the depressed center of the bank’s marble step, he squished over its rain-soaked welcome mat. Sitting would be uncomfortable, but why be comfortable? Even had he obtained a room at the Bay Tree House, he could not have allowed himself to sleep. He had competition.
Leaving Evansville in the early morning, Mulhall had sat in ignorance reviewing his notes, while the express chugged soothingly through clearing fog, exposing Indiana cropland. The scene was peaceful. Deer grazed, corn ripened. Some nameless dun-colored birds wheeled about.
The whistle shrieked.
Mulhall’s notes flew into the face of the man seated opposite. An unexpected lurch, just as, murmuring apologies, he’d bent to gather these, sent him sprawling to the carriage floor.
He’d given a weak laugh. “We’ve hit something.”
“Them deer,” the other man said.
They learned, to the contrary, that a coal train had derailed further along the way, spilling its load, burying the tracks…and drawing locals to mix among the ranks of disoriented passengers. A man, fingering a nugget, opined to Mulhall—with a certain ill-concealed gleam in his eye: “This gonna take a good long time to clear up.”
Mulhall would not have believed, beginning his day brightly at six a.m., that he would end it, somewhat after eight p.m., discouraged, dust-coated, unfed and weary…and yet thirty miles shy of the Missouri border. He and the other members of the fourth estate had at first retreated, on foot, trooping overland in file towards a beckoning steeple.
They’d caught a mail train and been taken back to the city, much reproached for the pooling of their pocket change in hopes of making an honest bribe.
“No unscheduled stops! That’s what he says.”
The porter deputized with delivering their message to the engine cabin, left them with it, adding under his breath, “Plain crazy. Cause a wreck.”
A furniture van Mulhall and his friend of the brown suit hitched a ride on had taken them over the river. In Kentucky, they’d got themselves oriented (occidented, it might have been) westwards once more. But along disparate routes, clusters of newsmen had been regrouping, to descend in horde on this unknown village…
They might seek a meal here, or a room; they might attempt to commandeer a vehicle. Choosing any one of these options meant sacrificing the others.
The village retired with the setting sun. But Angermeier’s Drugstore, hard by the station, had been caught open. Regarding this unanticipated boom in business as an affront and an imposition, the counter staff served each order with a reminder: “We’re closing.”
The first of the night’s thunderstorms had been by now breaking, but the heat remained stifling. A block of ice, sadly slumped, affecting nothing, sat before an oscillating fan beneath a Coca-Cola sign. The grill was popping.
Mulhall, last in line, achieved the counter. He might have been looking into the reddened countenance of Angermeier himself. He found this highly probable.
“We’re closing,” the man said, savage in gesture with his spatula. His efficiency, in this exigency, would not permit speech. He banged a plate before Mulhall. On the plate Mulhall discovered grilled ham, grilled potatoes, and grilled peas. He recalled an aunt, a woman who could do a lot with peas…but Angermeier’s, in shrivelment and carbonization, surpassed memory.
He could not find a seat, so stood, shoveling from plate to mouth. He inquired of the woman at the cash register, whether the town had a taxi service.
The idea seemed to puzzle her. “I don’t know who would run a car,” she said. “You ask in the morning, though.”
In the morning, Mulhall wanted to put this sordid business behind him. He would end up buttonholing bellhops and bus drivers, canvassing Kansas City cashiers, shadowing sidewalk strollers—“What are your thoughts on repeal? Wait…who’s going to win the balloting, do you think?” If he did not succeed in leaving town on the earliest train, not even the lowliest Republican party flunky would have an unscheduled fifteen minutes remaining. And Mulhall himself was lowly. His hopes had been high.
Lightning, a sheet of blue segmenting itself along the horizon, caught his attention. A ghostlike figure issued, simultaneous to this, from a narrow alleyway across the street. Where the Bay Tree House stood aloof from its neighbor—a building half its height, the windows of which were labeled, “Snedden” (with no indication of what goods Snedden sold)—Paulette came padding towards Mulhall, bare feet splashing.
“You’re jumpy,” she told him.
“Don’t you have shoes?” he asked.
“Don’t you think it’s hot?” she answered. It was. Doggedly, the heat of the day held, despite the rain.
“And so…” he said. “You thought you might drop by for a chat?”
“Now’s your chance!” She poked him in the ribs, as she had done before. “Come on, come on,” she said. “Follow me. What you wanna stay out here for?”
At the rear of the Bay Tree House, an expanse of brickwork trailed away into weeds, a rain-filled ditch, then a forlorn field. Eventually the field met the railway, a windbreak…and one could see no further.
The dark sky lit up. Mulhall saw a bank of thunderheads, clouds that roiled like the smoke of a mill manufacturing contraband under cover of darkness. He saw the line of distant trees plunge ahead of the wind. It all went dark. Three forks of lightning flared then, illuminating the very grit of the bricks. After this, after a thunderclap, the escalating storm held its fire, rumbling behind intermittent flickers.
The rear façade of the hotel had been painted, for the edification of rail passengers, with a grinning 19th century medico, and the words: EZ Liver Chews, The Pleasant Antidote To Thin Blood. The rest was peeling paint, white over green over brick. Paulette ushered Mulhall up a freestanding flight of iron steps, and onto a creaking platform running the length of the first floor.
He followed her to the end of this, which led to nothing. She leaned and flailed where the planking abutted the hotel’s corner.
“Gimme a boost,” she told him.
Mulhall felt he might be mistaken.
“Am I mistaken?” he asked her. “Are you expecting me to push you over the edge just here…?”
“We have to go up the ladder.” She pointed. Lightning flashed. For an instant, he saw a second glint of iron. “I came down okay. If I was taller, I could climb up, but I can’t get a foothold.”
“I don’t think I will.” The plan struck him unsound.
“How,” Paulette asked, “is anyone supposed to help you?”
A remnant of loosely-attached railing trailed without conviction along the platform’s terminus. She studied the Bay Tree wall, reached up to brush away a chunk of mortar, then clamped fingers into the gap between bricks. Against another doubtful corner she tested her weight with the toes of her left foot.
“Please don’t,” Mulhall said.
She stood down, and her disapproving face flickered before him as lightning and thunder came almost together.
“One day,” she said, “you’re gonna get married. And your wife is gonna cheat on you.”
“Taking the optimistic view.”
“And you’re gonna say, ‘Please don’t’.” She spread her hands.
“But on the inside, my heart will be breaking.”
“Yeah. Gimme a boost. Get hit by lightning standing out here…jeez.”
He gave in, taking his hands from her waist only when, showing exquisite balance, she smacked off both at once, while scampering upwards a rung. He heard her say, “I didn’t expect Alfred to show up. He was snoozing on the bed, last I saw. Don’t get the wrong idea.”
“I am not interested in your immoral doings.”
From the darkness overhead, he heard a rapping. A door creaked.
“Come on, come on,” Paulette said.
Mulhall heard Alfred Oliver, speaking from a height.
“Squirelliest damn thing.”
The complaint of the door diminished…then, echoing the rolling thunder, came a thud, and weak light flooded the recess beyond the railing. Paulette’s head appeared. She looked down at Mulhall over the edge of a passage, one that opened above a precipice.
“What’s your name, you?”
“See the ladder?”
He saw no harm admitting this was so. “I do,” he told her. She might not have heard. Time elapsed.
Mulhall looked up. Paulette looked down. “There you go.”
A hand came out, and a fingernail tinked against iron.
“Mulhall!” Oliver called down, in a rasp perhaps meant to be subdued. “It’s getting a little drafty up here. I’m not criticizing, but my grandma can climb a ladder faster than that!”
Mulhall leaned testingly across the rail. It swooned, cackling something in metallic notes, causing one shoe to lose contact with the planking, and by default, Mulhall to catch fast at the nearest rung. The ladder, at least, seemed securely bolted. The sky turned white.
“It can’t be any more than ten feet,” Paulette called out. “You saw me climb up. I wasn’t scared.”
But by now the ladder was slick with rainwater, and only the rust gave purchase. He tightened his hold and stepped from safety. Both feet on the lowest rung, Mulhall stalled. A life-imperiling choice deserved a degree of careful thought. Paulette’s help had got him perched on a metal ladder, in the midst of an electrical storm; while in the meantime, she and her confederate goaded him from above with insults to his manhood. He advanced one rung higher, hazarding an awkward wrenching of the neck to peer towards the light.
Oliver stuck his head out, possibly to gauge Mulhall’s progress. Mulhall had ceased to progress. A massive thunderclap and the deluge that followed had riveted him in place, far short of sanctuary, unable to guess his distance from the ground. He felt he might soon learn the answer.
“Almighty Saint Pete!” Oliver whispered. “How can I take hold of your hand and haul you in, if you don’t shift yourself up where I can get at you?”
Mulhall heard Paulette’s voice, muffled, then growing distinct as she too leaned over the edge, “…out of my way, and I’ll go down there.”
“Don’t you have any common sense?” Oliver asked. “How do you know that ladder can bear the weight of two people?”
“What are you talking about? What if there was a fire?”
“Now, don’t say it. You know I’m superstitious.”
“You’re not telling me…” Her voice receded into the hallway, then came back audible to Mulhall. Bickering, she and Oliver had forgotten themselves engaged in a clandestine affair.
“…anyone’s gonna put up a fire ladder, and it would fall off the wall if you tried using it!”
“You’re assuming they put it up sometime this century.”
Pressured by this new consideration, Mulhall slid a hand from the rung to the ladder’s frame. By inches, if not centimeters, he moved this aloft. He slid the other up the opposite side, never yielding his death grip and full-body embrace. With a slug-like rippling, he obtained an increasing elevation. He hooked a heel, and repeated the process.
Paulette said, “I was only gonna climb along the side and give him a little push.”
“Hey, look,” Oliver’s voice sounded, suddenly, close by. “Gimme your hand, pal. Come on.” Mulhall resumed his incremental slide. Oliver seized him by the forearm. “Paulette, dang it! Let go!”
Breath heaved, clothing rustled, and the door bumped against the wall.
“I was just getting you by the ankle,” she said. “Be sure you don’t fall!”
“Don’t come at me with a new idea like that all at once,” Oliver muttered. He dragged Mulhall over the unfinished threshold, and stood, while Mulhall remained jelly-limbed and nose to carpet.
“The Lord helps them that help themselves, pal.”
Mulhall kept silent still, as he followed his new acquaintances to their room. The silence was not eloquent, for his shoes, soaked with rainwater, accompanied each step with a damp, desultory squnch. It was not that he lacked towards Oliver, for these saving maneuvers, a profound regard. He noted, merely, that the favor had been gratuitous. Left to his own devices, Mulhall did not break into hotels in the middle of the night.
“You like Hoover?” Oliver asked him.
“He seems a man of strong convictions.”
He had lost a hat, two shirt-buttons, and a fountain pen. Mulhall spoke to quell conversation. Navigating past the sticky door, he came up short before a glass fronted curio cabinet, empty of curio. The Millers, he conjectured, in disposing of a great aunt’s estate, had taken the conservative view. The labor required to dust an over-furnished room was cheap…it was on the house, no doubt, courtesy of Mrs. Miller…furniture, on the other hand, was a commodity.
“Sit over here.” Paulette patted the seat of a an armchair wedged under the window. She leaned across the bed and started bunching up the chenille coverlet. “You’re gonna get a chill, all wet like that. Give him a slug of your hooch, Alfred.”
Oliver rummaged in a cardboard suitcase. Mulhall, not chilled, had thought rather of asking permission to open the window…and saw they had already done so.
“Take a pull on this.” Oliver handed across a flask. Paulette watched with hands that hovered, in search of something to yank or prod. Oliver nodded. “Go on, have another.” In obedience, Mulhall dosed himself a second time, then, trembling somewhat about the lips, while his left eye watered freely, he handed back the flask.
A thought occurred to him. He sat up. He’d dropped his wallet in an unbuttoned pocket after the shifts and changes of Angermeier’s. If the pass-key to his room at home had gone, his building superintendent would sell him another, cheerfully enough…but losing his money was serious. He slid down until his back rested on the seat, and twisted, groping behind him.
“Alfred, give him the rest of that. He’s having some kind of fit.” Paulette bustled to straight-jacket Mulhall in the bedspread’s folds.
Oliver tilted the flask upside-down. “Too late.”
“Why…” Mulhall began, and stopped. “Miss…I’m sorry, I don’t know your last name.”
She turned to Oliver. “See how he’s polite like that?”
“She calls herself Paulette St. Geneviève.” Oliver made a derisive noise. “You pitch it too high, girlie. You oughta called yourself Gladys Smith. When you get to Hollywood, they’ll name you whatever they decide, anyway.”
“What are you talking about? Who says?”
“And if you were class, steada one of the local rubes, you wouldn’t answer everything with a question. Who says?” In gruesome burlesque, he impersonated her. “What are you talking about?” He sat heavily on the mattress, drew up a leg and reached for a shoelace. “You think the first lady talks like that?”
“How should I know? When I’m famous, I’ll go to the White House and have tea. I’ll send you a telegram.” She settled on the bed near Mulhall’s chair, and stretched the arches of her muddy bare feet. “And what are you talking local? I’m not from here.”
“I know where you’re from.” Oliver recovered a half-smoked cigar from an ashtray perched on the bedside Bible. “And it’s not far from here.”
She appealed to Mulhall. “Is it a crime, I’m not famous yet?”
“Why,” he tried again. “Miss St. Geneviève…”
Paulette giggled, and slapped Oliver on the shoulder.
“…did you choose to…
(Dragoon seemed to be the word.)
“Fetch ya in out of the rain,” Oliver mumbled, smoking.
“Oh.” She cocked her head to the side, the way she’d done when speaking to Miller. “I saw you come in. You looked like such a mutt, standing by yourself, with grease all over your shirt. When Miller told you clear out, I couldn’t make out your shtick. You talk funny.”
“I spent my formative years abroad.” Mulhall looked down. There was little of white oxford cloth now to be seen, but the viscosity of the Angermeier grease was such that, where his peas, brought to bay, had wanted buttressing, rainwater beaded his shirt-front. He noticed mustard on his necktie. He began to feel a certain internal unease. A chemical experiment burbled, in something less than silence—indelible drugstore fare combining dangerously with the hooch that still burned in his stomach.
He supposed himself indeed a mutt.
“Yeah, anyone can see the good it’s done you,” Oliver said. “First thing I learned in charm school…you gotta mix in. Now, who you with?”
This, Mulhall did not know how to answer.
“What’s your right name?”
“I don’t quite see…”
“I’ll tell you what. This is my last one of these conventions. I’m taking over the city desk at the end of the year. I might wanna keep you in mind. Who you with?”
“Ah. I get you. I write for the International News Service.”
“Wire guy. I figured. Got that ‘no fixed abode’ look to you. What’s your right name? I might put you on a list. You want steady work, don’t you? A regular address?”
Mulhall nodded. “T.O.”
“Theo? Greek to me. How you spell it?”
“Those are my initials.”
He realized he was up against it, the lure of a regular address and steady work too powerful. He must disclose the truth, or he might miss this chance. Mulhall hedged. “My middle name, as it happens, is Oliver.”
“Well, originality counts for a lot. What’s your other name?”
He expected them to laugh, but confessed it:
They laughed. Specifically, Oliver snorted, and Paulette giggled. She repeated the name to herself, and giggled again.
“My mother,” Mulhall was quick to explain, “had no one to advise her.” He hoped they understood him. The advice of his Aunt Clarice hadn’t signified, her wisdom extending only to an unquestioned faith in the efficacies of castor oil and kerosene. “As my mother tells the story, one day she was leafing through the Daily Mail…”
“Mine used to do the same thing,” Oliver reminisced. “Back when she worked at the Palmer House in Chicago. Nothing boosts the tips like a little icebreaker. You don’t know what you’re gonna find out about people.”
“My mother came across the name.”
She had, for that matter (but it was not Oliver’s business), come across the man who bore it…and once had taken Mulhall by train to Penzance, in hopes his boyish face, as she ushered him into a particular butcher’s shop, would induce at the least a guilty start.
“And,” he finished, “she was taken with it.”
“Taken with a fit?” Oliver asked. “They say those things run in families.”
“Oland Coleman.” Paulette hoisted herself upright, punched and re-positioned the pillow she’d been leaning against.
“Daisy Bradshaw’s para-moron? The incompetent accomplice? The star-crossed bungler?”
Oliver depressed the mattress, heaving his cigar stub with contempt. Mulhall flinched as it sailed past, out the window and into the night. “Why you mention Coleman? They shoulda fried him like an egg.”
“Jeez, he didn’t kill anyone. I just thought of him, cause,” Paulette said, looking at Mulhall, “he had a funny name.”
“He was a funny guy. The only reason he didn’t kill anyone was because George Bradshaw had idiot’s luck. Why wouldn’t you go stand on the edge of a dam, after your wife tried to poison you already? They say God has a soft spot for fools…and…for somethin else.” Oliver shook his head. “Heaven must be a real treat.”
“Bradshaw,” Mulhall said. “The name was connected to some sort of scandal, wasn’t it?”
“No,” Oliver said, “big folks have scandals. The Bradshaws were just small fry. I’ll tell you how it happened…”
George Bradshaw heard an incongruous note. He meant to answer a question. He wasn’t certain she had asked anything. He heard emerge from his throat, a gurgle. Air fanned his face.
He was closer. Her voice was not Daisy’s. He wished he felt certain she was Jeannette…but she was not. “George,” she said, and he saw her shadowed eyes. He didn’t know when he had woken up. “George,” she spoke in a low voice, tinted lips looming, close to his ear, “which one of them did it?”
She disappeared. Heavy footfalls reverberated, soft shoes and hard steps, the way Daisy in her slippers stalked the house. These moved from outside, and came in. He knew it because they drummed louder, growing peremptory. The noise jolted George’s nervous system. He flailed…or remapped the positions of his arms, and tried to.
“Is he awake?”
“Sure, he’s awake. See? You made him jump.”
“Miss…” A pause. Breaths that conveyed irritation. “Where were you trained?”
“All over the place.”
The girl was small. Her smock draped her shoes. Her cap, pinned but not anchored, to a quantity of unkempt hair, advanced towards her eyes. The head nurse did not ask that the agency girls perform miracles. She asked merely that they show respect, follow instructions…and make themselves presentable. In her opinion the post-war recruiting drive had much to answer for.
“What is your name?”
“Keep an eye on Mr. Bradshaw. Call me at once if he needs his morphine shot.”
How would I know, Paulette asked herself―but fair was fair. A nurse would probably know, but she was an actress. She looked behind her. The door was meant to stay open. Paulette pushed it quietly, until it rested on the latch.
“George. It was her, wasn’t it?”
Yes, he was awake. He had dreamed of an accident, a persistent fighting and losing, the narrative returning, spinning through familiar conversations. When he was not really asleep—drugged, he thought—he saw pictures of Daisy, watched in helplessness, heard her voice going at him like a hacksaw, steadily taking him down. He felt that his own sub-conscious had acted as a secret advocate through this ordeal, and he had now seen a revelation. He could not turn to the girl at his bedside. The neck brace forced him to stare at the ceiling. He jerked one hand in the air.
“Don’t,” he said, the first word he’d spoken in days.
“Don’t what, George?”
“Don’t leave me alone with them.”
Oland Coleman sat on Daisy Bradshaw’s davenport. Daisy was in the kitchen. The Bradshaws lived in a white clapboard bungalow, among a row of identical bungalows, each on its fifty-foot lot. Oland, from his restive perch, watched Daisy through the kitchen doorway. He saw her cross into view. He stared as she leaned into the icebox. A cabinet door grated on its hinges. Glasses clattered. Oland worried about Daisy’s mood. Cautiously, he lifted one work boot and checked the rug for evidence of tracking. Daisy would take after him something fierce if he tracked.
“I was just now getting the carpet sweeper.”
She appeared in the doorway. “I was going to ask if you wanted saltines with your lemonade. Did you track?”
He massed into the space that led from the living room to the kitchen, filling it, as Daisy, seeking dirt, attempted egress. For a moment, Oland and Daisy grappled with each other.
But—a rarity—she yielded, stepping backwards. She jabbed her finger, indicating a chair too small for Oland.
He sat, and Daisy sat.
She skidded the pitcher across. Oland, helpful, hunched onto his elbows, crowding the kitchen table. Lemonade sloshed. She leaned back, jerked free the tea towel looped through the icebox door, dabbed at the spill with a worrying lack of mumbled curses…then raised to her lover a strained face.
“Oland,” she said. “You need to visit George while they’ve still got him.”
Oland’s knees, pressed tight under the table’s edge, clenched. Lemonade sloshed anew. “I would like some saltines,” he answered her, meek.
“You aren’t getting saltines,” Daisy said. “I want you listening. George”—she held Oland’s eye and lifted a penciled brow—“might get confused, what with the morphine. He might take another fall. Out the window.”
Oland thought this over. “I don’t see how he’d get up with a broken leg. Maybe he would fall out of bed.”
“Ain’t nobody…” Daisy began. She slurped in dark meditation.
Daisy liked keeping up her standards. The Bradshaw house was a place of culture; culture that would one day exert a leveling influence on her neighbors’ social barriers. Yet the times demanded emphatic speech.
“…ain’t nobody ever died falling out of bed.”
He looked to the bright star visible through the kitchen window despite the light inside.
“Speak English.” She stretched an arm this time to the counter, snaffled the saltine box and rooted, withdrawing four. She crunched, spewing an arc of discontented crumbs.
“He was tucked up in a sort of bunk we made for him. Had a bad leg…I mean…” He remembered. “Sort of bandaged on, is how it was…but the medics couldn’t make it through. Then they started shelling us, heavy. Strong kept screaming. Then,” Oland said, wonderingly, “he fell out of his bunk and rolled down into the water, down to the bottom. And we never found him.”
“Did I ask? What’s it got to do with the price of beans, that war stuff?” She shoved the saltines across the table. Oland took a handful. “You and George with the stories. Listen, Oland. You go to the hospital and ask to visit. Tell them you’re his cousin.”
He chewed and waited for Daisy. He could not fathom hers, nor formulate a scheme from his own imagination.
“Won’t George know I’m not his cousin?” Oland asked at last.
This was provoking, but Daisy waved a saltine in dismissal. “When you talk to George, tell him you came after that money he owes you for the roof.”
She was making Oland nervous again. He tried to hold his own against these intrusions.
“I think,” he said softly, “George paid me already. He always pays me.”
“Oland.” Her eyes narrowed. “When you murder a guy, you don’t worry about cheating him.”
“It’s getting hot,” Paulette told Oliver. The head nurse moved out of earshot. “You heard how she said my name? I told you.”
“So whose fault is that? You’re supposed to be an angel of mercy. You look like you fell out the laundry cart. You know extras don’t get their own dressers over there in Hollywood, right? Your boss has a point.”
“Alfred…” She paused.
Echoing from the stairs, they heard the approach of footfalls, leaden. A sturdy work boot stubbed a riser…
And a male voice uttered an incoherent lamentation.
“Alfred,” Paulette said again. “I got good information for you. If you’re not nice to me, you can lump it.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Oliver replied. “I got five bucks. If it turns out your information is worth anything, you can have it.”
“It was her.”
“He told you?”
“As good as.”
The presence on the stairs moved again. A hand seemed to grope at the door handle, then fall away, irresolute.
“Listen,” Paulette whispered. “What was that word you used?”
“I didn’t say anything. I might have shuddered.”
“Not a minute ago. When you were telling me about Daisy.”
“Blunderbuss? Dreadnought? Battleaxe?”
“Um, yeah…any of those.” She leaned towards Oliver, and pinched his sleeve. “When that head nurse came into George’s room, you should have seen him twitch. Her voice went right through him.”
Oliver looked appraisingly at Paulette. “You got some instincts. I’m impressed.”
The door from the stairwell burst open.
A burly man with the white-rimmed eye of a nervous rabbit…and doughy folds of chin where his collar cinched his neck…stood separated from them by no more than twenty feet of linoleum. He went slack through the shoulders, the sleeves of his jacket pulling to mid-forearm.
Oliver’s eyes sharpened into avidity.
“That’s Oland Coleman!” Paulette nudged him in the ribs.
In a reverberating stage whisper, Oliver answered, “I know that.”
The door, once more, thudded against the wall.
A diminishing sound of feet, running, striking, stumbling…
A noise like three overstuffed mail bags, tossed one by one onto the back of a truck.
“Let’s find out if he’s alive,” Paulette said. She hurried to the stairs, hitching her smock. “Come on, come on.”
They heard stirring below, a grunt and a moan. Then a second door, creaking on its hinges, swung and banged. It creaked again, as Paulette, stumping with one exposed leg, and Oliver, lighting a cigar—as he did at moments of leisure—reached the pit of the stairwell. With an indifferent clank, the door came to rest, an inch or so from shutting itself.
Scanning up and down the street, they saw no trace of Oland Coleman.
“He probably landed on his head. No harm done. So how’s that sort with your idea?” Oliver went on. “Coleman looks guilty to me.”
“What are you talking about? He came here to protect the woman he loves.”
Paulette adjusted her clothes, and gave a shrug. “Don’t ask me. Daisy got two men, I got none. Anyhow, I was telling you. George wants us to get in touch with his sister. Her name’s Dot. He told me he was afraid to be alone with them. Daisy, he means, and the handyman.”
“Is that what he said? They only got Coleman, far as I know.”
“Well, it looks funny, doesn’t it? She’s renting a room to Oland while her husband’s in the hospital?”
“Nah. Coleman doesn’t rent. Just lives there. Handy guy to keep around, you gotta figure.”
“Are you friends with these people?” Paulette shoved at her cap, and rolled her eyes.
“Friends! Heck. I could hear the whole story if I spent an hour loitering down the bus station.” Oliver rolled his. “Whataya think? These burgs are full of Bradshaws. I thought you came from Hayseed Acres yourself.”
“Listen.” She changed the subject. “You need to find Dot and Henry Stonemarten. They live in Belleville. Use your contacts, you got so many.”
“I’ll tell you what. You use contacts to do a job any telephone operator can do for you, you’re not gonna have contacts. You get in touch with them.”
“Gimme five bucks.”
“Girlie, old Uncle Alfred didn’t hatch out the chicken coop yesterday. I’m not handing you five bucks standing on a street corner.”
Paulette considered. “You’re lucky I’m the innocent type. A mind like yours could put a picture in a girl’s head.”
She grubbed in her pocketbook as she walked up the street, her nurse’s gear left tossed over the bunk in her dorm room. Paulette was telling herself, yeah, I’m canned. I’ll just do this other thing…Alfred better pay me.
“Hey! Practice what you preach, whyncha?” she muttered, in response to a stranger’s invective. She might have stepped on the woman’s foot…you can’t look out for everything all at once. Paulette was formulating a plan. She nodded with satisfaction. She had just enough change. Why not take the bus to Belleville and give her news to Dot Stonemarten in person?
“I gave my word,” she saw herself telling Dot. She pictured Dot, whose full name consisted of four sharp syllables, as a sharp little person. “I spent my last dime to come here. I promised George I would tell you what he told me. I like George. And I gotta warn you, ma’am, there’s someone who doesn’t…”
There were people, who didn’t happen to be named Alfred Oliver, who would pay good money for good information.
Oland Coleman drank deep from his second ginger ale. He didn’t trust himself with coffee; even now, his hands were shaking, and he could have sworn…that nurse…seen staring at him just when he’d collected himself enough to focus his eyes… She’d called him by name. With a view to eluding capture, running otherwise empty of thought for four blocks, he’d darted into Ostwald’s Drugstore. Some minutes afterwards, a heavy-set man, sporting a few strands of hair combed behind one ear, had taken a seat at the end of the counter.
“The man from the hospital,” Oland murmured…not meaning to. He lurched, and steadied himself. He essayed another sidelong glance, and could make out nothing. He finished his ginger ale, skidded the bottle across, and ordered a third. He dared swing his head a few inches to the side. The man nodded in a friendly way, tipping up two fingers, his palm resting by his cup and saucer.
The truth was more disturbing. Oland knew this man, had seen him somewhere…the man was a danger to him, Oland felt it in his bones…but he was not the man from the hospital. He searched his pocket for change. His quarter dropped. He heard it go waga waga waga, spinning somewhere under the row of stools. Furtive, Oland slid to his hands and knees, then climbed to his feet and put his quarter on the counter.
The woman told him, “No, hon.”
He was dumbfounded.
“No, hon,” she repeated. “Pay at the register.”
Detective-Sergeant Ahern sat watching Coleman push at a door that opened inward. When at length he’d gone, Ahern shot a glance up the counter at the waitress. “Guy seems a little jumpy.”
“As long as Oland Coleman pays for his ginger ale,” she said, wiping down the counter, clearing away the empty bottles, “he’s a customer like everybody else.”
He hated to think of Daisy’s mood.
At times Oland got badly fussed―driven to the extremity of questioning Daisy on a matter of policy―she would say, “Oh, get out! Don’t talk to me.” She would tell him he was seeing things. Of late, she’d taken a new tack. If they didn’t get the insurance money soon; if they didn’t escape this town…
The police are gonna start figuring things out. And that’ll be too bad. For you, I mean. Because I saw you, Oland. I saw you push George. It’s not that I don’t love you, but if it comes down to you or me—
He called to his mind everything he remembered about that day. He couldn’t make himself believe it. Oland knew he was clumsy. He knew he was slow in the head…everyone said so. Still, he hadn’t been standing next to George. He hadn’t even been looking at George.
“Maybe I just bumped into him, by mistake…”
He liked George; he didn’t hate George. Oland knew of no reason he would do this on purpose. She shook her head. She swept the saltine crumbs with her left hand, gathering them in her right.
“I saw it. Everything.”
Oland had been speechless.
“You got no choice now,” Daisy told him. “You’ll make it worse for yourself if you don’t finish the job. You might get me in trouble. Oland,” she’d added, “I can’t help you if you don’t help me.”
Daisy gazed at him from beneath her eyelashes, in a manner that would have made George leave the room. But in his life, Oland had attracted the attentions of few women. He found Daisy tolerably winsome.
She said, “I’m only looking out for you”; and Oland, uneasy about it…this forced view of himself outside himself, had acquiesced.
Daisy had a niece, Mabel, six years younger than herself. “Mabel’s a drip,” Daisy told Oland. “But she has to come along so you can be there.” The day they’d gone to the reservoir, Mabel had walked the three blocks to the Bradshaws’.
And Daisy, throwing open the kitchen door, said at once:
“Mabel, you look peaky. You’re gonna have one of your headaches. I’ll mix you a powder.” She filled a glass with water from the sink. She opened a tin and pulled out a little packet.
“Mabel, hand me a spoon.”
Clenching a cigarette between her teeth, Daisy beat up a milky broth flecked with undissolved grains. “This’ll take care of you,” she told Mabel.
Mabel swallowed, winced and grimaced.
“Tastes bad?” Daisy asked, with a tight little smile. “George doesn’t like it, either.”
And as they’d picnicked, Mabel had begun to look actively peaky…if not green.
George set down his plate of potato salad.
He’d noticed the lack of rapport between Mabel and Oland. “I bet Oland would walk you up along the dam, if you ask sweet.” He chuckled. He tried catching Oland’s eye.
Mabel stood suddenly and staggered from the blanket. George again lifted his plate, and stared down at it. Oland blushed and clutched his stomach as though he retched in sympathy. She stumbled back, mortified and ashen.
“Mabel, go lay down in the car.”
Daisy said this, swigged the last of her orange soda…then flung the bottle towards the roadside ditch. Here George, edging the Ford to a stop, had come close to tipping it.
(“…cause you always see some gang of half-wit hooligans rocketing along this stretch, that’s why. Blind curve.” He’d buffed his fender with a jacket sleeve, and added, “Jeez, Daisy, slide over and quit griping.”)
She held out a cigarette for George to light.
Both watched Mabel zig-zag to the culvert, bent at the waist. They watched her fumble with a passenger door. Her head dipped from view.
“That right front tire’s a little ragged,” George said.
“George,” Daisy said, “you and me are gonna go walk on that path up by the dam.”
“Ha. I don’t think so.”
“George, what’s Oland got to do with us getting divorced? Why you wanna talk in front of him?”
Lured thus, eyes alight, George jumped to his feet.
Daisy, as they strolled, looked over her shoulder. She motioned to Oland. His mouth fell open. She shot him a glare and snapped her fingers. Like she expected him to follow…
After she’d said the one thing. Now it was something else.
Listening to George and Daisy bicker, Oland felt sunk, in that way all the teachers, army officers, and bosses of his past had made familiar to him. He heard George say, “…can’t go out in the sun without getting sick…looks like a goddamn hamster…” The hill grew steeper. Oland kept his eyes on the ground, feet shuffling at a near standstill. He came up against a chain-link fence. Raising his head, he found he’d walked into an enclosure. He looked to the left, to the right, and could extricate himself only by going back the way he’d come in.
Afraid George didn’t want him there, he’d lingered, panting, below the summit. That was when, as Oland recalled, he heard a whump, and George emit a startled, “Gah!”
He saw George, about twenty feet down, lying in blood like a dead man, on the rip-rap along the spillway. Daisy stood, not a hair turned, smoking. She said to Oland, “He fell.”
But her story had changed. She wouldn’t explain. Sometimes, Oland thought, things got away from you. He’d been blamed before. He’d been threatened once, for not putting his head down fast enough, with a charge of insubordination. The word meant nothing to Oland. No, he couldn’t make it out, how getting himself killed—if that was the trouble—was an offense to others. But it was the trouble, the sergeant had said.
Maybe you could be guilty of something you didn’t think you’d done, if the smart people knew more about it than you did.
On Monday, one week and one day after the ambulance had delivered George Bradshaw to the hospital, Police Chief Joseph Grinker sat in his office with Ahern, shooting the breeze.
“…one of those funny definitions for words,” Ahern was saying. He quoted, reading from his newspaper. “A lie. A poor substitute for the truth, but so far no one has thought of anything better.”
Grinker had been looking at Ahern. He was uncertain, therefore, whether he’d really seen a head pop round the doorframe. Emitting a flat chuckle, he got up to check. He jumped. A different head had popped round the doorframe.
“What are they talking about?” the man said. “There’s two guys in here, Dot. Come on in.”
This first visitor emerged fully in the open. A second followed. “They told me I was looking for Chief Grinker,” the woman said. She peered at Grinker, nose coming up inquisitive, forehead and chin receding. “Who are you?”
“Please sit down, ma’am,” he said. “I’m Grinker. This is Detective-Sergeant Ahern.”
“The guy told us,” the man said, turning to the woman, “he didn’t know.”
She nodded, up and down. “We would have been sitting out there.”
“I’m Henry Stonemarten,” the man told Grinker. He offered one hand to Grinker; with firmness of purpose, he put his other on the back of the visitor’s chair. His wife—Grinker assumed this—sat.
She said, with a powerful emphasis: “I’m Dot.”
The name failed to oppress. Again, the Stonemartens looked at each other. They gestured mutual exasperation.
“Chief Grinker,” Dot said. She paused, daring him to conspire further with the desk sergeant. Grinker put down the telephone receiver he’d picked up. “What am I going to think, when I find out what certain people have been up to?”
Of possible answers, Grinker settled on: “What might I help you with, Mrs. Stonemarten?”
“When we came down here last time, none of this was happening,” Henry said, and his wife snapped in with: “Which is only surprising.”
“You say you came down here…” Ahern began. He thought he saw the possibility of a breakthrough. “You’re from out of town?”
“If we lived here,” Dot said, “there’d be someone keeping an eye on things.” She eyed Ahern, and brought her handbag down like a gavel on Grinker’s desk.
“And what sort of things,” Ahern persisted, “need keeping an eye on?”
“People murdering people!”
“Lately,” Grinker told Ahern, “we hardly get any work done.”
“Well,” Ahern said, “we hardly have any work.”
“Don’t go saying stuff like that! The council’ll vote down the budget. You’ll be hunting for a job in St. Louis.”
“Not me. Maybe you. I’m retiring.”
Grinker, whose labors in the salt mine were far from over, felt Ahern was overlooking the point.
“The point is,” he told Ahern, “how am I gonna sit here, minding my own business, when I never know who’s coming at me next, carrying on about the Bradshaw murder? And the point is,” he added, “Bradshaw ain’t been murdered.”
“You could say he’s making progress,” Ahern offered.
“I told the insurance guy, are you gonna swear out a complaint?”
Grinker, thinking of the insurance man’s subtle game, paused. He swung an open hand, expressive of his opinion. Ahern nodded.
“I told Alfred Oliver, there’s no story.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have done it. Guy like Oliver, you should tell him…” Ahern sat up in his chair, and leaned over Grinker’s desk, squinting like a sage. “I will let you know when I find out anything. Make it mysterious. Guy like Oliver’s gonna figure if we’re on the case, it’s gotta be small-town stuff, like the folks down at the grocery switching oleo for butter. He’ll go back to the city. Tell him there’s no story, he sticks around. ’Cause he figures some higher-up put the kibosh on.”
“Well, there’s no story,” Grinker said, but he studied Ahern. “They’re not…” He cast an eye towards the door. He saw no sign of unexpected visitors.
“…selling oleo and calling it butter? Or you mean something else when you say that?”
“I don’t know anything about it,” Ahern shrugged.
“Now, I’m not saying anything. You get me,” the insurance man had told Grinker. He was a youngster. He sat back, an ankle on his knee. “But I’m saying this.” He leaned forward. He put both feet on the floor. “We see cases of insurance fraud. Now, Mr. Bradshaw is a perfectly good customer. What I’m saying, ‘course, is that he pays his premiums on time.
“Mister…Chief Grinker,” the insurance man continued, recalling that he was not selling a policy. He gave an offensive wink. “I spoke with Mrs. Bradshaw myself. And the gentleman who called himself Mr. Bradshaw. Chief, Mrs. Bradshaw may not have realized how close our branch offices work with each other.”
“So,” Grinker said, writing on his notepad. “Mrs. Bradshaw showed up at your office with a phony George, and signed up for life insurance. But you say the Bradshaws already have one policy. The one the real George is paying for.”
“Now,” the insurance man told Grinker, “if I needed to, I could tell you who the guy was. I think anyone could tell you who the guy was.”
Well, Oland Coleman, Grinker figured. He said, “Are you gonna swear out a complaint?”
The man had laughed, almost pityingly, as Grinker recalled. “I told Mrs. Bradshaw…” He raised an eyebrow. “Said to her, we’re just waiting for a letter of confirmation from our headquarters in Springfield. But, I said to Mrs. Bradshaw, I wouldn’t worry about it. I told her…”
He took a moment, before his punchline, to toss across a smirk.
“…you will be taken care of.”
Grinker felt that artful practices were going on here, under his nose—what with the insurance man and now, surprisingly, Ahern. I don’t circulate enough, he told himself. I need to join a club.
George held Jeannette. Dot had followed his whispered instructions, finding her taped to the underside of his sock drawer. On this particular point of nefarious intent, he had long suspected Daisy. The day he’d agreed to marry her, George had explained he could never love her. He was, yes, a lonely man…but a man with heart forever broken…
“Well,” Daisy had yawned. “Too bad. You’ll never see Jeannette again.”
He’d noticed something in her glance, as she slipped Jeannette’s photo from its embossed cardboard frame. And as she studied George’s lost fiancée, a sneer had trembled on his future wife’s upper lip. She flipped the portrait over. Thrusting her torso across the tablecloth, Daisy held Jeannette suspended near the candle flame, reading the words printed on the back.
“George…” she began; then changed her mind. He’d seen the sneer devolve into a predatory smile. She replaced Jeannette, even handled her decorously, snugging photo and frame next to his steak knife. In a mild panic over this second veiled threat, George lurched for his keepsake and sank under the waiter’s eye, clutching Jeannette to his bosom.
After that upset, he’d concealed her whereabouts from Daisy.
“His sweetheart from the war.” Dot stood behind George’s wheelchair, and spoke these words to the little nurse.
“Oh! She looks just like a movie star!”
Paulette put a hand on George’s shoulder and leaned over his lap, sighing. Dot had imparted this confidence in a raspy undertone. Paulette kept her own voice low. She didn’t know what was so secret. She was the newcomer to the Bradshaw milieu, and George’s wife, albeit pushed by her in-laws to the periphery, chafed within earshot.
“So,” Paulette said, whispering just in case. “Did George search for her”—she paused, envisioning the scene—“on the streets of Paris? And then…” She forgot to whisper. “He saw a woman…he thought she was Jeannette…he called out to her… Mais non, monsieur, je ne peux rien vous dire. That’s her talking.”
Henry murmured, “Fran-say. Over my head.”
Alfred, Paulette figured, would be surprised. None of the papers had got hold of this story. He was gonna owe her for sure.
“George,” Henry corroborated, “never told us anything like that.” He bobbed to wheel-chair level and peered at George’s face. He laughed, as one enjoying a private joke. “I always wondered…”
He straightened, and checked himself. He had wondered why George would go from a woman like Jeannette to a woman like Daisy, without at least shooting for something in between. Standing flanked by Paulette and Dot, Henry felt chilled by a sudden awareness. The joke might do for a Kiwanis meeting.
On the other hand, he thought, glancing at Dot…a man could have enemies, even among fellow Kiwanians.
George had grown used to being talked over. He was awake, he felt rational―but since his accident, people had had these discussions about George. As though George weren’t sitting there with them. He scrutinized his love. The Mona-Lisa smile disturbed him. Really, the girl Paulette disturbed him, play-acting her little story. He liked his nurse…the kid was a sweetheart…
But what business did she have?
For George Bradshaw—well, like for anyone, he told himself—memories were bound to fade…that was only the truth. No one ought to call you crazy just because, after ten years, you might confuse one thing with another. He couldn’t bring back Jeannette’s voice. Maybe that was only normal. He guessed she probably would have an accent, though…and he’d never given her one. The things they’d talked about…
He never said fiancée. Daisy said it. Whenever George told the story, he had to grow vague on this essential question. He always described his pledge to Jeannette as “a promise”. A promise could mean a lot of things.
Whereas…much of Jeannette depended on her picture. It had been there when he’d left the American hospital in Paris…someone had packed it with his gear. He had never meant to lie. He’d been sick for a long time. He’d been blue and drinking too much, his first months home. He’d expected the blanks to fill themselves, as life picked up:
One day I’ll remember where I knew her.
He told people…unbuttoning his jacket and untucking Jeannette from his armpit…that that was her name, Jeannette. At this point George fell silent, having nothing more to say. Moved by his own amnesia, he might dab a tear. Other barflies supplied details. Where the details flattered George’s idea of himself, he hadn’t denied them. Somehow, a story pieced itself together.
The story wasn’t important. That its gaping holes were plastered over with strangers’ broad assumptions, made no difference. Daisy hated Jeannette, that was all.
Yet here was the kid, inventing dialogue, giving life to a shadow…prying around like that might cause a collapse. George had to brace himself.
A man, sitting alone, looked at her for the third time.
Daisy’s penetrating return showed to the masher a woman spoiling for a fight. If her plans had worked out, she could have been in a car this minute, on her way to Florida with Oland. Not that she wouldn’t have to ditch Oland—sooner than later—but meantime, she could use a man…
One who now and then would do what she said. And yet…
What was the dad-blamed good of it all?
She shot the man in the corner a second look; a look so freighted with doom that he groped unseeing among the religious tracts on the table beside him, drawing one at random…his stare at its opening salvo telegraphing spiritual hunger.
The worst had happened. Dot and Henry had arrived to take charge.
Out of the gate, against Daisy’s criminal ring of two, they’d employed the gang-busting tactic of divide and conquer.
“Mr. Coleman, you need to get out,” Dot said, seeming—with an eye for the obvious—to have sized up Oland as the weak link.
“You understand, pal,” Henry added. “Think of common decency.”
Oland, obeying, had blushed to the roots, while throwing a wild glance at the front door.
Armed, then, with a pretext―George’s convalescent needs―the Stonemartens had searched the Bradshaw house from cellar to attic…taking notes. Operating from the same premise, they’d peppered Daisy with questions.
“Which one of you uses all these patent medicines?” Henry had boomed from the washroom, causing Oland to stagger backwards over an ottoman.
Daisy, had she been strategy-minded, might have described her problem as twofold. Oland was malleable. Under the force of Daisy’s personality, he bent to her will. But only to a point. Any rival influence tended as easily to unstick him. Once he’d returned to his mother’s house, a voice older and stronger would take precedence. Daisy could not meet Oland in Mrs. Coleman’s parlor. She would have to make other arrangements.
And the crying shame of it was, she’d built something for herself with George…stupid George. The town gossips were not gonna shove her back to square one.
Henry could recall preambling to a state auditor, not long ago, “That’s a question you’re asking…”
He’d had his secretary search out his foreman. This took fifteen minutes or so, and he’d given Hernshaw a cigar to pass the time. “Hey,” he’d said, spreading his hands; and Hernshaw, spreading his, had said, “Hey.”
“Pete, Mr. Hernshaw would like to know a thing or two about…”
“This and that.”
It was a stock phrase of Henry’s.
“Take Mr. Hernshaw around the yard, why don’t ya, show him how we keep track of materials we charge to the client…and don’t stand there in the doorway letting the flies in.”
Pete’s chuckling took a while to subside. “Mr. Hernshaw, I hope you’re not in a hurry.”
“Henry,” Dot said, “a minute ago, you started to say something.”
“Um…hon…not sure I did. Say…George has probably seen enough of us for one day.”
“Henry,” Dot said, “you were saying you always wondered something. Then you stopped talking.”
Henry allowed an oath to cross his mind. Of course Hernshaw got it, how a man on a small margin had to do business. It was the formalities, that was all…everyone, Stonemartens and Hernshaws alike, minded their p’s and q’s where it showed…just like being married…
Hmm. Maybe it was…
He scratched an eyebrow. Maybe it wasn’t.
All at once, he saw the clear path.
“When I said ‘always’, hon, that was a just figure of speech. What I meant was, just now. Just now…well, I mean, just then…I was wondering. I was wondering what George was wanting to stand up there on the edge of the dam for. Think you can recall what you had in mind, George? Might be a clue.”
George took this word from his brother-in-law as a sign-post, seeing his own mists part before his own respective path. It was crimes had clues, come down to it. They were all pretending to one another…Dot and Henry protecting him, thinking his head was addled.
Plastered like a mummy, he’d lain these many hours, and had half formed a chivalrous notion of letting Daisy go. The sensation of hands on his back, planting—at about kidney height—a victory shove, had been unmistakable, and George wasn’t going to argue the point. Oland, he was aware, had been trailing along behind. Oland was a notable mouth-breather; unavoidably, George had been able to track his progress up the hill. He tried picturing Oland sneaking up on anyone…
He found the idea implausible.
Still, George could see social advantage in keeping Daisy’s lapse on the QT. Unfair as it is, a guy someone wants to murder is bound to carry a little taint…doesn’t look as sympathetic as an accident.
His dilemma, which he hadn’t fully worked out, was how he might in charity pay Daisy a couple hundred bucks…call it settlement money…or…
Maybe not so much…
Give her a start, though, George thought. As long as she gets her head straight. Can’t always be on my doorstep, crying after the next handout.
As things stood, he could tell his mate to get out of town…but had no hold over her to force it. Maybe Henry’d come up with the right idea. If George could remember enough…if that rodent-faced Mabel could be of any use…
If Daisy were scared enough.
“Daisy,” he said, “was asking me about my large-mouth bass…”
“The one that weighed six pounds,” Dot prompted.
“Five and three-quarters. I guess I should have had a premonition.” This was a lot to say, but George let it hang. He heard Dot draw breath.
Jeez-peez, how you like that?
Daisy had known it, when her in-laws showed up…that she’d find herself danced off her feet by Stonemartenish machinations. They were all cracked, that crowd.
But stupid George…here, in this roomful of strangers…
He was gonna air private family business.
For years she’d tried to be fair to him, standing him on the grounds he was probably just funny in the head. George Bradshaw had come home from the war off his trolley. The Spanish flu had jimmied the works.
Dot calling from the bedroom…
“Listen! George gave me a list. You need to show me where he keeps things.”
Out in the living room, under Henry’s steady gaze, Daisy couldn’t do a lot, for keeping an eye of her own on both the troublemakers and Oland. She’d taken time to dust a couple knick-knacks, lingering by the bookshelves. She’d mouthed, as one too pious to pass them by, the words of the Lord’s prayer, depicted in gold on the spread pages of a ceramic book. She’d stubbed a foot, squeaking the bare boards where the carpet ended, and lifted a shoe to check…like she might have stepped in something. She’d glanced over her shoulder to see Henry’s backside vanish into her kitchen.
“I don’t know which one is George’s sock drawer. He wants a picture he’s got hid there.”
Dot had said this dryly, coming out to lean, arms crossed, against the door frame.
Daisy clenched her fists. She glared at the volunteer behind the desk, who eyeballed her with open curiosity. She stamped her foot in frustration at Paulette, who stood holding the handles of George’s wheelchair. It had been Dot and Henry vetoed the head nurse tying the can on this little strumpet. And why? Because George had taken a shine to her.
“Daisy, we’re getting a live-in nurse for George. It’ll make things easy for you.” So Dot had said.
Easy. Daisy snorted and tossed her head. What makes her so sure I wanna see George snuffed? If I could only get rid of him, I’d take him dead or alive. Shoot!
An orderly, hovering among the lounge patrons behind another wheelchair, leaned, and spoke close to his patient’s ear. “Did you want to go back to your room, Mrs. Miller?”
“George, isn’t this where you caught that fish?”
Daisy had said it, beckoning and pointing. He’d gaped, and she’d pushed out her lips at him. “Come on, baby, make nice. I hope you and me can always be friends.”
When he had asked her to clean his fish, she’d picked it up off the kitchen table, stepped on the lever that flipped the trash can lid…and from fingers willing to touch only the tail-fin, let it drop. Whump. She went to the soap-dish and lathered with a vengeance. George rooted out his bass, rinsed off the coffee grounds, and scaled it himself.
But, after all…his wife knew something about baiting a hook.
“I thought,” George told Henry, who’d heard the story, “I got into a snag. I was just about to get my knife and cut the line…”
Through countless over-the-phone-with-cronies repetitions (and while tracing the blade of her own kitchen knife), Daisy had suffered these words, their reedy cadence unvaried.
She grabbed George’s nurse by the sash of her smock and hauled her aside.
“Hey, watch yourself!” Stumbling in inappropriate t-straps, Paulette fell against Dot.
“You’re coming with me! It’s not healthy for you, baby, the air in this place.” Daisy clamped the handles and canted George backwards. Jeannette flew. Dot brushed down her skirts. “Have some common sense, Daisy. What the heck are you doing?”
“What am I doing?” She left George, taking three cold steps to where her rival had skittered onto the linoleum. Daisy ground a heel in Jeannette’s face. “You watch, Dot. You’re good at watching.”
She stomped on Jeannette. She opened her mouth, inhaled noisily, and stomped again. She kicked Jeannette across the floor. “What kind of idiot am I supposed to be?”
Daisy spun now, leveling a lacquered nail, to flick the tip of George’s nose. “You know my father runs a photography shop. You expected me to believe…that…is your fiancée…Little Jean-ee from Gay Pair-ee? Some advertising photo of a model you got hold of? Jiminy Christmas, you son of a bitch! I could get you a dozen headshots of B-girls, if you like that kind of thing! I put up with it, six years now! You, George Bradshaw, thought Daisy Hickman wasn’t good enough, is what it was! You played your game just so you could keep me in my place…”
Over his neck brace, George blanched, then reddened. He closed his eyes, and would have, if he had not been wearing this—also a substantial leg cast—slumped into a swoon. Paulette scurried, to crouch peering at Jeannette, brushing fingertips across the battered face.
And all the while, Henry and Dot’s looks of import had bounced, like ping-pong balls, from one pair of eyes to another.
Saw it coming.
So whatta we do?
Let me handle it.
Dot shouldered Daisy aside.
George, yanked to the compass’s opposite pole, stirred, and mumbled, “Crazy…”
“So you like airing the dirty laundry, huh? So it’s George’s fault, and you don’t care who knows it, that’s how it is?” Dot patted her brother’s head. She herded her sister-in-law backwards, maneuvering the chair in a slow arc. “How ’bout twice you tried to murder George? Yeah! That’s what I said, Daisy. Mur. Der. You wanna talk proof? Oland Coleman…”
“You shut up! Oland, what’s he know? Who listens to him?”
Like a gunner who has found the target, Dot blasted off the name again.
Daisy seized her by the collar. Anticipating counter-measures with a heel to Dot’s ankle, she then handily dropped her accuser to the floor.
Mrs. Miller whispered, “Thought that one was gonna blow.”
The sound carried. A profound and attentive silence had fallen over the patient lounge. Daisy put a hand to her mouth, her circling gaze sharpening from wild surmise to glower.
“Henry! Did you see?”
“I was standing here the whole time!”
But the hand extended to Dot’s aid was not Henry’s. A moment earlier it had cast aside the tract its owner pretended to read. While the door was swinging shut, the man in the corner had been leaping from his chair, nudging past Paulette…at the same time light-fingering away George’s fiancée.
“Ma’am,” he said, “I’m with the Sentinel. You’ve had a terrible shock.”
“Hey! Hold on a second! This is my story. You gimme that…”
“Oh, it’s your story, sister. You don’t say.” The reporter, with a hip-shaking show of defiance, shoved Jeannette into his trouser band, then gave Paulette a challenging leer. “Public information is fair game, doll.”
“Now if I were you, Mrs. Stonemarten,” Alfred Oliver said. “While, granting…” He nodded casually towards the Sentinel’s reporter, “you can’t beat your local rag for the little society two-liner…if you were visiting your sister in Centralia, sure, I’d recommend you call this gentleman here. What’s your name, son?”
The reporter looked Oliver in the eye. “Burnley. You forget easy, big-shot.”
Oliver smiled. Not at Burnley. “Mr. Burnley, here, is your man, any time you wanna sell grandma’s rocking chair. But, Mrs. Stonemarten”—Oliver spoke to Henry—“when you have real news, you want a real paper handling it. It so happens, I represent one of the greatest in the country. Your story, Mrs. Stonemarten, has the potential to reach millions of readers…”
“Millions, my ass,” Burnley snorted; and only Paulette gasped.
“Don’t strain yourself, Mr. Burnley,” Oliver went on. “Mr. Stonemarten, may I buy you and your wife a cup of coffee? You’ll want to discuss the details of her condition privately.”
“If Dot’s feeling up to it,” Henry said.
“I could use a cup of coffee.” Dot nodded, and turned her back on Burnley, adding: “I need to see some kind of proof.”
“Credentials, I got ‘em. You folks don’t worry.” Oliver smiled, jerked his head towards the doors, then took Paulette by the arm. As the whispering Stonemartens lagged in their wake, she also whispered, “Were you hiding in here somewhere?”
“Heck, I just stopped by. Lucky thing. Can’t trust a raw recruit. Didn’t you have that guy spotted?”
“Burnley? What do I know?”
The orderly, widely suspected by the hospital staff of being the head nurse’s stoolie, stooped to tidy his patient’s lap rug. He felt he’d given an outward show of noticing nothing. Inwardly, he was thinking, gotta talk to Burnley.
The volunteer rotated her desk sign 180 degrees; it now read: “Back soon! Please take a seat.”
Stepping away from Mrs. Miller, the orderly halted at a respectful distance and viewed George Bradshaw, putting on a rueful moue, half-winking an eye. Then, the light of inspiration restored humanity to his visage. “Hey, pal, you want me to hunt down that guy, took off with your picture…?”
George squinted up. “Huh. I guess I don’t need it anymore.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Stonemarten,” the orderly tried, “if you would like, I’ll run Mr. Bradshaw up to his room…so you can get going.” Visible beyond the glass was that imposter, who called herself a nurse (oughta be against the law, things those press-hounds got up to), waiting with Oliver for the Stonemartens.
“Big help. Thanks.” Henry, having said so, vamoosed. The door whooshed.
“Dot,” George said, “I think I was unfair to Daisy.”
Oland had placed his two pairs of socks on the bed. He owned three pairs―these, and the ones on his feet. He worried over the socks. Daisy had once got a pair of George’s socks in with Oland’s by mistake. Now that Oland was leaving, he didn’t want to be accused of taking anything. He looked at his feet. He looked at the four socks on the bed. He had aligned them in a row, each sock carefully laid out, so he could count them, see for himself they were all black and large-size. They seemed to add up. He still felt nervous, though, as he put them in his duffle.
He opened the closet. He reached for his Sunday suit, by chance glancing aside as he did so. He was aghast. Parallel to the closet door molding, Oland could see a long, thin tear in the wallpaper. He had no memory of causing this; the damage might have been there all along. How, Oland thought, could you prove a thing like that? Did the Bradshaws keep an extra roll of wallpaper in the attic? Would he have time to patch this, before the Stonemartens got back and caught him in the act? He knew what they would think.
He felt an irresistible compulsion to check the room.
Sure enough, here on the table, by the bedside lamp, Oland spotted a cluster of rusted metal flakes. He lifted the crocheted doily, revealing on water-marked varnish a lacy white pattern. The lampshade itself, Oland discovered, was streaked with brownish-orange around its upper ring. Rain had been coming in through the screen. Here, where the bed concealed the wall, Oland saw a colony of black mildew. The back door banged. Oland’s head jerked up and wedged between wall and bed-post.
Only Daisy. Her voice was all right…not that drill-sergeant summons his nerves today could no longer bear. He was relieved. He heard her run into the kitchen, the impact rattling the aluminum cabinets. His own door then flew against the cast iron pineapple that kept the knob from gouging the plaster. It struck a somber hwonk.
She came at him, doing something awkward with her arms. His experience with Daisy had never involved tenderness…and he’d never seen her cry. Nor had she ever visited Oland in his room. He gathered, after a moment, that she wanted comfort. To be cradled. Like a girl, he thought. He tried wrapping her in his own arms, while she sobbed.
“You have to take me away from here!”
“I know my headaches,” Mabel reiterated.
Grinker also, having spent an hour with Mabel, knew her headaches.
He snatched up his notepad, seeking diversion.
“…you had these symptoms about half an hour after Mrs. Bradshaw gave you the bromide powder?”
“It was nothing like one of my usual headaches.”
“Did you talk to your doctor?”
“Do I need my doctor to tell me something I’ve known all my life?”
“With regard,” Grinker said, “to your suspicion…”
“Well, I don’t have any suspicion! This third-degree is why I didn’t want to come here in the first place! I’m only saying. I’ve never been sick like that…and it was Daisy who gave me the bromide. I’ve heard,” she said, “that people have been talking. I just thought you might like to know.”
“But you’re not willing to make a formal charge.”
“Daisy is my aunt.” Mabel’s tone suggested a well-bred person understood the nuances of ratting on relatives.
The echo of his visitor’s pigeon-toed gait had just died away. Grinker felt safe in returning to a modest daydream. Egg sandwich. Scrambled, not fried. Little mayo, couple slices of bacon. He was just reaching, in imagination, for the pimento cheese, when Oland Coleman filled his doorframe and lurched into the office.
“I murdered George Bradshaw.” His face looked clammy and dazed.
Grinker picked up the phone. The desk sergeant answered.
“I need you to find out how George Bradshaw is doing.”
“Pretty well. They were gonna let him go at the end of the week. His sister’s looking for a nurse to take care of him at home. Turns out,” the sergeant chuckled, “the girl they liked was a fake. One of them big city reporters.”
Grinker was speechless. The sergeant noticed his silence. “I can call up the hospital and ask, if you want.”
Grinker hung up. Oland said, “I killed Mabel Hickman. I poisoned her. I killed Arthur Strong. I might have pushed him. I never meant to. That’s all the ones I know about.”
Crazies did turn up occasionally in this line of work…but Oland belonged to the community. “Oland,” Grinker said again, trying to catch his eye. Oland was staring at the floor. “Didn’t you see Mabel Hickman when you came in just now? You must have walked right past her.”
He had lost his hold on the door that separated reality from unreality. Oland could no longer fix it firmly closed. He had lost his hold on Daisy, dropping her onto the bed, leaving her. He had walked from the room, through the kitchen, out the back way, down the alley.
In Oland’s life, he had always done as he was told.
He had always been told he did things badly. He did things badly, Oland was told, because he was stupid.
And Daisy, beyond his mother his only rock, had begged Oland to save her. He had no frame of reference for choosing and deciding. He’d chosen nothing in life but Daisy herself, and in this had done wrong. But what had he done? He no longer knew. He began to feel safer believing he had done everything. They ought to lock up a guy like him. He hoped they would. The unknown, the uncontrollable, loomed beyond Oland’s grasp.
He had been punished many times. He had apologized many times. Apologizing seemed to make things better.
“I always thought.” Oland looked at his hands…he looked at his scuffed shoes. “Strong didn’t really die. I thought he got away, escaped. Just no one saw what happened. So why couldn’t it be true? We all wanted to go home. Maybe Strong fell in the water…and he stayed down low, and he got away, and he went home. I always used to think, maybe that guy I just passed on the street is Private Strong. How would I know? It could be. But I think I killed him. Like…I think…I killed them all.”
Grinker heard a muffled knock and a sigh. He looked up. Mrs. Coleman hovered in the hallway. He didn’t need to ask who’d called her. For many years, Mrs. Coleman had hunched over a factory sewing machine. She had nothing from her husband. She saved nickels and dimes in Ball jars. Grinker left his desk and quietly closed the door.
“Ma’am,” he said. Her eyes were filled with remorse. “Mrs. Coleman, we need to put Oland in a cell―that’s only for his own protection. Did you want to go in and sit a while?”
A day or two after these events, city dwellers, stopping by the corner newsstand, or snatching papers thrust under their noses from the hands of newsies, said to themselves:
“Hey, whadaya know.”
Here it was, smacking them in the eye:
Bradshaw Murder Plot Breakthrough
Attack Victim Willing to Testify
“Lemme have one a those Heralds.” A man in a brown suit fished a nickel from his pocket, as he hurried into his hotel. “Keep the change, sonny.”
“So they caught that guy,” he nodded to the stranger with whom he shared the elevator. He pointed to the headline. Each had the impression the other had been following the Bradshaw case. So why look stupid?
“It’s about time,” the stranger answered.
Dot, secure in her arrangements with Alfred Oliver, returned to Grinker’s office.
“I hope you know what I’m talking about,” she told him. “’Cause I never saw any of your people show up. I was attacked in front of a room full of witnesses.”
Henry, definitely not coming in, tapped a foot in the hall where Oland’s mother had hesitated. His voice came to them: “You ask yourself, Grinker, what’d she run away for? Stunt like that, let her try putting across she’s innocent!”
In the wake of Daisy’s being formally charged with assault of a peace officer, Dot had felt vindicated coming forward to lodge her own complaint. “Listen, I’m not here to dicker about what happened. I’m here to say.”
My people, Grinker said to himself. But he chose to apologize. “We will be questioning Mrs. Bradshaw…”
He was a little embarrassed to have missed her flight…but then, it wasn’t easy staging a manhunt when the quarry wasn’t yet wanted for anything.
(And not as bad as it might have been, if Daisy had somehow made it to Florida.)
Other reluctant witnesses found themselves freed from constraint.
A rumor was shaken from the local grapevine…the Hickman clan were closing ranks. Mabel, from her uncle-by-marriage, had distanced herself, going on record. “I don’t know any reason my aunt would make a mistake like that on purpose. Should I put this in quotes?”
“You have a lot of questions, Miss Hickman,” Ahern said, peering at her over his newspaper. “No, you don’t put your statement in quotes, you just sign it.”
“I mean,” Mabel said, “the part where Daisy told me she gave the bromide to George and it made him sick.”
“Well.” Ahern found himself flummoxed…which he hated when he was reading the funnies. He couldn’t recall any witness of his acquaintance wanting to put a dialogue sequence in a statement.
“Underline it,” he decided.
To corroborate Mabel’s testimony, the Bradshaw house had been searched. The Stonemartens, giving this rolling ball a solid kick, offered their notes.
“No reason why you wouldn’t use these. Who’s gonna argue? I couldn’t tell you what’s in those bottles at the back of the cabinet. You’d have to look at that yourselves, being professionals.”
A sheriff’s deputy had found Daisy disheveled, with George’s car at the reservoir, this time well ditched. She’d tried to flirt her way out of being cuffed. She was being cuffed because she’d given the deputy a kick in the pants when he’d bent to check her plate. Worse, she’d jumped behind the wheel and tried stealing his car…then showed leg climbing out when he’d warned her he could pull her out by the arm, but didn’t want to.
“No, ma’am, I sure don’t.”
With a gust of gin and musk she’d adjusted her hat and bodice, and goggled at the clink of metal.
“You’re not serious. You’re gonna cuff me?”
Being wrenched into the back seat, Daisy produced an offense of cursing combined with a defense of struggling. Finally, she wept, surrendering, and fell sideways against the door.
After stupid Oland had walked away, she’d considered her position. She’d counted the money in her purse; pulled a suitcase from the closet, George’s nicer one. And recognizing this as yet another thing, she’d kicked it across the floor. Picturing herself on the lam, Daisy thought of scenarios…tossed in her good silk dress, dancing shoes; added a sweater and overnight things. She’d searched the house for small, saleable items, wedged in the toaster and coffee pot…and on second thoughts, the Lord’s Prayer.
Daisy had backed George’s car onto the street, congratulating herself. Never mind Mrs. Friedricksen’s peonies. George and his, “See, a woman’s built too short above the waist. Makes it hard to see behind. That’s why you leave the driving to me.”
Yeah, backing wasn’t so tough. You could get used to it.
Mrs. Friedricksen, standing at her parlor window, well in view, but taking no chances with a public menace…drunk on bootleg hooch, she’d warrant (who, she would later asked Grinker—who’d shown a wrinkled brow at her litany of things the Bradshaws did—was the miscreant, after all?), had gasped, and dialed O.
Daisy thought she knew how to drive. She’d thought the Reservoir Road was the highway…and the next curve must show her the sign. She’d just been telling herself, asking directions is a chance to get to know someone, that’s all…
Five miles out of town, she ran out of gas. She hadn’t known about that part.
“Oland, do you see the orange?”
Oland sat forward and looked widely to his left. He scanned the bookshelves. With apprehension he glanced at Dr. Venier.
“Oland,” Dr. Venier said, “I have placed an orange on the table. Do you see it?”
“Pick the orange up, please,” the doctor said. He gazed at his own overcoat, plaid, hanging just inside the door. Oland, he had learned, grew nervous under any sort of pressure. Within the periphery of his vision, he saw his patient reach for the orange, and grasp it.
“Oland, do you believe in the orange?”
Oland dropped the orange.
“You may pick that up,” Venier said. Oland retrieved the orange.
“Squeeze the orange. Smell the orange. Is the orange real?”
“I think it is,” whispered Oland.
“Please, will you place the orange on the table?” Venier asked.
As though caught with a thing that didn’t belong to him, Oland in haste set the orange beside the ashtray. He removed his hand, hoveringly. He started, but avoided gasping, when the orange tilted in his direction. Venier made a note.
“I am going to reach into my pocket,” Venier informed Oland. “I will remove my handkerchief.” He did so. Leaning forward, keeping a watchful eye on his patient, Dr. Venier covered the orange with his handkerchief.
“Oland, you cannot see the orange.”
“Do you believe in the orange?”
“Oland. This is the same exercise we have done. You cannot see the orange. Do you believe in the orange?”
Oland liked Dr. Venier, who was kind to him. He didn’t understand the exercise, but knew he was meant to believe in the orange. So he said, “Yes.”
Mental cruelty, in these days of the Vegas divorce, seemed a fair bid for sympathy.
Dennis Gilbraith had logged many tedious hours interviewing Daisy. He could have wished this client less physically imposing, if she must be given to outbursts of rage. Yet…unquestionably, he told himself…here was saleable melodrama.
People didn’t know, Daisy had told Gilbraith, how she suffered from George Bradshaw’s heartless game. “But they ought to know it…I mean the whole world oughta know. It would make a person think. He’s better than me, George? His sister Dot…’cause she’s got Henry? They treat me like a joke, all of ’em. What is it a two-bit Bradshaw’s got to be so hoity-toity?” Daisy stubbed out her cigarette.
Gilbraith (if keeping Daisy muzzled), was not yet unconfident of crafting a defense, one that would hold sentimental appeal for a jury. If he only could get her old dad—who’d cashed a bond and climbed the fire stairs to tap at Gilbraith’s back window…and who, despite his embarrassment, had explained, “I still got to look out for her, my kid”—to mount the stand as character witness.
If only the prosecutor did not, whenever they crossed paths in the courthouse, greet him with that faint smile of condescension.
Dennis Gilbraith considered his client’s host of pending charges. Nonsense, he considered them. She would be brought to account for her poisoning escapades (in which he must not officially believe), only if one of Gibbs’s flunkies knocked at her father’s door, collecting, it might be, for the Orphans’ Ball…and managed while praising Daisy’s lemon squares, to weasel a confession. A nuisance. The plot against George would take some proving. He marked this negotiable. That was to say, he would bring the matter up with Gibbs himself…then offer to drop his client’s opposition for a plea deal.
The assault on Dot appeared non-negotiable. The prosecutor was rich in respectable witnesses. A secret source of Oliver’s, her identity but thinly concealed, had already publicized this story. If Gilbraith had a fondness for hornet’s nests, he might try arguing George Bradshaw’s sister had compromised the prosecutor’s case. He had other thoughts.
Sure…Mabel’s, and George’s…and the Stonemartens’, were only stories.
“So what? I like taking pictures. I can borrow stuff from my father. So what?”
Yes, so what? Hickman’s daughter could keep photo-processing chemicals in her house. If he were defending a hardened criminal, he might take that uncompromising stance.
“Prove it or drop it, Mr. Gibbs.”
But Daisy would need some kind of life…assuming within the community she were to get out of dutch. That, in a place like this, was trickier than getting out of prison. She wasn’t thinking. Along such lines, she might not be capable of thinking. They would batter her in a thousand small ways…the ways of small towns. They would snub her, not notice Daisy Bradshaw standing there, make veiled remarks about certain types within her hearing, have just run out of the thing she’d come to buy, not be able to remember who she was again…?
And the prophecy would be fulfilled.
Her temper would drive her to some act. Daisy Bradshaw would get her comeuppance, be put away for good, just as she deserved. But, the community could not watch and control everything. At the other end of that act, an innocent life would be damaged…if that were all.
And it need not be so.
“It may be,” he’d said, refracting the question as much as he could, “that someone took advantage of you, a vulnerable girl. Someone told you things, gave you ideas…”
The insurance man had documentation to prove attempted fraud. He refused to be pinned down on the question of corporate mechanisms, but Gilbraith thought his client lucky, damned lucky, these had intervened to prevent the fraud’s being consummated. She had, however, tried to insure her husband’s life. With Oland posing as George. Difficult to explain.
“Helpful,” he’d said to her, “having someone like Oland around the house. Reaching things out of the cabinets for you, it might be. George…” He scratched his chin. “Not too much of a go-along guy…? When a wife should have natural concerns about his health?” He tapped a temple, as though pensive. It was further than Gilbraith liked venturing. If he were not leading his client, he was blazing at least a minor trail…then stepping back to show her his handiwork.
A wearisome labor of persuasion he’d dedicated to crafting Daisy’s plea of guilty, as to kicking the sheriff’s deputy. Somewhere she’d picked up the phrase, “mitigating circumstances”. She balked even now, moved by her counsel’s exhaustive eloquence to a begrudging acceptance… Daisy believed, given a trial, she might yet be acquitted. And true enough, juries could produce odd acquittals.
She’d shrugged when Gilbraith suggested this was not exoneration. He did not, in particular, want questions raised before a jury on the insurance fiddle. He did not want Gibbs overruled, apologizing, backing into his chair, smiling across, “Your Honor, I withdraw the question.”
Then calling George to the stand.
But Gibbs would be content with a quick end. He had another fish—a sucker at that—to fry.
“Oland.” Daisy nodded. “How would I know he was a loon?”
It was Oland put these suggestions to her. Prior to meeting him, she’d never had designs against…been unfaithful to, she meant to say…her husband. She loved George.
Gilbraith had gone up Jefferson street, to the Hotel Alexandria, where he thought Petersen, doing pro bono on behalf of Mrs. Coleman, would be found at the bar, upstairs. And the first thing Petersen said, elbowing Alfred Oliver in the ribs, saluting with his ginger ale, was, “Gilbraith! Better reserve the Pioneer room, throw your wife an anniversary dinner. Book yourself a photographer. Keep the revenue circulating.”
“I heard your client withdrew his confession, and they’ve about decided to try him in the Bradshaw case.”
Oland, at the state hospital, was said to be making progress. He might shortly be deemed fit to stand trial.
“Yeah, I heard you’ve got a star witness, wants to cut a deal.”
Gilbraith and the prosecutor, Gibbs, together in the chamber of Judge Waldron, examined this fly in the ointment, this conundrum of Daisy Bradshaw.
“I figure,” Gibbs said, “the city papers’ll pick up on the broken home angle, the father and mother living apart. Everyone down here knows George. Guy’s a bore, not a brute. But let Daisy start talking to the Herald, how folks always put her down, treat her like she’s low class. That stuff plays big in the city. Bad for business.”
“You figure,” Gilbraith said, “I figure it myself…that Daisy, even as she is, has a certain glamour. And that, having a stage to act on, she may acquit herself only too well, as it were. I feel Daisy will be better off without the temptations dangled by the hounds of the press…and the community will be better off, if she is out of the social whirl for a year or so.”
Gibbs adjusted his pince-nez. “I don’t see how a hound dangles temptations. You know in court I’d take that in the teeth and run with it.”
Waldron had a confusion of paperwork on his desk. Gibbs’s brief painted a picture of Daisy that interested the judge. He would not hear that case. He rooted, dug, muttered to himself. He read through the charges precipitating her plea—to third degree assault, fleeing and resisting.
“Now,” he said. He set down his sheaf of papers. He shuffled through the notes on his desk. “All of this began with the alleged homicidal attempt upon the life of Mr. George Bradshaw. Mr. Bradshaw states that he was propelled from behind by what he believes to have been a human agency.” The judge spoke slowly, reminding himself of these facts as he read one scrap of paper, discarded it, found another. The Bradshaw case had its complications.
“Strictly speaking,” Gilbraith said, “Daisy first…not first first, you understand, but prior to her arrest…committed assault and battery upon the person of Mrs. Henry Stonemarten, given name Dorothy, on the occasion of Daisy Bradshaw’s being accused by Mrs. Stonemarten of what was understood by witnesses present as an allegation of a murderous attack upon Mr. Bradshaw.”
(“I was walking around in a daze,” Dot’s deposition read in part. She’d come to the realization she was in a state of shock following Daisy’s act of violence. She’d said the same thing to her doctor. “Delayed shock is in the literature. Look it up!” The doctor had provided a written statement, concurring.)
“But,” Gibbs demurred, “it could easily have been Oland Coleman.”
“I don’t understand Coleman.” Waldron was testy. “Where did he come from?”
“I heard the old man was working at the shoe factory. Mrs. Coleman came in on the train one day. Brought Oland with her. Coleman headed off to Kansas City. Job opened up. She took it.” Gibbs shrugged. “Or you mean at the time he attacked George?”
“No, Mr. Gibbs, I don’t mean that!”
“Allegedly attacked. Miss Hickman saw Oland follow George and Daisy up the hill. True.”
“I mean, what was he doing living in the Bradshaw house?”
“Well,” Gilbraith said, “Mrs. Coleman keeps company with Mr. Hickman.”
“Do you mean to say…?” Waldron was appalled. “Daisy Bradshaw invited her father’s…”
“Her father’s lady friend’s son.”
“She arranged to have one who was virtually a brother, live as a boarder in her own house, for the purpose of…” The judge broke off.
“Well.” Gilbraith exchanged a look with Gibbs. “George felt a sympathy for Oland. They’d both been in the war. Daisy told him Oland had nowhere to go.”
The judge huffed, having yet no word for his opinion of Daisy. He took up his papers and resumed his scrutiny.
Gibbs leaned back and fussed over the lighting of a cigar. He considered the pending trial. He liked Coleman. As a defendant. Alfred Oliver had been giving the case city exposure. You couldn’t argue with that. Bad for your Main Street photography shop, maybe…but not bad for a county prosecutor thinking of running for state office. Coleman was certifiable. He didn’t need a reason to attack Bradshaw. No one wanted a straight-jacket case on the streets…and now there was Waldron’s angle.
Dirty-minded old bastard, Waldron.
But, so what, Gibbs said to himself. Coleman was the one. The whole thing made a satisfying story, every element in its place.
“You take a woman like Daisy,” he said out loud. He caught himself. Gilbraith looked across at him. “You told me Daisy wants to go to Florida?”
“I believe it was part of the grand scheme,” Gilbraith murmured.
Gibbs didn’t answer. Once again, he sat in silence, considering. Maybe, when Daisy got out―and after all, she might get out pretty soon―someone would hand her a bus ticket to Florida.
Oland’s attorney found himself hemmed in. Gibbs had three powerful witnesses…the victim (George, defying medical science, having grown with recovery more amnesiac), the least of them. Whatever Daisy lacked in credibility, she made up for in palpitation. The woman could weep. Mabel’s bit was circumstantial, but crucial. If no one else was there—Gibbs had hammered this home to the jury—then only someone who was there could have done it.
“But you were lying down, in Mr. Bradshaw’s car?”
“Well, exactly. I guess if someone came out of the woods, I wouldn’t have known it. But no one else came and parked, I know that!”
And Mabel Hickman was just that type…she would trench in, thinking this an argument, not an establishing of fact.
Juries ate this stuff up. Even slow witnesses learned to play to them, when they started getting titters like that. A wealth of insinuation could be derived from the picture―and the prosecutor painted vivid pictures―of Oland’s receding bulk, trailing after George and Daisy.
“He was walking slow…I happened to look… Like he had a lot on his mind.”
“Miss Hickman…are you a mind reader?”
She grinned at Petersen, flattered perhaps. The jury tittered.
Besides all that, Gibbs had found the stalwart Mrs. Burnley, who did the offices at City Hall—Grinker’s among them. Those who knew Mrs. Burnley, knew she was always working, all the more so these days, since her son had lost his job and come home to his old bedroom, while he went off past midnight doing freelance…he said, for the Sentinal… With all those assignments he couldn’t be bothered picking up his clothes off the floor…
“I was scrubbing. I wasn’t listening. But I heard Oland Coleman telling his mother what he’d done.”
Oland was a bale shy of a load.
It was no good saying he had a clean bill of health. Petersen’s client had the worst of it either way. He couldn’t shelter behind an insanity plea, having been discharged on Dr. Venier’s recommendation. The community feared Oland’s presence among them. Putting him on the stand, Petersen felt, was the only hope. Anyone ought to see this was a pathetic human being…any friend’s advice sufficient to keep him straight. And only an enemy’s could make him a danger.
The jury had been given the option of convicting on the lesser charge of felonious assault. Beginning to feel he’d somehow become the defendant’s advocate, juror number seven sighed and faced Snedden.
He had so identified himself to the assistant clerk-of-courts (“Get my name right, Tillie”…“Yer a card, Larry”), during the selection process.
“How could anyone know Coleman’s intent?”
Number seven had watched Gibbs close on his subject. Walk right up to the stand where, shrinking from all eyes, lard-complected, Coleman sat wringing his hands. Gibbs had pushed his face into Oland’s, until Oland was forced to meet his gaze.
He’d spoken softly at first. “When you came up behind George Bradshaw, what were you thinking, Oland?”
Oland fingered his cuff buttons and worked his mouth.
The prosecutor waved a hand. “Don’t answer. But tell me. Tell the jury.” He shot the jury a rueful smile. “You never had an easy time of it, did you Oland? Not much money growing up. Didn’t hear from your Dad too often.”
Tears welled in Oland’s eyes, spilled and rolled into the fold of chin propped on his stiff collar, as though these two statements of Mr. Gibbs, respectively factual and presumptuous, had been a show of compassion.
“And you loved Daisy. But even when you were as close to her as you could be, living under the same roof, George was still in the way.”
(This last, stricken from the record, after Petersen’s objection.)
“Sure, that’s fine. You saw him up on the dam, standing next to Daisy. You were the one left out. He was arguing with her. You heard them. You told us that yourself, Oland. What did you do next, Oland?”
“I don’t know,” Coleman said.
“You don’t like to see George fight with Daisy, do you?”
Coleman caught himself in a head shake, echoing Petersen’s. “George was always fair to me.”
“I asked you, Mr. Coleman, whether it bothered you, got under your skin, seeing George fight with Daisy.”
“Oh. Yes…I guess.” Gibbs let this stand, staring Oland down, and Oland said, “No. I mean, I think so. No. Maybe I did.”
“George wasn’t fair to Daisy, was he? You didn’t like the way George treated her. Oland, you just said so. Now, let’s go through this again…”
Everyone knew Larry, the public accountant, but that was not in itself reason to dismiss him from the Coleman jury. When it became clear no one else in the room was going to be given the chance to speak, Snedden had been elected foreman.
“Fellow jurors,” he said, rising. “All of you. Think about a guy like Oland Coleman. We heard the testimony from Mrs. Burnley. Coleman admitted to his mother he pushed George Bradshaw. Now, Petersen would like us believing his client can’t remember attacking George. Same as if it didn’t happen…I don’t think. Had some kind of mental breakdown, and the stuff he signed a confession to doesn’t count now. He’s all better.
“Better?” Taking flight into rhetoric, Snedden retorted sarcastically to his own sarcasm. “Are we gonna have crazies running around our neighborhood streets? Are we supposed to take the word of some quack, we can trust a guy like Coleman, just ’cause it looks good on the record they call him cured? Now I know the judge told us we weren’t allowed to talk about certain things. So I’m not talking about certain things. But lemme just say this, ’cause you all know it, anyhow…Coleman confessed to a string of crimes.”
“But,” number seven ventured, “never mind George. He thought he killed Mabel Hickman. We know he didn’t do it. She’s not dead.”
With great disdain, and a newfound respect for psychology, Snedden said, “He wanted to kill Mabel Hickman It’s basic human nature…just confusing something you dreamed about with something you did. Like I want…” Snedden looked around the jury room. “Okay, say, I wanted my secretary to…”
“Heh, heh. Send a New Year’s card to a client?” Another juror threw this in, as the foreman’s void of imagination seemed prolonged.
“Maybe you left someone off the list?”
“Maybe you thought you had already, ’cause you sent one last year?”
“Or vice-a versa?”
“Never mind!” Snedden lowered a quelling hand. He poured himself a tumblerful of water. “Let’s ask ourselves, how many things might Oland Coleman have done… Which could easily be murder. He was in the war, people! There’s a lot no one knows about. And how many things might Coleman fantasize about doing? We gotta lock him up. At the very least.”
“But,” the oppositional juror spoke again, “don’t you think, Larry, if we start locking people up for things we don’t know they did, that they might have done, we’d be locking up everyone?”
“What are you, a Communist? Let’s take a vote.”
“Alfred,” Paulette said, “you’re too hard on Oland Coleman, you know.” She glanced at Mulhall. She lowered her voice. “A lot of people thought Daisy pushed George. Even after the judge gave Oland four years.”
“Coleman! His problem was, he let Daisy push him around. Coulda ended up murdering a guy, just ’cause a woman told him to. Now I’m not saying Larry had it right…I’m saying, if you don’t got a mind of your own, you don’t need a girlfriend! Yeah, don’t give me that beady-eyed look.” He pointed a finger at Paulette, and heaved himself out of the Queen Anne. He stifled his grunt, however, for Mulhall had long since fallen asleep.
“But Daisy went off to Florida. They said she did, anyhow.”
“They don’t have any cliffs in Florida. So I guess folks down there are safe enough. Not that the lady isn’t versatile. They got plenty backwaters and swamps.”
“Cliff! It was a dam.”
“Well, girlie, you know what we say in the news biz.” Alfred Oliver bent and shut his suitcase. He snapped the buckles, and with one hand on the bedframe, jerked himself once more upright. To Paulette’s astonishment, he tip-toed from the chair to the door.
“There’s the sun coming up.”
She tilted her head. “When you say that, people in the biz know what you mean?”
“I mean, look out the window. I have a train to catch. But don’t bother Mulhall. He looks comfy. No, what we say, is: ‘Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’.”
Mulhall woke in a stream of sunlight and dust motes. He’d slumped in his chair, his nodding head jammed against the wall. Paulette had got at him, at some defenseless moment, and entangled his limbs in the chenille coverlet. He had not aired out during the night. His suit was damp. His shoes were damp. The coverlet had added a musty essence that wafted along as Mulhall shuffled in the limited space, trying to work the crick out of his neck.
He must accept disaster had befallen.
Certainly, it was later than it ought to be. The town bustled, the sound of motors rose and faded under his window, and Miller could be heard shouting at someone below. Mulhall might eat a decent breakfast, having the leisure to do so—but he’d missed the train. He hoped no one had put his suitcase on the baggage car. What had he said to them at the depot…something about being back within the hour?
He dared look in the mirror. He changed his mind. He would not have served breakfast to himself. He would have shown himself the door.
Not wishing to be held responsible for the state of Oliver’s room, Mulhall hurried into the hallway. A gentle bleat caught his ear. The door to the fire ladder drifted on its hinges. Bright sunlight cut across the rug. One of us, Mulhall said to himself, as he turned away, ought to have closed up properly.
He found the washroom.
The improvement in appearance he was able to effect was modest, a slickening of hair with fingers and water, a firmer tucking of shirt into trousers. He crept down the stairs and hesitated on the landing. Miller was speaking now as though to a business prospect—the implication that he expected to be cheated thus somewhat tempered in his accents.
And Mulhall heard a voice answer that uplifted his heart. He had thought she’d slipped away in the night with Alfred Oliver.
“See?” Paulette said. “I ran across your wife a couple of years ago.”
“She had her operation up to the county hospital, ’cause we don’t have a place like that down here.” Miller was making jingling noises.
Mulhall stepped into the lobby, and the hotelier, cash box between his hands, looked up askance. “I didn’t ever get your right name. You clear out now.”
“Miss St. Genevieve.”
“You should call me Paulette.”
“We might as well walk around,” she told him. “We won’t catch the next train ’til afternoon.”
Mulhall held the door for her, grateful to see the last of the Bay Tree House. He walked beside her as, at a slow pace, they passed the Snedden offices.
“Do you suppose that’s a sort of café?” he asked, pointing. Of the building nearest the cross-street, they could see one window, hung with a red gingham curtain. The establishment’s name was painted in script that canted into obscurity.
Paulette began to root in her pocketbook.
“Let’s find out what sort of place it is,” Mulhall said. “But allow me to buy your breakfast. You were kind enough to share your room with me last night.”
“Shush it! Jeez! We’re in public!”
“Well…yes. Quite right. Sorry.”
They had eggs and sausage patties and corn flakes. Over coffee, Mulhall broke the silence. “I had the impression you traveled along with Alfred Oliver.”
“Why would you think a thing like that?”
He was nonplussed. “Do you live nearby, then?”
“I’m on my way to California.”
“I figure…” She looked across at Mulhall, resting her spoon on her plate. “In another year, I’ll be ready to go. Because.” She picked up her spoon and gestured with it, flinging milk onto his mustard-stained tie. “You can’t just take off someplace. You have to get yourself set up. That’s what they say, right? You wanna make it, you gotta look like you made it already. So I’m taking lessons. I’ve been saving my money.”
“You hope to lead an independent life out there…as an actress?”
His doubt was only fear, but this coloring his words, he’d offended.
“Why can’t I be an actress? Are you my father? What’s it got to do with you?”
“I only mean to say.” He was meek this time. “It’s a long journey to California. Traveling in company…might be pleasant, do you suppose? And then again, one might not wish to be alone in a strange place.”
She sat back and crossed her arms. She did not answer.
“I mean to say,” Mulhall went on, coaxing from her a smile…at least the twitch of one… “A year is a reasonable time for two people to know one another better. To become friends.”
“You want me to let you take me out sometimes? Is that it?”