Stories from the Are You series:
Are You Jealous
Gabriel heard Eva’s voice…her put-on voice, he called it. She spoke this way to delivery people, sing-song, thanking them, ushering them out the door.
He heard the door close, slue into its frame with a rush of air followed by the metallic thunk of the bolt hitting home. He heard silence, then rustling. Eva talking to herself about scissors. Next, she was on the phone. He guessed she was speaking to Presby. He heard her say, “I did get your email. Fad, you know I have no attention span. Ha. I didn’t know it had a calendar. Oh…”
Gabriel heard uneven, muffled footsteps, with something labored about them, as she climbed the stairs. She approached, and her conversation approached, growing more distinct, Eva interspersed with microbursts of Presby. “McFadden!”
Oh, Gabriel said to himself. McFadden, now.
She laughed. “Well, it sounded funny. I don’t know what you call those things. I know you said bushings.”
He kept his back to her. She had broken his concentration, but he kept his back to her. McFadden Presby. Could anyone on earth have such a name? Eva rang off. She placed the clock on Gabriel’s desk…near, almost touching, his right hand. She leaned over him, and straightened his collar. She placed her phone in front of his keyboard.
It was her little habit. She was always tucking her phone under Gabriel’s eyes, at the dinner table, on the coffee table. At his desk, while he tried to work. She would tap an arrow in a box, a video or song would play. He would have to love it, for her sake.
For her sake, he loved all Eva’s mannerisms. But they irritated.
He found himself looking at a cipher, which spun into a logo. The logo was muted gunmetal, spare in design. The logo faded. McFadden Presby stood before a leather armchair. The chair was a fixture; yet, in the auction house videos, Presby never sat. He pivoted. He occasionally stepped, one pace to the left, one pace to the right. The chair acted as Presby’s magnetic center; he hovered as a gyroscope hovers. He had a pair of eyeglasses which he never wore, but held, and gestured with, inviting his audience to see his point. Presby imparted the esoterica of the antiques trade in a sonorous voice…the accent sounding British. After a while, one noticed something continental about the vowels.
Gabriel supposed Presby had got the name from someone’s luggage tags. His real name was probably Klaus. Having decided this, Gabriel had come to think of Presby as Klaus. It was childish…it didn’t help.
“What do you think?” Eva asked.
Since he hadn’t been listening, he side-stepped, countering with a question of his own. “Have you decided to sell it?”
“My clock?” She treated him to another of her mannerisms, coquettish hand to heart. “I’ll never sell my clock. McFadden says it’s only middle range. But it’s good.”
She wore a long velvet skirt, an Indian tunic. Her black cardigan, cashmere, once obtained for a great sum, had fallen moth-eaten. Eva had thrust fingers into the holes, stretching them out. Now bright hues and patterns of her tunic showed through irregular ovals. She moved swiftly, and her clothes made their own small whirlwind of motion. She tinkered with the clock. Her clock, she would have Gabriel discover, did not merely chime…it carillonned, it deedled, it piped intricately. Eva looked enraptured.
She tapped a finger on Gabriel’s bald spot.
“He fixed it. That’s what the man…Emil Reiff, McFadden’s guy who has the little shop full of gears…and bushings, I guess…”
She laughed, a fond moment recollecting Presby’s wit. “That’s what he did. McFadden said he’ll send the bill.”
Gabriel thought, too much joy for one morning. But said: “Well, I ought to finish one or two things. Then we’ll have lunch, won’t we?”
She slipped her hand, in a rather stealthy way, across the desk, and picked up her phone. She left him.
Gabriel sat angled to his desk, taking surreptitious views of his client’s product photo. Clients, he found, often had this idea of selling. The expanse of shirtfront, as he preferred to express it, was distressing, off-putting. Her moles and creases made a poor framing device for her kitchen gadget. She would need to send another photo; she would need to omit herself next time.
He opened his email. “Your charms, my dear”—Presby’s baritone, his rolling vowels, intruded upon Gabriel’s imagination—“must come as a happy surprise.” Well, Presby was a self-created being. He stood high with his auction-house clientele. Gabriel envisioned becoming Presby, instructing, mesmerizing with voice and gesture. He would stand high with Eva, presumably.
He saw an unfamiliar name. He saw, a moment before trashing the email…a bit tardy loading…his wife’s name in the subject line. He was unsurprised to see a spare deconstructed logo dissolve against an ink outline of Palladian architecture. The outline filled discreetly; a modest Tibetan flute accompanied the animation. The background remained dim, dove grey. A photo emerged from the right, captioned: “Henderson Young”. A tiny icon, shrouded, enabled disabling of the animation. The animation had run its course by the time Gabriel had disambiguated this.
More Jealousy available in paperback and ebook (coming soon).
Are You Merry and Bright
“Always on, always off. That’s the life. Thirty bucks in my pocket. I don’t have to worry.”
“Just to keep your hand in.”
“If I wanted…”
Dexter gave her two things, for this quip. A comic take, leaning away from her shoulder, still with his arm around her waist, but letting chill air come between them…and a mock-wary “um, hmm”.
“I could write you up a little Xmas piece this night. We’d have to find someplace to sit down…but, I mean, plots are easy. Help me out, we can do one now. Old widow lady, lives alone. My…” His own humor was making him smile, queering the tremolo he affected for pathos. “It’s a sad scene. She’s drawing back the curtain. Clutching its folds in her knobby knuckles, staring…um, gazing…Mabel.”
He stalled while she took another step. Then pressing momentum’s advantage, Dexter swung her round to face him.
“Oh, let’s go in,” she said. The drug store displayed bottles of perfume stacked on a pyramid of velvet boxes. Electric bulbs, red and green, framed the window inside. “It’s freezing. Buy me a hot chocolate.”
The movie hadn’t gone well. He’d disappeared for a cigarette at intermission, content leaving Sherman to march on, and leaving Mabel—wishing she’d saved this one for Saturday, and her Aunt Ernestine—only glad to meet up with Dexter, found still loitering outside the ticket office.
“Who won?” he’d said, lighting another.
“You’d like to know.”
Better gags crossed her mind: the Ruskies, maybe, or Joe Louis. Seabiscuit by a nose. But then he’d think she was playing along. She took his hand out of her coat pocket, once and twice, and brushed past him through the door.
“Mabel!” Coming up on her heels at the perfume counter. “I was gonna ask. What’s the word I’m looking for?”
“For that sheep-eyed thing.”
“You mean your old lady? Googling. Mooning.”
“Mooning out at the falling snow in the light of the street lamp. Eh…we might throw in carolers. Maybe the jing, jing, jing, of a horsecar passing by.”
“What year is this?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Say when your grandma was a gal.”
She held out a wrist for a spray of Soir de Paris. Dexter pantomimed putting on a gasmask. “Come on, hot chocolate,” he said, and took her off by the waist again.
There was exactly one booth, and it was free.
Mabel took him up, when he came back from ordering. “All right, the poor old thing, She’s a widow lady, you said?”
“Lost her son in the war.”
“Now wait a second…” Maybe he did get something from the movie. Her grandma…? “You mean four score and seven years ago, like?”
They struck the contemplative pose, while the waitress lowered their plates and cups. Dexter gulped, winking at Mabel when she cautiously sipped. The cocoa was not very hot. “Okay, I get you. I should take notes.” He put his cup down, rooted out a Zippo, and a pen…nudged this across. “Or you take em. You’re the office girl.”
“Enchanté, sweet-talker. Dexter, what’s the problem? I mean, we have to help this old lady out, don’t we? She’s by herself, and it’s Christmastime. We don’t want her to just die!”
“Ha, ha, sentimental.” His crunched into his grilled bologna, and spoke high-pitched, with his mouth full: “Ma, I’m comin for ya.”
“No, she’s renting rooms in her house to make ends meet. Young couple…like O. Henry?”
“What, they’re gonna sell their most treasured possession…radio, let’s say…to buy old Mrs…” He paused. “Ernestine, a turkey dinner?”
“Ernestine. Wow, Dexter, you got that writer’s imagination.”
Mabel scribbled on the placemat, looked up, eyebrow arched. She put on an ingénue’s voice. “Honey, we’re young.”
He got her, shooting back: “World ahead of us, babe.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she muttered. “Darling.” That was how a married pair of paragons ought to talk. “Why, any one of us could end up alone, like poor, poor Mrs. Ernestine. Only yesterday, I saw her mooning over Reginald’s…photo…?”
Not photo, exactly. Back then it was some old-timey thing that started with a d. She took a stab at mouthing the first syllable.
“Oh, yeah? First Reg, then the mutt, huh? Lady’s got a lotta troubles. I guess maybe an angel is trying to tell us something. Dearest sugarplum, Mrs. Ernestine’s happy Christmas is up to you and me.”
Oh, seriously…I don’t believe you sell your stories, if that’s how your people talk, she’d been about to say. But there was a man, an old duffer in a derby and fur-trimmed coat, sidling round their booth from the circular magazine rack, a “Night Crimes” and a “Shamus Omnibus” in his clutch. He’d been eavesdropping, inching closer, she knew it for certain, and now—with about this, no subtlety either—was sizing them up.
“You’re full of bologna, you can walk me home.” She shoved down her own last wedge of sandwich, wiping mustard from her cheek, swigging hot chocolate. Cold chocolate.
She had to lean in close to whisper. They’d gone a block from the drugstore; shoppers still huddled along the street, car headlamps still flashed by…but turn one corner and they’d be among houses, two blocks yet from her aunt’s.
“Dexter, take a look behind you. Only, don’t really.”
“That old guy.”
He turned full around. He did worse, stuck a hand inside his coat and pulled out a card case.
“You got that detective rag, mister. I just sold em a story. B. Dexter Baumgardner.”
The stranger had been reading by lamplight as he tailed them. He rolled his magazine, and with a good show of heedlessness tucked it under his arm, accepting and dropping Dexter’s card to the gutter.
“It is not a lucrative profession, selling stories. I am Mr. Chilton.”
His eyes were communicating with Mabel’s. He got in next to her, jerking his head towards the lagging Dexter.
“Oh, heck, I’m Mabel…”
At mid-self-introduction, she cut herself short. She had just a week ago changed her name to Montmorency. This was classy-sounding, it was a dame of the theater’s moniker, far better than Biggins…but she couldn’t show up for a temp job with it. She wasn’t smooth yet, going back and forth.
Mr. Chilton said, “Mrs. Baumgardner.”
Dexter catching up, re-pocketing two cents worth of cardboard, said: “Ain’t that a kick in the pants.”
“You may have heard,” Chilton went on, “of the twelve days of Christmas.”
“Sure. Guy keeps giving his lady friend the bird.”
Mr. Chilton cleared his throat, keeping a pointed eye on Mabel. “It is a local tradition. You will have seen this story recounted in your Christmas Day newspaper, of the generosity of a Mr. X. Of course, if the two of you are recent arrivals…”
“No,” Dexter said, “Mystery Man, gives out checks. Picks twelve needy folks and hands em each five hundred bucks.”
“My employer has no interest in the charity rolls. He does not draw from them. Mr. X’s fortune is of his own making, therefore he prefers seeing money put to pragmatic use. Your turkey dinner, Mr. Baumgardner, is available at many a church kitchen. Relief societies are there for hospital bills and rents in arrears. Mr. X wishes the recipients of his largess to possess the entrepreneurial spirit. It is hence my duty to explore these outlying boroughs with eyes and ears alert to discovering…the right sort of case.”
Dexter maneuvered himself to Mabel’s free side, caught her arm and squeezed. She felt his fingers through her coat sleeve. Yes, she’d been thinking of waving Chilton off, with a “Good luck, sucker”—but she wasn’t going to. She gave her swain a return jab of the elbow, just to let him know she got the hint.
“So what about my aunt Ernestine? You wanna give her a check?”
Dexter cut in. “You know, the two of us are just headed over that way. I can save you some shoe leather.”
“Mrs. Ernestine”—Chilton answered Mabel—“is a businesswoman…she runs a boardinghouse. The property is her own, from the days of her marriage. Well…I will tell you the rest.”
She half expected he would, given his way of phrasing questions. But he said: “Mr. X and I don’t in the least apologize, if our habits are deemed peremptory—for after all the reward is five hundred dollars. Any candidate who doesn’t want it can make way for the one who does.”
This pause, Dexter filled with a chuckle. Chilton drew back the corners of his mouth. “I will dine with Mrs. Ernestine tomorrow evening. At six. You must persuade her to play hostess, however downhearted she becomes at Yuletide, for it is Mrs. Ernestine’s mettle I mean to try. Mr. and Mrs. Baumgardner, I may have misheard—
“Hazard of listening in.”
“—but I take it your means are slight. How many boarders altogether reside with…your aunt?” He raised eyebrows, pince-nez glinting up at Mabel.
“That’s right, my aunt. We call her Ernestine. But it’s only Frankie and us, just the two upstairs apartments. The downstairs is a prop shop…you know, for theater? Frankie’s a salesman…he’s not even here right now.”
Dexter was dancing foot to foot. She wanted to tell him, “Cool it! I know what I’m saying.”
“Tight quarters,” Chilton observed. He seemed a little smug, suddenly. The cross-street came to its end, the next thoroughfare, lit brighter, lined with down-at-heels businesses like her aunt’s, was also their destination, and the tricky part, if Chilton thought he was coming home with her.
Mabel’s Aunt Ernestine, whose knuckles were not knobby (she was only about…forty-nine, not even grey-haired yet), yanked the plug on the radio. That was how it worked, turning on and off, and most of the time, it worked in quarter-hour increments, before going haywire. A minute ago church bells had been bonging somewhere in France.
“It’s good. I mean, Christmas the same as ever this year. That’s what the man said.” She shrugged. “You know, maybe with the Pope and all talking peace…maybe they can really stop the war.”
Mabel’s chin rested on her crossed arms. “Maybe they will.”
She had left Dexter at the second landing of the back stairs, given him his second goodnight kiss, and told him, “Don’t come in. I gotta break it to her.”
It wasn’t Chilton, with those uptown manners, her aunt would kick at. The two of them never had big plans for their holiday dinner, so if sharing a jumbo roaster scored them Mr. X’s beneficence, swell. It was Dexter. Her aunt kept telling her, “Don’t get started with that one. Hang on, you’ll do better.”
This was rich coming from a woman who knew people…sure, prop people (but prop people had friends, didn’t they?)…and still made a stink over asking favors.
“Sorry, toots, I got a living to make. My clients trust me. I’m not being the umpteenth person in town with a niece can tap dance and carry a tune.”
Well, Dexter might just get someplace in life. He had hustle. Hustle was exactly what Ernestine disliked about him. The knob rattled.
“Hey, Mabel, you there?”
Their apartment was oriented such that the door going out to the hall was next to the kitchen stove. The kitchen table was where they sat to hear the radio. Mabel jumped from her chair.
Ernestine said: “Are you kidding? Don’t open that door.”
“It’s an emergency!” He slipped the hand that held his hat through the space Mabel allowed, and waggled this at her aunt.
“Oh…all right. Come in and tell us who’s dying.”
“Nah. It’s the craziest thing. He’s out there, walking back and forth. I couldn’t leave! Got a little notebook,” Dexter added, taking a seat.
Ernestine dug in her apron pocket.
“Nuh-uh. Him. Looking over this place, and the next one. Jotting stuff down. I told him I was putting the cat out…then I had to hightail it back up here.”
At this, Ernestine strode from the kitchen to the living room, and pulled back the curtain. “I don’t see any cop down there. I was gonna yell out the window, come on up and get him.”
The three of them were on their knees, in a row, the living room light switched off, their heads below the window sill. Now and again, they peeped over this. They whispered, though the notion of doing so came ambient to the room’s darkness. Chilton was odd—his lingering on the cold street below, marking who-knew-what down in his little book, maybe even disturbing—but no one suspected him of supernatural hearing.
Mabel looked at her watch and made a noise, letting out air between her teeth. “It’s only been about an hour. Well, sure, he could be flim-flamming.” She was answering Ernestine. “But he’d have to be a kook. Why’s he gonna tell people a thing like that, unless it’s true?” There was an obvious answer—the one Mabel had just given—but the prospect of five hundred dollars lent profundity to her summary argument.
“You got a spare blanket, I can bunk on that armchair. Don’t you think,” Dexter added, speaking to silence, “there’s no sense taking a chance? Suppose we see him go off round the corner…and then he comes back for some reason, just when Baumgardner looks like he’s sneaking out for the night?” More silence. “I’m gonna be here tomorrow anyway.”
This got Ernestine’s attention. “Mabel!”
“Well…it’s a big enough chicken.”
“For two people. I’m letting you have a wing and a drumstick, buddy, and you’ll have to like it. Unless you eat gizzards.”
“But I have a better idea.”
On hands and knees, Ernestine moved backwards; at the kitchen threshold she stood, crossed to the counter, tilted the cookie jar. The others, omitting the last, imitated her example, Mabel, then Dexter, sidling round the door sash, rising and heaving held breath. With the grim mouth of one thinking more charitably of austerity, but tempted, Ernestine popped the lid, and nudged two gingerbread men into Dexter’s pocket. But her specific object had been a key, hidden under the jar.
“Frankie Barber isn’t coming back for a week yet. I don’t see why you can’t use his place, if you’re clean about it.”
Old Mama Hubbard, Dexter thought, oughta be feeling in the gravy, if she ever saw cupboards like these. Not even a salt shaker. There was water, coming from the tap. A kettle on the stove, but not a lousy tea bag. His wristwatch told him it was after nine, and he decided…better not go knock at Mabel’s door again.
Altogether though, Barber’s was not a bad little place. He was blessed with a whole kitchen—stove, fridge, table and chair under the window. Son of a bitch must eat in restaurants.
Dexter carried his glass into the living room, and noticed at once, and with a pang, that the table by the sofa—where a minute ago he’d laid down a saucer, freighted with two gingerbread men—was empty. Empty of all but a National Geographic and a lamp. Rats.
No…rats don’t eat china.
“Barber!” Dexter shouted this; then, remembering the ladies, followed up softly: “What the hell!”
A sigh ruffled the window-drapes. “I offer the excuse,” the specter said, “that you have probably eaten today, and I have not.”
The drapes shivered again, a moment before Dexter moved to soundly buffet them with a sofa cushion, and a man slid out. “Call me Maxwell.”
“What the hell, Maxwell.”
“This, sir, is the way of it. Mr. Barber, one of our salespeople, has been kind enough to entrust me with his key. I have been unemployed since October.”
Maxwell mamboed round to plunk himself on Barber’s couch, and raised an unshaved face. “I’d developed foolish habits…hubris, of which you may well accuse me…thinking that a man so intimately in the confidence of his superior need shrink at no indulgence. I had nothing saved…and the address I’d chosen—seventeenth floor, The Chetley—became quite insupportable, rent-wise, given my reduced circumstances.”
“Heck.” Dexter sat beside Maxwell. “You mean you got no food, even? What you gonna do?”
“Very little, at present, tomorrow being the Christmas holiday. Afterwards, I have resolved to bury the hatchet with Mr. Throckmorton, apologize profusely, and if he will no longer permit me to play his Chilton…”
Dexter blinked. He raised a hand to stop Maxwell speaking.
“Now this, I don’t get.”
“What you wanna bet in this weather he doesn’t even show up?”
Mabel stood with her aunt’s stocking hat in one hand, an oven glove on the other. She was as contrite-faced as she knew how to be. Not that Ernestine was fair, holding Chilton’s messenger to blame for the hours he kept. They were nooners, aunt and niece, when it came to Christmas feasts, and had planned to heat up the place with a roast chicken, play a game of rummy, listen to some Nutcracker…Hallelujah chorus, maybe, not to push their luck…on the radio.
“But I have to go out.” Ernestine patted her pockets. “Where’s my list?”
“It was flour, milk, potatoes, onions.”
“If we’re lucky. And since I can’t borrow all that from one neighbor, I’ll have to make the rounds. You be sure that chicken goes in the pot at three. And don’t let those two…”
She swiped the hat and wrenched it on, projecting her voice, though all corners of the apartment sat well within the hearing of Dexter and his friend Maxwell. “Clean us out of any more food!”
Breakfast had been watery oatmeal, milk off-limits, the kitchen chill.
His tap at the door had caught Mabel still in her robe, yawning. She’d forgotten Dexter. “Can’t you go away for a while? We’re not dressed.”
“Come out in the hall a minute.”
“All right, but open the door a little.”
She put her head out.
“Mabel, I learned something big. I gotta get Maxwell to tell it to you.”
She looked up, past Dexter’s face, and saw another in Frankie’s door crack, smiling at her like an apologetic fish.
“What a little creep. I used to like him, too.”
Dexter tried a diffident tilt of the head. “But…maybe that’s all the work he could get. Or maybe Barber believes in it.” He found Maxwell’s delineations of Throckmorton’s swindles hard to grasp; and wasn’t either sure that—supposing the takings weren’t too bad—he’d draw the line himself.
What it took, getting by these days, right? A little boost. Then he thought of another thing. “How much?”
“I don’t get you.”
“Did you like him?”
Mabel rolled her eyes. “Just to say hello to. But I mean…” She spoke to Maxwell. “It’s people’s money. And they think they’re learning about investing.”
Maxwell gave her in return the classic palms-up of hopelessness. He folded his hands back in his lap. “But you are more interested in the twelve days of Christmas.”
“Hello…” Dexter said.
“Truthfully, Miss Biggins, I don’t know whether there is a Mr. X. Throckmorton easily could have a silent partner. He says he does. But if Mr. X is an invention, he serves his purpose. You see, as Chilton, I worked from two angles. Foremost was our interest in properties with a future, neighborhoods within reach of the city’s finer districts. These I sought out—”
He broke. A crumb remained on his saucer, the last of Ernestine’s stale bread she’d been saving for stuffing. He licked his finger and went on.
“Consider. If I purchase all the houses occupying a particular corner, I may knock them down and put up an office building. My tenants will be professional types…shall we say, stockbrokers, insurance men. To interest them in leasing in this part of town, we tout its affordability. A new apartment building, some better stores, will be mutually improving. And a new constituency in a position to make demands, will vote for municipal amenities, rail transport, upgrades to water and sewer, etc…such as greatly increase property values…and make further development worthwhile.
“It is often the case a block will have that stubborn organizer, the one who urges holding out. But there we have the second angle—the foreclosure lists, the bankruptcies. Wherever Throckmorton’s Chilton would find a weak link, someone sinking, financially…upon that person he bestowed the Christmas visitation. He invited himself to the table. He did this, as you may guess, to survey the personalities, discover what sop would best mollify the balking party. The five hundred dollars, being a lifebuoy to its recipient, was Throckmorton’s toe in the door. If you’ll pardon the mix of metaphor. He, in person, assuming his process not delayed by exigencies, would call around mid-January. Throckmorton was bold enough to suggest the five hundred be considered a down payment. I mean, to give an example, let us suppose a property, in the present market, would sell for roughly four thousand. He would offer thirty-five hundred. Promise a check that day, even go as far as to claim the gift had been multiplied by a factor of seven.
“People, you see, are softened by the burden of gratitude. It renders them ovine. They acquire a—dare I say?—simple-minded certainty that they are indebted to Mr. X, that his partner Throckmorton actually is doing them the good turn he represents…and this keeps them from taking the time and advice to which they are entitled.”
“Great you’re telling us now,” Mabel said.
She was building up to a scolding, not finding Maxwell quite the charity case Dexter took him for. Now this first Chilton was out of work; now by chance he’d run into one of Mr. X’s mugs…now, he was being a helper.
But she liked him all right.
She even had, growing in her mind, an inspiration, a patter routine, something her and a guy like Maxwell, the way he talked, could try out amateur hour, one of those downtown/uptown sketches…
Dexter could write the jokes.
And while she’d let this reverie derail her moral stance, the knob turned, and Ernestine came back in. She had two people with her, two elderly ladies. All three carried things: a sack, a box with a sack inside, a milk bottle and a flour canister. Ernestine, a board.
“For the table.” She answered Mabel’s stare. “I don’t know where the leaf that came with it ever got to. What about the chicken?”
“I put it on to boil, just now.”
“This is Mrs. Felcher, and Mrs. Rosemont.”
Mrs. Felcher, moving like a surgeon who’d been called to treat an emergency case, stepped at once to the stove, took up the wooden spoon, and prodded…then turned up the burner. From the sack, Mrs. Rosemont withdrew a cloth, wonderfully embroidered.
Mabel sang out, over this eruption of bustle, “I’m Mabel. That’s Dexter, and that’s Maxwell.”
“Both of you boys,” Ernestine said, “go across and get all the chairs from Frankie’s place you can carry.”
Two hours passed, plenty of time for Mabel to pull her aunt aside and clue her in.
She would have thought.
After Mrs. Felcher had showed them the right way to roll a dumpling, Mabel even got as far as, “It wouldn’t make much difference, I guess, if it turns out Throckmorton doesn’t like us.”
For a second, she felt canny as a private eye, dropping this name.
Not starting with surmise, however, only abandoning the radio’s tuning knob, hands flung up, Ernestine said, “Work on this thing, would you, Mabel?” Then added: “What’s-his-name better darn well.”
The armchair from the living room, at the head of the table, managed a creditable guest of honor’s place. It was five forty-five. The change of menu had made the apartment steamy, rather than toasty. The smells, though, were getting good.
Mrs. Rosemont’s cloth (“Forget it. I bathtub-soaked that thing thirty years. With a little Palmolive. But lately, I haven’t even looked at it, you know?”) bumped out where the board stretched wider than the table. Maxwell, having got the radio just so (fingers crossed), now tinkered with this conundrum. Dexter whistled, polishing glasses. Mabel had arranged place settings, a mix of everyday and china—this cup, that saucer; old platter, new celery—to make things look…bohemian, at least. Arty on purpose.
“Someone’s here,” Mrs. Felcher said. “Must be the guy.”
“Mr. Chilton.” Mabel’s aunt edged the door back, and the crowd of them edged back with her. “I’m Ernestine. Do you like Throckmorton?”
He seemed to blanch and recoil. The basket Chilton held over his arm took a wild swing.
“Oh, my manners!” Ernestine took this gamely, giving the merest glance to the writhing cloth. “I meant to say, is it Mr. Chilton you’d rather…or…you have a nickname?”
“Call me Mort.” His pince-nez had located Maxwell. His tone was dry. Maxwell coughed.
“Oh, I didn’t speak.”
Mabel swam to the fore, and Maxwell coughed a second time, ahem. Maybe. To her ears, more like: “It’s him.” She put her hands out for the basket. “Mort,” she said, “is this a puppy?”
Hemmed between the door frame, the six diners and the newly enlarged table, he gave her the small indication of a bow. A head, homely and wire-haired, parted the cloth, panting.
“What’s this Mrs. Baumgardner? Have you two been off to city hall?”
A second passed. Dexter said, “Yeah, that’s right. Me and my little honey…”
“Cause I said to Lynette,” Mrs. Rosemont went on, “I don’t think that Baumgardner has ever left. I think he’s still over there. So you’re married. I wish I’d known.”
“By the way, is Frankie home? There were lights on in his place,” Mrs. Felcher said.
“That was Mr. Maxwell.”
“It’s Maxwell? It’s not Barber anymore? When did that happen?”
“See, Mabel and me just figured times are tough and you never know, right? One day’s good as any other. Course, we got no money, no place of our own…”
The two neighbors eyed Maxwell.
“Have a seat, Mort,” Ernestine said. “Supper’s on.”
“Rotten timing,” Mrs. Felcher said.
Dexter swung out a chair and caught Mabel by the wrist.
“Watch the basket!”
The puppy’s claws were heard skittering on linoleum. Mabel spun into a side-to-side with her aunt. Pitching from the waist between Dexter and Maxwell—but managing an iron balance—Ernestine laid the chicken on the table.
She straightened, and crossed her arms. “Your dog gets lonely, Mort?”
“The dog is yours, madam.”
Chilton took a sip from his eggnog. He took a second sip from his water glass. Ernestine’s face had not in this interval lit with the joy of the season. He added, “I had heard of your loss.”
“Well, you’re one up on me.”
“Not to labor the point…” Chilton rested a cold eye on Dexter. “But the purchase was achieved at some expense and difficulty. My man being an hour in search of a pet store willing to accommodate me privately. And the available prospects on such a morning, of course, somewhat restricted…”
“Is the puppy a he or she?” Mabel asked.
“Does it matter?”
Maxwell spoke: “Your man.”
Chilton gave a minute’s attention to the arrangement of his napkin. “I do have one or two servants I trust implicitly.”
“Ah. Then you don’t count yourself the sort of employer who might mistake blind obedience for trustworthiness?”
“I count myself a man of sound judgment. I have no use for second-guessers. And…it is just as possible, bear in mind, to mistake cowardice for prudence…”
“I do bear it in mind. I’m curious to know, though, on what basis one judges one’s own judgment. I,” Maxwell raised his voice, an eyebrow, and included the table, “once worked for a man whose fondness for detective yarns induced him to purchase, at a loss, two lowbrow periodicals. A thing called Night Crimes and…oh, yes, Shamus Omnibus.”
Mrs. Rosemont obliged him. “Never heard of em.”
Maxwell grinned. “And that is only one example of his pig-headed faith in what he calls his ‘business sense’…”
“People like the whodunits,” Chilton muttered. He stood. “Did you say your name was Maxwell? I think I know the guy who sacked you. Told me you were a hoity-toity, backstabbing son of…” Having dropped something, refinement-wise, he lowered himself to his seat, and renewed his grip. “Mrs. Ernestine…”
She blinked. “Call me Mrs. Tolhurst, why don’t you?”
“What about your attic? In terms of, I mean, adding tenants. Why does the space go unused? Are you not the owner?”
“Sure I’m the owner. Takes money, doesn’t it, fixing up a place to rent?”
Maxwell tapped his water glass.
“No, I’m sorry,” he said, when they all fell silent. And though he then lifted the glass and tilted it towards Chilton, as one offering a toast, he added, “I have no proposal to make, myself.”
Abruptly, and with something distrait in the movement of her hand, Ernestine left them. She stood immobile, back to her guests, at the kitchen counter. These hints of high feeling were ambiguous—for all Mabel knew, her aunt might have a headache…or be stifling a laugh…
“Look,” Ernestine said, turning. “Mr. Chilton, I have a proposal. I know about your twelve days, okay? Maybe you’re used to people giving you a whole song and dance…snapping at the biscuit, put it that way. That I don’t know. I don’t know who’s good enough for your five hundred bucks. You’re gonna give it to me, or you’re not…and I didn’t lose anything if you don’t. I guess I’m lucky, even. It’s nice, Mrs. Rosemont and Mrs. Felcher coming over…” She nodded across the table. “Mr. Maxwell. I wouldn’t have thought of it, inviting people. So maybe I owe you. But what I’m saying is…decide already.”
“Got yourself a little doggy pal,” Dexter murmured.
Ernestine shrugged. ““Give and take. I figure…”
She moved the cake plate to the table, sat and looked Chilton in the eye.
“…you could skip the others, save something, even, give me five…I mean grand…for the whole place. I’d be happy to sell it to you.”
“I hope you’re not thinking of it!”
Mrs. Felcher got in, before Mabel could do more than drop her jaw.
“It’s all right for you, because you own this house. But the rest of us pay rent. If Mort there fixes up the attics, and shuts down the store, and turns everything into units, he’s gotta get his investment back…so he asks more money.”
“Then,” said Mrs. Rosemont, “some of us who got no place to go are stuck, cause the whole neighborhood goes up.”
“She wouldn’t sell. She loves the business.”
“I hate the business! No…” Ernestine shook her head, softening this for her niece. “You probably don’t know how I got started. Unless your mother told you. Nuh-uh? Well, kid, I was a grass widow. Late in the game. Merwyn had an idea about farming apricots in California. Says to me, I can live in the back of my truck. Take me two or three years bringing in the first crop. When you come out, I’ll build us a house. You decide if you want a pool…
“Sure. Now, I had a secret from Merwyn…a little legacy from my granny. I saw where that was going if Merwyn got his hands on it. I told him no thanks, hon, you have fun with the fruits… So I bought this place, the business and the upstairs. Nineteen-fourteen, just when we got into the war. But, let me tell you, over along MacArthur, there used to be a bunch of theaters. Only a couple of em, that are movie houses now, still running.
“See, my regulars started dying off, and I’m outside the action these days. And how could I blame the new people for not coming all the way down here to get what they can get closer? Mabel, you know the whole backend of this place used to be a storeroom. Now it’s just empty shelves and junk.”
Mrs. Felcher sighed. “Oh, well, everyone’s got their troubles.”
A clink and clatter circuited the table. Mabel took the liberty of popping the cover from the cake. She had just raised the knife, when Mrs. Felcher went on:
“It’s too bad, though, some bloodsucker had to come along stirring things up. We were doing okay…we could have gone a couple more years. Maybe I’d be dead by then.”
Mrs. Rosemont said, “That’s very true.”
The timing seemed rotten, to use Mrs. Felcher’s phrase, for handing the guest of honor a big slice of devil’s food. Chilton glared at his fingernails.
He stood. “Bloodsucker! The businessman’s always the criminal, is that it? You’re worried about rents? Listen, before anyone ever laid those bricks, that put a roof over your head, someone had to finance the construction.”
It was a weak point; its reception not boffo.
“Okay. Before your parents could cross the ocean, there had to be a shipping line…steerage doesn’t pay for itself, you know…you need cargo! And someone had to get those ships built. Without investors, where is America?”
Mabel, at a bump from Dexter’s elbow, and a waggle of his plate under her chin, dished him the first slice. She cut another for Maxwell. Maxwell passed this up the table to Mrs. Felcher.
“All right,” said Chilton. “You don’t care. No one cares. But I want you to know…”
Putting her back to him without ceremony, Ernestine unplugged the coffee pot and brought it to the table.
“A guy like me doesn’t have it that soft, you know. It’s a struggle every day. Take those rags Maxwell was talking about.” He sat again, gave a minute or two to his dessert, pulled a cigar from an inside pocket and bugged an eye at Ernestine.
“Sure,” she told him. “Eat my food. Light stogies at my table. Maybe you’ll do me a favor.”
“Yeah, those rags. It’d be a great thing, shutting em down…if I happened to own the competition.” He exhaled a brooding cloud.
“Well, you got two, right? If you got two horses to bet on, you can give your jockey a little freedom with the reins.”
“You, Baumgardner. You got ideas?”
“Throckmorton, I got hustle. If I was editing…let’s say, Night Crimes… For one thing, it needs to be about twice as spicy. Cover art. That’s what anyone eyeballing the rack expects, right?”
“I can bang you out four stories a week, easy. Set the editorial tone. Save you a little money.”
“Huh. Your thing about the horse. You’re saying I could afford the risk.”
“What I’m saying, Mort.”
Mabel, at this display of Dexter’s go-getting gift, tried catching her aunt’s eye. But the focus of Ernestine’s slumped in his seat, kneading his pince-nez.
Suddenly, he lurched upright. “What time is it?”
“A little after seven.”
“Well, that’s okay.” Throckmorton patted his pockets. “I need to get a cab, though. I have another dinner at eight…after that, cocktails at midnight.” He seemed to be easing back into his Chilton character. “Madam, have you a pen and a piece of writing paper?”
Maxwell pulled a billfold from his own pocket, and to Dexter handed a business card. “I think this is the idea,” he said. “You are to call on Mr. Throckmorton, at his offices…Monday, next?”
Throckmorton nodded. “Gnash out the details.”
“Thresh out. Cocktails at midnight,” murmured Maxwell. “That would be with old Chetley’s relict, at her penthouse. She does this event seasonally, to prove to her detractors she remains spry and brimming with vim. You have it in mind to purchase a vacant apartment from her…one on the seventeenth floor.”
“I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”
“Because an honorable man does not violate another’s agreement, even of the tacit sort.”
“Ha. Maxwell…” Throckmorton spoke low. “You know how uncomfortable I get around those people.”
“I know it.”
“Well, I mean, as long as I’m hiring…” He shot Dexter an accusing look.
“I can accompany you to these events. I can, if it seems your essay of the Chilton role has led you into unwise territory, even offer to you my humble counsel. But we’ll have to stop at your place, sir… I have no evening clothes…”
The vocal partner of Mr. X whispered, as the two rose to their feet. “You got another card…give it to the lady.”
A pounding came from the street.
And the door being pummeled was that of the shop. The puppy, forgotten under the table, sprang from a snooze to ricochet yapping from ankle to ankle.
“Well, cripes,” Ernestine muttered. “Who doesn’t know to come around the back?”
“Anyone at home?”
The voice was robust, with an outdoorsy resonance. “Is that a light on up there? I’m looking for Mrs. Tolhurst!”
“My God. Merwyn!”
“You’re the lucky one.”
Mabel was a bit lukewarm in offering to her aunt these valedictory words. She did not herself feel unlucky. Dexter had lined up a job. The two of them—once over that tricky business of getting married for real—had a nice apartment to live in. Nice for what you could get these days. Specifically, the same she’d been sharing with Ernestine the two years since she’d come to the city.
Merwyn, shuffling hat in hand into the kitchen before a goggling audience, had said by way of introduction:
“I got to thinking, back when it started to get about Christmastime, and I was remembering, Ernie, how you and me hitched up, day after, back in ’12… Howdy, you all.”
Howdy, they all said back. Mabel had never met Merwyn. There was nothing distinguished about his looks. His hair was thinning; his grey eyes squinted at them, puzzled.
“Got to thinking,” he repeated, “twenty-five years gone by…maybe she doesn’t mean to come out after all. Maybe I oughta go back and get her.”
His timing was fortuitous, at any rate. When the business week began that Tuesday, Mabel and her aunt opened the blinds to find three visitors peering through the glass, each a rival in the theatrical supply trade. They’d come to eye over the inventory.
Word on the street was, Ernestine Tolhurst was headed for California.
As to Throckmorton, he’d taken an option on the building, five hundred earnest money, of which her aunt had given Mabel, not Dexter, half: “That’s your wedding present…make sure you hang on to it!”
This was gratifying to the neighbors, that nothing was going to happen very soon. No renovations, no fancy people arriving to nudge them out. And no reason not, since (as Maxwell, Throckmorton’s right hand, advised), the agreed-on rent was a nominal dollar, to headquarter the periodicals “Night Crimes” and “Shamus Omnibus” at this this handy site.
“That office uptown, just for the lease of it, was half the expense of running the goddamn things.”
The weather was as it had been—raining, freezing overnight, gaining a layer of snow in the morning, turning back to rain by afternoon. People duck-footed in their rubbers along on the street, hands in pockets. The laden clouds seemed to hover just above the rooftops. Mabel had a puppy to walk (she had named him Max.) She was stuck with it, going round the block, coming home, nose running, stockings sodden.
“It’s a lot better for the dog, not making that long car trip.” That had been her aunt’s reasoning.
Dexter said, “Soon’s you’re settled, we’ll come out and visit. Honeymoon.”
“Yeah. I’ll let you know.”
“But what,” Mabel asked them both, “are we telling those two nice ladies? We should invite Mrs. Felcher and Mrs. Rosemont, now we’re all friends…”
Her swain had neglected to actually propose. But she forgave him that; Dexter hadn’t stuck at buying the license. It seemed they were going to do it—a step ahead of the rumor mill.
“Aunt Ernestine’s leaving tomorrow, right?”
Ernestine, for this familiarity, gave Dexter a sour twist of the mouth.
“So then, we just tell everyone, it was like…a gift. Couldn’t really pull it off in time, what with the paperwork, but didn’t wanna spoil the old lady’s happy Christmas.”
Mabel got to her feet, hearing the door across the hall swing open. Not yet could she linger behind in Frankie’s apartment. Her fiancé had spread himself large, the kitchen sink become well clogged with dishes, Dexter’s plaid robe tossed over the armchair. The ashtray overflowed.
“So all’s well that ends well, huh?” she said.
“What I told you. Making up stuff’s easy.”
Are You Adaptable
She thought, “Do Tolhursts really deserve accessories?”
The scarf was too much…it seemed crocheted from pillow stuffing, and bore the handicrafted preciosity of the chronically regifted gift. A Tolhurst gift. Not even a real one.
Last Thanksgiving, Heidi, Beloye’s near mother-in-law, had come out of her bedroom following noises of a tissue-y rummage, saying: “I don’t know where I got this. But I don’t want it.”
The scarf bulged under Beloye’s earlobes. Her left hoop popped off. She squatted to look along the edge of the armoire, lifted the bedskirt, saw nothing that glinted.
The sweater…she couldn’t blame them for that. She liked her cardigan, that had pockets for Kleenex and phone, cold hands. She wore it on weekends with jeans. With black pants, its mohair shed was notable. Worse, it had dropped shoulders. Worse, it fell to mid-hip. Beloye adjusted her posture. She still looked wide and slovenly. She jerked open the closet door, and Boz wedged his head between her ankles.
In her closet Boz had once spent a day imprisoned, clawing furrows in a good leather boot, fringing one or two garment hems, making use of a corner. Released, his cat’s life restored to even keel, he’d tripped under Beloye’s feet, chattering, weaving infinite figure eights.
Dan she’d been about to interrogate…loafing deaf in his chair all day. Without glancing from the TV, he’d said, “Yeah, cute.” He had that in common with Boz. You caught him in the act, or you wasted your breath haranguing.
She dragged Boz back now, and reached for her black dress.
A motor drilled, looming close, a rubber bumper thunking the doorframe. Boz flung himself behind the shoe rack, snagging in passing a claw on Beloye’s toe. The hanger she tugged grappled onto another.
Her black dress fell to the floor.
“You need a good vacuum,” was Heidi’s answer, shouted over the roar and whistle of Beloye’s, Dan’s complaints. “See how there’s nothing in the bin? That’s why nothing gets clean.”
Heidi vacuumed after meals to get crumbs; she vacuumed in her bedroom while Beloye and Dan watched TV.
“Why are you vacuuming?” Dan would yell.
“I’m vacuuming for a minute,” his mother would yell back.
My own fault, Beloye told herself.
They, the advice-mongers, were always saying, “learn to say no”. You don’t have to be nice all the time. No, because (with certain Tolhursts) only extra nice counted…or, in some way ordinary responsible behavior—holding down a job, keeping your credit good, not drinking—was like a commodity to them. You had plenty and they had none. You had to be fair. She wished she had the courage to be heartless.
“The economy is picking up…” Perhaps a month ago, she’d mentioned.
“Yeah. And being a rich guy, I feel like I can take some of the credit for that. I hate to brag, but, you know, whenever I get bored I just buy myself a new car, fancy Rolex. Drop a grand here, a grand there. Makes jobs for the little people. That’s the only reason I’m not working, cause I gotta let the needy ones get their shot in first.”
Not that Beloye would argue. In respect of sarcasm, Dan had his own pocket of wealth, his own commodity, cornered. He would either spin on in this vein, or get mad at her for not playing. He had asked her, gracelessly, if Heidi could have the other bedroom.
“Your mother needs to live with us?”
“She’ll pay half the rent.”
“What is she going to pay rent with if she’s broke?”
“Social security. Nine hundred a month. We only need six.”
There were two things wrong with this. That “we”, when it was Beloye’s apartment, and she was the only one paying anything, and…she could hardly bust Heidi down to three hundred dollars income. Heidi had Arnold to support.
She didn’t, so far, pay rent, but she cleaned.
Beloye’s mother had told her, “Don’t buy a house with a man you aren’t married to.”
She and Dan were never going to be married. The house would never have been bought if she hadn’t become co-party to the loan…but of course there was a lot of advantage in real estate. They’d get an apartment and rent the house ’til it was paid off, then sell it. Rinse and repeat.
Now the house, with its “cosmetic” flaws, might never be sold. But that was hardly Beloye’s affair, since she and Dan no longer owned it. Through some alchemy, a loyalty filtered through dislike for her partner, her parents were willing now to help with rent, but had refused, when it counted, contributing to the mortgage payments.
She heard voices—Nola’s and Arnold’s. A knock, and Dan’s:
“Someone at the door.”
She heard Heidi. “She’ll get it.”
If it were possible for a knock to seem unfamiliar, this one did, coming louder. Beloye fluffed hair from her collar. (Still one earring.) She edged by the footrest of Dan’s recliner, and he tapped her hip with a toe in a sock. He had yet to slide into shoes. He wore his grey sweatshirt and cargo shorts…she’d have to try.
“Hon, put some jeans on.”
“See if it’s them!” Heidi called out. Glass and silverware clinked in the kitchenette.
Pushing in as the door swung back, Nola blocked Beloye’s view. Or wanted to. Her companion’s head stood well above her own, a pleasant face, but not Arnold’s. Nola had said her cheerful Hey, guys! with widening eyes that telegraphed: “Be normal, please.”
Dan, who liked and approved of pizza, laid a possessive clamp on the two boxes, mumbling, “get those”, his eyes narrow in disapproval.
“I’ll get plates.”
“Why plates? We don’t need plates.”
“Some people,” said Heidi, “might want plates.”
“This is Stenner,” Nola told Beloye. He offered his hand. Yes, a nice looking man.
“I’m Beloye, that’s Dan. Arnold’s brother.”
Clatter in the kitchenette, Heidi pulling down from an overhead cabinet glasses she’d put away minutes ago. And if body language could express anything so direct, Beloye thought Heidi’s noise, her compression of shoulders and lips, expressed, “Beloye! Shut up!”
Dan, arm draped over the refrigerator door: “Cripes sake, Mom, glasses! What for?”
Am I a member of this family? Beloye asked herself. She caught Stenner’s eye, having meant only to duck her head out of sight while rolling her own.
“Beloye. You might like some of this.”
On the brown-paper sack he swung to the counter was the name of an emporium unknown to her: Captina. Stenner pulled out a four-bottle carton, lettering sans-serif, lower-case, one to a stripe of olive, one a stripe of taupe—
f a r m h o u s e a l e
And logoed with a cloud…or rather…she peered…
Fatuous smile, trio of black dots…
With one hand, he picked up two bottles.
“You may.” He moved to the living room, set one on the coffee table The other in hand, and with a touch of Paul Henreid, Stenner pulled a Swiss army knife from an inside pocket, practicedly flipping out the opener. “Notice nuances of Boysenberry.”
“I notice them.”
She might herself have called it cabbagey. But she had no frame of reference for Boysenberry in a small taste of warm ale.
“Maybe,” Dan said, “you should take my chair, Mom. Cause there’s no room on the sofa.”
Beloye scooted tight against the armrest. Next to her Stenner gave an equable shrug and spread. Nola chose the floor, sinking through effortful adjustments to a sit, across from her boyfriend. Heidi edged around Dan, to drop, gusting a sigh, next to Stenner.
“You’re Nola’s friend,” she told him.
Nola, to Beloye: “We decided, why not come over here instead, if we’re just having pizza?”
We decided, she thought. Heidi and Nola on the phone. Dan smug in his schlumpy gear. Heidi in her pink sweat suit. Nola in jeans, not losing the poncho, a tee not-thin-looking-enough underneath. Beloye, the fool in the room as usual, dressed to go out. At least Stenner was wearing a sports jacket.
Of course, to be fair, home life for Nola might be awkward just now.
“I guess…” (Using this prompt to pry a little intelligence.) “If we came over, it might be awkward.”
“Awkward.” Dan, spewing a snide divot of pepperoni.
Stenner said: “Let me tell you my graveyard story. And you all can tell me what you make of it.”
His mother was recovering from surgery. He was caring for her Pom, Trinket.
“You’re looking after your mother’s dog, that’s nice.”
“Shut up, Mom.”
“I cut him off at three pm, for food, then take him for a dump just before bedtime. Not my Mom’s schedule. In my place, boot camp…little bastard needs to learn discipline. So, about eleven last night, before I turned in, I put Trinket on the leash.”
Used to being carried, the dog lagged and flopped, but under cover of dark Stenner made progress…two blocks, tugging and toting. He decided to cut through Green Mount Cemetery. “Yeah, I confess, I’m not into pooper-scooping. I was up to no good.”
“Animals can sense evil,” Dan remarked.
“You’re familiar with Green Mount.” Stenner turned to Beloye, who nodded. “Nothing spooky, no creaking iron gates or weird statuary, just respectable headstones in nice little rows. I had gone about halfway to the other side. I was alone, but it wasn’t really dark—there’re streetlights at both ends. I noticed this big oak tree. Some older graves were close by, the markers sort of tilted sideways, thrown up by the roots, you’d figure. I put the dog down on the grass, played out some leash.
“I began to get the impression of movement. Something bluish white off to the right, then off to the left. A noise sort of filtered in. A kind of collection…?” He looked at his audience, made a searching gesture. “That’s not the word I want. As though…someone starts out whispering, then some other sounds and voices are admixed or layered gradually onto the first track.”
“But what did you see?” He was making Beloye nervous.
“Nothing, of course. Trinket took care of business. I finished our walk.”
Dan crumpled the paper lining his box and tossed it…to rebound off the lip of Nola’s bag. “So what’s the point?”
“The point is, why do people do these things?” Stenner maintained eye contact with Beloye.
“You didn’t think it was a ghost?”
“Why would I think it was a ghost?”
Well, she didn’t know Stenner. “I would have run away.”
“Sure. You’re scared. But you have to think about motives.”
“You’re saying,” Dan said, “this was some kind of stupid joke.”
“Motives. Nearly everything sooner or later comes down to money, even dumb video stunts, but consider…” He leaned forward, particularly addressing Dan.
Heidi, on Stenner’s right, leaned too, putting her head between theirs. “Those people are snobs.”
“Over at Green Mount. I don’t know anyone who’s buried there.”
“Well, yeah, in a way, Mrs. Tolhurst…” But he gave this up. “I was about to say, consider Beloye. My story upset her, and I was only telling it. People are stupid. Unreasonable. Emotional. Even so, you can’t…I ought to say you shouldn’t…simply pick someone at random, and play a joke that might do genuine harm.”
On small acquaintance Nola’s boyfriend was judging her, Beloye gathered, over-sensitive; or, as Dan had it, neurotic. Maybe just stupid. She wanted an ally. “Nola, what did you think when he told you the story?”
Any typical evening’s chance word might bring from Nola’s memory, just as the talk was getting good, the plot of a movie, or the doings of neighbors only she and Arnold knew. Her tone, after this unwonted (and unnoticed) reserve, sounded…
Confirmed. “I never heard the story before.”
“So what do you think?” Stenner asked.
She clambered, on her feet crossed to pick up her bag. She toed Dan’s trash out of the way. “I think if we’re done eating, you should take me home.”
So Stenner could join Nola at the door, Beloye stood.
“What, Nola, you have a headache? You haven’t been here half an hour. We could play Uno. Beloye, you’re up,” Heidi said. “Get the deck.”
They slumped back, then, for one hour more, hoisting themselves to draw cards, grab handfuls of popcorn, swigs of beer…or coffee, in Beloye’s case…Dan taking stabs at cracking Stenner.
“People do stupid things. Why wouldn’t they hurt someone for no reason? Maybe they’re criminals.”
And at the door Stenner said, “Seriously. My only thing is, I want to know. Just curious, Dan. I can’t exactly report seeing a ghost. Heidi, thanks.” He was treating Dan’s mother as his hostess. “Beloye.” He took her hand.
When Heidi had gone to her room, and they’d gone to theirs, and they heard the sound of the vacuum subdued by the closed doors, Beloye said, “Where is Arnold?”
In his socks, Dan took two burdened steps to the duffle he shoulder-slung when he went out, and parked nights on the armchair. He found his phone, tapped a couple times. Beloye heard Arnold’s voice, swearing.
The brothers exchanged words.
“A minute ago,” Dan told her, “he was snoozing on the sofa. You wanna talk to him?”
Lunch? Beloye texted to Nola, the next day, Saturday. Or coffee?
Nola chose Radice’s. Coffee, Beloye supposed. On the other hand, Nola might be depressed over Arnold. If I were depressed, sure, Beloye thought, I’d have doughnuts for lunch. And french fries. Radice’s could supply only the doughnuts.
Dan walked into the bedroom.
She noticed him in the mirror, coming up to stand behind her.
“That guy,” he began. “Nola’s pick-up.” He paused, watching Beloye snug a belt. “He had you figured out.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He comes in here, makes up some story, gets you all jittery… Then he says it was only a joke.”
“Stenner didn’t say that, you said it.”
Beloye slipped past him to sit on the bed; she couldn’t pull on heels standing.
He moved to hover, studying her through each stage, of wedging her foot in, zipping, scrunching, one boot, the other boot. In a mimicking tone that sounded like no one on earth, never mind Stenner, Dan said, “Look at Beloye. She’s upset.”
“He didn’t say that either.” She grabbed her purse and left.
She ought to have taken another twenty minutes, dressing; and she ought to have taken a jacket, going out the door. Her boots weren’t right for the rain. Gutters puddled, slick leaves lay plastered flat to the concrete. Beyond the trees Beloye saw white clouds drive across the face of others deep pewter, gravid with the next downpour.
Radice’s was two streets from the corner. She could be sitting down with a cup of coffee that much sooner, crossing Green Mount Cemetery. It wasn’t curiosity alone, coming on strong at this thought, but a fluttery surge of adrenalin. She scorned this in herself, that Stenner’s ghost story could scare her in broad daylight.
She saw a suffocating spirit, a woman stuffed in a box, lodged under a patch of grass…some eternal resting place that had seemed right to a relative. A Tolhurst type, winning at last by attrition. A parent, making the improper child conform.
She was giving a lot of backstory to this ghost.
But how did you know? Maybe they were abroad at any hour, anchored and indignant, wanly peering through raindrops, wanting so badly to contact one with whom they could share…
Share their story, Beloye supposed. Share their fate.
“This is not the place.”
Stenner touched her arm lightly, pointed up the brick pathway. “Your intuition is good, though. Walk with me a little farther and I’ll show you.”
Intuition, Beloye thought, wasn’t the word. She had too much imagination. Even so, she was pleased, rather than startled, to have come across Stenner. Or had he come across her? She must have been standing, contemplating a tree, the way normal visitors at Green Mount would contemplate a plastic wreath—
Did it look good, propped like that? Was it enough money?
“Look around,” Stenner invited. Shaggy cedars bent heads in Greek-chorus clusters; oaks, even half denuded, black and latticed against the sky, interlocked twigs and sheltered their charges.
Green Mount was a park where no one loitered. Only an elderly generation who’d bought their plots decades earlier remained to be interred here. Otherwise, people used its walkways, took shortcuts over its swards, admired its fall leaves, let their dogs run unleashed.
She could feel…with minor regret…no paranormal vibe. She saw the tilted headstones, but Stenner wanted her to see the local merchants, the apartments above their stores, the money towering up beyond, the high rises.
“There are vast sums to be made.”
He looked fixedly at one tower in particular, with its three abutted promenances, the center thrust out like a ship’s prow, the flankers receding, all encased in silvered glass. Of this, the panels fit so seamlessly, that moving clouds, then a passing helicopter, appeared like stories multiplying on an array of television screens.
“Stacked human units, the choicest spaces selling for seven, eight figures. This is a nice little area, right? See all this undistinguished, unpreservable, unprofitable, real estate? You got a genuine, old-fashioned coffee shop, Radice’s over there. You got a dry cleaner’s, carryout, curio shop…dash em all off the street and put up another tower. But,” he laughed, “you can’t encroach on burial ground.”
“Then, what you were thinking…”
Vantage points must converge where they stood. Who knew what could be seen from the tower penthouse? From the studio rentals above the storefronts? What sport for pranksters?
“I don’t see what they would have to gain,” she tried.
At this, and all at once, she felt intolerant of obnoxious conversations with men. She jerked a strand of hair from her collar, and turned a sharp eye on Stenner. His expression was amiable, encouraging.
“Yesterday, you said you thought someone was playing a trick, making spooky effects to scare off dummies. Just now you started talking about the tower. You want me to guess something, is that it?”
“Oh, well,” Stenner said. And, “Nah. It’s only a topic of conversation.” He added, “I don’t think we need to stand here. You came out without a coat. Why don’t you let me buy you a cup of coffee?”
“I’m meeting Nola.”
“I like Nola.”
He carried everything. He insisted on it, as though he thought the task wasn’t safe for Beloye. In heels, toting a heavy purse and a large coffee, she might misstep. But…true. She found a table where they could wave to Nola from the window.
“Take what you like.” He had ordered a dozen kolachkes to go. “I figure I should have something for my mom, when I see her later.”
She wanted to know what Stenner, the know-it-all, did for a living…whether he had a first name. But, she felt obligated. Yesterday he had mentioned some kind of surgery.
“How’s she’s doing?”
Mom, he told her with a crinkly smirk, the two of them sharing disrespect for the ailing (though Stenner meant it, and Beloye didn’t), just had her right knee replaced. The left she’d had done two years earlier. He put his coffee down.
“She doesn’t want therapy. She says she’s busy. I’m busy.” He picked his coffee up. “Dealing with this, for one. I tell her, you’re gonna find out you can’t fix everything with surgery. One day, the doctor’ll say, no more. You won’t have the choice. Lose some weight. Move a little. She’ll have to do what she could have done in the first place, and…ask me…not needed any operation.”
He looked at the inside of his cup, put it down again, looked out the window. Beloye looked. Oddly, she had the impression she’d just seen Nola pass beyond sight, blocked by someone’s umbrella.
“I need more coffee. She exasperates me, my mom.”
He drank half of it on the way back from the counter to the table. Then Nola, in white sneakers and windbreaker, dovetailed with Stenner, coming to them from the doorway.
“Nola, it’s good to see you.” He threw his head back and gulped the rest of his coffee. “I can’t stay.”
Stenner then took his jacket off, reached into a pocket to grab out his phone; hung the jacket on the back of Beloye’s chair, telling her, “I don’t want you to be cold. Nola, I’ll be in touch.”
Nola, not answering any of it, studied the menu above the counter.
Beloye handed Stenner his box. “Don’t forget,” she said. He met her eyes with a look conspiratorial, as though her words had some other meaning.
Nola said, “Sit down, Nola.”
“Oh! Nola, sit down. Sorry.”
“I don’t care about you and Stenner.” The corner of her mouth seemed to stray from some restraint; her hand was clenched on her keys.
“There’s nothing to care about.”
“But I want you to understand. Do you know how I met Stenner?”
“You didn’t say.”
“I was at the library. I was looking at this thriller, to see if I wanted it. Stenner came up behind, and I heard him say, you know what’s wrong with those books?”
“Stenner works at the library?”
“Why would you think that? Don’t interrupt.”
Then, on the verge of speaking, Nola interrupted herself. From over the straw in her Coke, she eyed Beloye. “Ask Stenner where he works, if you want to know. Don’t ask me.”
“So he told you…”
“He said, this guy, the hero, is some kind of rogue agent, right? The government has to go begging to a guy named Tracer Snowe…go figure…when there’s no one else who can save the world… He’s that smart. So what happens? Everywhere he goes, the enemy knows exactly what he’s doing. He can’t arrange to talk to someone, even, without getting shot at. You’d think for a lot less money, they could just get the stupidest guy… They’d hardly tell the difference. The government should bid the job out, right? I mean, Beloye, this…guy, who didn’t introduce himself yet, was going on like that, reading over my shoulder. So I got the book anyway. Maybe I shouldn’t have.”
“I don’t know,” Beloye said. “I don’t read thrillers.”
“Oh, who cares…we’re not talking about books! I want you to understand. I would never have invited Stenner along yesterday if I thought he was the kind of sleezo who just sidles up to women. I thought he was okay.”
“He is okay. I like Stenner.”
In the way Stenner had said he liked Nola. A tick late, Beloye saw her error.
Again, some struggle compressed Nola’s chin, and drew a line between her eyebrows. Anger, disgust, incipient tears, Beloye couldn’t tell.
“You haven’t eaten. Don’t you want something?”
“I want french fries.”
Outside the walkup window, Beloye told her, “I’ll pay.”
A man waiting behind, one hand holding up a phone, the other thrust into his hair, kept inching, shifting foot to foot, pivoting out of line, craning his neck towards the cashier. When Nola said, “No…please,” and started grubbing for a coupon she thought she had, he threw a dramatic hand, hair to sky, gave a loud exhale, rolled his eyes and swore into his phone, as though he and his friend were sharing this moment. Nola mumbled, arm plunged to the elbow. Maybe it wasn’t in there, maybe it was in the fanny pack.
Beloye (albeit by an idiot) was embarrassed. Anyway, she wanted Nola to feel better.
“Pay me back. Two large fries, thanks.”
As they walked, she asked point blank. Had Nola and Arnold split up?
“Oh. I had the impression Arnold was still in the house.”
“The house is big enough for us to be separated.”
Nola put a hand on Beloye’s arm. “It’s not like I can afford to move out. It’s not like he’s gonna move.”
“Sorry, it’s not my business.”
She thought about Nola and Arnold, tried to picture them avoiding each other, camping in rooms, waiting at the door for a durable silence before venturing out.
Beloye discarded the fry box, tossing it guiltily into the back of a garbage truck. Maybe this wasn’t wrong…if she remembered, she’d look it up. Or maybe the people in the penthouse were watching, and she’d get a ticket in the mail. She put her hands in her pockets, Stenner’s pockets. She found a card.
The card said: Stenner, with a phone number. No photo, no corporate logo, nothing on the back. What did she know about Stenner? He’d approached Nola, dated her a little…decided Nola wasn’t right. Nola, in Beloye’s private opinion, didn’t make enough of an effort. And that had nothing to do with Arnold. As long as they’d had the Tolhursts in common, Nola had said to Beloye, about clothes, career…even about Dan, “Oh, I envy you…”
When Beloye offered to help, or teach, or give outright (not Dan), Nola shrugged, and said, “On you, not me”, or, “No, I’m just complaining.”
Stenner had, at any rate, switched his attentions. And was he fun, or was he a jerk? Mostly, he talked about himself. He told Beloye things, watched her react. He backed off, or stepped sideways, claimed he hadn’t said what she’d thought. Dan might be right, but she didn’t think Stenner had made up the ghost story. He implied some connection with the high rise developers, but wouldn’t say so himself.
Did he want Beloye to make up her own story?
Towards what end? And then what line did you draw between looking out for yourself, and letting yourself get paranoid?
She opened the apartment door, crossed to the sofa, flopped to a sit, let her purse fall, dropped her keys in. Dan stirred in the recliner. Boz spread on his lap stretching claws. Dan’s attitude regarding her cat, when speaking to Beloye, was hostile…yet she caught him now and then. The television was going…it was always going.
“How are you guys? Did you have lunch?”
The expression on Dan’s face reminded her of Nola’s. He dragged himself up, kneeing Boz to the floor. He nearly spoke, stopped, looked Beloye up and down, waited as though he expected her to speak. Finally, he said, “Your jacket doesn’t fit.”
She was hurrying. She had three blocks to cover. She had reached the corner, turned to cross the street, when someone called her name. For reacting with an over-caffeinated start, she knew he’d seen her hear. Besides, she knew who it was. And now, for that second’s waffling, there was no help; the little bent figure outlined in bluish-white vanished, replaced by the red hand. She’d have to wait for the light, or truck off madly in the wrong direction.
“Wait!” Arnold yelled.
Saturday she’d teetered. Then recovered, telling herself, Dan doesn’t live in my closet. I can face him down. If he somehow thought she was wearing Stenner’s jacket, he’d have to be the one to say so. He’d said nothing. He stood, took up his phone from the TV tray, walked with deliberation to the door. Went out, shut this firmly. She’d guessed he was calling his brother.
Cars began to move.
“Arnold, you’re making me late for work.”
“One time, you can be late.”
“I’m always late.”
“Listen to me.” Like Nola, he put a hand on her arm. “I’m asking you, leave it alone. I don’t even know why…”
He took his hand off her arm, spreading both in a baffled gesture.
“…you would have to do with Stenner! You and Dan are not like me and Nola.”
“I don’t have to do with Stenner.” Impatient people kept making this assumption, when all she’d done with Stenner was talk, Beloye for a moment missed the off-kilter.
“Arnold,” she said, “don’t you want him to stay away from Nola?”
Dan’s brother was that type who thought being married meant you could touch, you could flirt. Her fault if the woman took you seriously. Beloye had never taken Arnold seriously. He was that guy who chuckled at every stubbed toe, found the dirty joke in every innocent word…
Crowed over even his Uno victories.
Heidi, somehow always a widow, always working alone, had raised two boys, the older and the younger, the Lout and the Spoiled One, training each to the extremity of his stereotype. She doubted this was fair to Heidi, who’d learned to be Heidi as surely as her sons had learned to be Arnold and Dan…this jokey assessment that had raised a smile from Nola. (“You’re the smart one, Beloye.”)
How could anyone be fair to anyone?
Arnold’s eyes were asking her now, to listen and believe. “When we decided we couldn’t take any more, Nola left. She went to a motel for three days.” He sighed. “I can’t tell you. I felt like I’d been locked up in some lunatic asylum. And I didn’t know it until I woke up free. I could walk out the door of my own house and I didn’t have to… I didn’t have to answer five hundred questions. I didn’t have to run her goddamn errands. I could come back and the house was quiet. I could sit on the sofa and just think. Beloye…”
He put his hand on her arm again. “I would actually—not kidding—rather be in jail than go on living the way I had to live before. If it happened again…”
She had an awful vision… Arnold would bypass her and appeal to his mother, the three Tolhursts ganging up on her.
“You know,” she told him. “Our sofa is not a sleeper…”
“Beloye.” He tightened his grip…realized what he’d done.
Letting go but not apologizing, Arnold said, “Why do you go off on things like that? Are we talking about furniture? I’m asking you, keep out of this business with Stenner. Don’t let him come on to you.”
“Arnold, it’s not possible. Anyway, he’s not running away to Vegas with Nola, or some crazy thing. I have to see Stenner again.”
Well, because of the jacket. Arnold went pacing up the sidewalk. Beloye inched to the wheelchair ramp, a little desperate. He turned.
“Crazy! What do you think is going on in my house right now? You ever think about other people? Don’t tell me you have to see Stenner, you want to. Just like with Dan… What’d he do to you? Nothing. He lost his job. And you threw him out!”
“Arnold, I didn’t. Maybe that’s his story, thank you for asking me! And I let him come back.”
“Listen, who cares? I just want some help.”
“Arnold, I’m leaving.”
He had more to say, but Beloye was walking. She was nearly running. Arnold had raised a panic in her heart…he had infected her. She couldn’t work that day, she needed to sit down someplace. Frustrated at slow-moving people bent over their phones, spreading their bulk across the sidewalk, she slid past a bicyclist, found herself backed against the low concrete wall that edged Green Mount Cemetery, and sat. Like the sound effect for a nagging finger, the bicyclist’s bell rang twice.
She would need to call the office and tell them she was having a headache. In a minute it might be true. Months ago, Beloye had been alone. The apartment was hers. She came home and ate cereal for supper, if that was all she wanted. She talked out loud to Boz, kept the TV off. Threw her clothes on the floor, left dishes in the sink. Didn’t vacuum. Didn’t feel hemmed in… Cornered. So often these days, she wanted only to shut the bedroom door, sit in the dark, open the window, breathe air.
But she never thought about these things.
She never thought about Arnold, the shallow jerk. And yet they shared this…a thing strange in itself. This inarticulate, unfriendly man suffered as Beloye suffered; she might have talked, finally, like a friend to Dan’s brother, had she ever known—
But…all this…it couldn’t be helped. She would have to call Stenner.
She thought about Dan and Heidi. If she stopped paying rent, they would run out of money. They would have to pile in with Arnold and Nola, section off the basement, maybe, for a third encampment.
Other than a house, to which she no longer had rights, but for which she might have years yet to pay, Beloye had no obligations. She was free to walk away. Would Arnold walk away? Nola, if she had the guts, might take him to court.
But she would never.
Beloye could picture her almost-sister-in-law working a second job, supporting Heidi and Dan, scraping the last dime to make her own house payments. She could picture the Tolhursts drafting a story, one building in color and detail, in which old girlfriend Beloye, always the outsider, had started all this.
Their failure would become a family institution…but a powder keg rattling under increasing heat.
She had no choice. She had to call Stenner.