>>>FROM MALNIVEAU PRISON
The rain started with no warning. It had been dark for an hour by then, and the night had masked the accumulation of clouds. But once it began, the raindrops fell with such violence that everyone in Verargent felt oppressed.
After forty minutes of constant drumming—it was near eight o’clock, Tuesday, April 4, 1931—the rain eased some, settling into the steady spring rainfall that would continue throughout the night.
The rain’s new tenor allowed for other sounds. The baker, on his way to bed for the night, heard the lapping of a large body of water from behind his basement door. He shot back the lock, and rushed downstairs to find nearly two feet of water covering the basement floor. A gushing stream ran down the wall that faced the street.
Appalled, the baker rushed up the stairs calling to his wife. She hurried past him, down the stairs, to see for herself, as he went to the coat rack to retrieve his black rain slicker. This had happened before. Something blocked the gutter at the side of the street, and the water was redirected down their drive, flooding the basement. Somebody in Town Hall would hear from him in the morning.
He opened the front door and went out into the rain just as his wife arrived from the basement. The force of the storm pressed the hood of his slicker over his forehead. He hurried down the drive with his head bowed; rivulets of water formed long v’s on the packed earth beneath his feet. Now he’d be up much of the night bailing out the basement, and he had to be up at three-thirty to make the bread. The mayor would hear about this in the morning!
He reached the end of the drive, about twenty-five feet, and looked along the curb towards the opening to the sewer. The streetlamps were not lit, but there appeared to be a person lying in the gutter. The baker cursed all drunks.
"Hey!" he called, approaching the man, who was lying face down. The baker’s voice was almost covered by the rain. "Hey, you!" He kicked the man’s foot. There was no response. The street was dark. No one else was out in the storm. The houses across the way and along the street were shuttered. He kicked the man again, cursing him. Water still coursed along the drive towards his house.
His schedule was shot; tomorrow was going to be a nightmare. Then he noticed that the drunk’s face was buried in the water coursing around his body, and the baker felt the first flicker of panic.
He knelt down, soaking his pants leg. The rain felt like pins and needles against his shoulders. Choking back his discomfort, he reached for the drunk’s shoulder, and rolled him away from the curb so that he was lying on his back in the street. The drunk’s head rolled to the side. His eyes were open; his face was bloated. He was undisturbed by the rain.
The baker jerked back. The concrete thought: He’s dead! coincided with a gathering numbness and the uncomfortable beat of his heart in his throat. The baker turned, and hurried back to the house.
His wife, elbows cupped in opposite hands, held herself at the door. "Did you fix it?"
"Call the police," the baker said.
His wife went to the phone stand at the foot of the stairs. "You’re dripping on the floor; take off your coat."
"Call the police," the baker said, not explaining himself. "Call the police, call the police."
His wife raised the phone to her ear. "The line’s down. It must be the storm."
The baker turned and grabbed the doorknob.
"Where are you going? The basement..."
"There’s a man dead in the street."
>>>FROM THE FALLING STAR
The Hollywood Park Racetrack was on a large stretch of land south of Hollywood that had been fields five years before. The parking lot was a patch of dirt outside of the grandstand, a three-story high, shingled edifice painted white. It shone in the California sun and blocked the view of the track from the lot. People had been opposed to the legalization of horse racing in the state, afraid that it would bring with it organized crime, more alcoholics, and debt-ridden gamblers. They were right; it had brought those things. But the main investors in the track had not been gangsters. They were the Hollywood brass. The head of just about every studio had put money into the Hollywood races, and they came to watch as often as possible.
Inside the grandstand was a crowd of men who had nowhere else to be in the middle of a weekday afternoon. They lined up nine and ten deep at the twelve brass-barred windows where tellers took the money eagerly pushed through the bars and handed back slips of paper. Drifts of spent papers littered the floor, kicked and crumpled underfoot, ignored. There were large windows looking down into the horses’ stables so you could get a good look at the contenders. A large mechanical letter board of the kind used in train stations took up part of an enormous wall to the right of the tellers’ windows. It rattled through the names of horses, showing that day’s previous races in first, place, and show, with spots for the upcoming races left blank. Most of today’s races were already finished. Another board beside it showed the names of the horses in the next race and the odds. A chalkboard with the same information was posted in the tellers’ room, kept up to date by a small man in a gray suit. Ceiling fans worked at stirring the air overhead.
I looked at the harried tellers behind the counter, and took one step in their direction. I got dirty looks from no less than three of the marks, who didn’t want anyone getting in the way of their emptying their wallets. I turned and went the other direction, through one of the large open archways that led out into the stands. There was a lot of well-tended dirt in an oval around a lot of well-tended grass. The starting gates were being rolled into place. Several horses carrying bright-colored jockeys were stamping the track behind the gates. An amplified voice kept up a running commentary, listing the names of horses and the names of jockeys, goading people into placing bets. The grandstand was just under half full, the crowd thick down near the track and then spread out all along the upper seats. Above that, there were large windows open to the air. The V.I.P. section. I went back inside.
A white-haired Negro custodian in a blue uniform shirt and matching pants was using a rake to gather up the slips of paper on the edge of the crowd. He had a garbage can on wheels just behind him. He was unconcerned by the frenzy, and showed no resentment when a mark walked through his carefully collected pile. I pulled out a five as I approached, but then a second mark kicked through the Negro’s work and I switched it to a ten. I held it down near where his hands were on the rake so he would see it. He stopped scraping and looked up, causing creases to form in stacks on his forehead.
"Now I know you know I don’t take bets, officer," the Negro said.
I didn’t correct him. "Show me where the V.I.Ps sit, the owners, the studio brass. Upstairs, right?"
He turned his eye to my outstretched hand, still holding the ten, still without taking it. "The stairs are right over there," he nodded. "I know that’s not worth ten." He looked back up at me again, waiting for me to say what it was I wanted.
"I need in. I was told Daniel Merton was here. I need to see him. Is that enough?"
He nodded his head and took the bill. "You’ll need another one of those for the boy upstairs," he said.
I nodded. He led the way across the room. A race had started and the space around the teller booths was nearly empty. The door to the stairs was underneath the big board. It was a narrow steep set of wooden stairs that were painted green. The heat was bottled up inside and I began to sweat before we’d even climbed halfway. "You ever find a winning ticket in all of that mess?" I asked him.
"I never have," he said without turning around.
There was another door at the top of the steps under a naked light bulb. He went through, holding the door for me. We were in a kind of vestibule open to the air on both sides. I could tell by the sound that the race was already over. He went and talked to an identically dressed young Negro standing guard outside a set of double doors opposite the door we’d come through. The youth looked at me and then back at the old man and shook his head. The old man said something more and the youth shook his head again. I walked up. "What’s the problem?"
"Damn fool don’t know where his mouth is to feed it," the old Negro said.
The youth turned to me. "I can’t let anyone through these doors that’s not a founder. There’s no way to get in other than past me. I’d lose my job. What sense does that make, old man?"
I reached into my pocket and brought out another ten, my card, and a pencil. I turned the card over and wrote three names on the back. I held the ten and the card out to the youth. "Take this to Daniel Merton. Tell him I’m outside and that I’d like to talk to him. He’ll tell you to let me through."
The youth looked at the ten and looked again at the old man. Then he took the money and the card. "Don’t let anyone past," he said, and slipped through the door, which closed behind him.
"Kids today," the old man said, and headed off through the door to the stairs.
The echoing voice of the announcer continued its pitch. Better keep the patrons’ anxiety running high, right up to the last race. It was near on dusk now and the track would be shutting down soon. Then all of the winners and losers would cross to the strip of bars across the street, whether in celebration or to drown their defeat.
The door opened and the young Negro gestured me inside. "It’s the last one," he said stepping past me. He closed the door without even looking back.
It was a long narrow hallway with painted green doors every five to twenty feet. A brass number marked each door starting at one. There was no way to tell if any of the other boxes were occupied. I figured they were probably filled about as much as the grandstand, just below half. There was an unpainted door in the middle of the hall with no number that must have been the janitor’s closet. The last door was numbered fifteen and it had been left open.
It was a small booth. Just four chairs along the short wall at the front. The entire track could be taken in at one glance. There were telephone extensions on both sides of the booth at seat level for calling in bets. Merton was alone. He sat in the chair all the way to the left. He didn’t turn around.
I stepped between the two chairs on the right so that he could see me.
"Have a seat," he said, still without looking at me.
I left a seat between us. In profile he looked like a Roman emperor on an ancient coin. He wore a dark three-piece suit with a starched white shirt. The shadows were deep enough that I couldn’t see very much of him.
He didn’t say anything. Neither did I. The announcer’s quick patter announced that the last race of the day was about to begin. The horses were already at their starting gates. There was a moment of anticipation and then the sound of a pistol and the announcer cried, "They’re off." His voice then droned like a dentist’s drill, telling us what we were seeing. Merton kept his eye on the race but with an expression of indifference. I couldn’t tell if he had bet on it. The horses pounded around to the far side of the track, turning into miniatures. Then they came back around the bend, the clatter of their hooves only just audible over the crowd and the announcer. A red jockey and a green jockey were out a length ahead of the pack, which was bunched close enough that show could have gone to any of them. They barreled past where the gate had been. The red jockey eased his horse out ahead of the green one and they came into the finish that way, the third horse still half a length behind. The people in the grandstand started filing back towards the doors. There was a sense of deflation in the announcer’s voice.
Merton spoke then. It was the measured voice of a powerful man who had not yet decided to use his power. "What do you want?"
>>>FROM POLICE AT THE FUNERAL
I sat on the edge of the hotel bed trying to convince myself that I didn’t want a drink. The argument that it had been three months since my last drink—and that had only been one Gin Rickey—and almost seven months since my last drunk wasn’t very convincing. I tried the argument that I would be seeing Joe for the first time in three years, and Frank Palmer, Sr., the lawyer, and probably Great Aunt Alice too, so I should be sober when I saw them. But that was the reason I wanted a drink in the first place.
I glared at the mirror attached to the front of the bathroom door. I knew it was me only out of repeated viewing, but now, about to see my son, I saw just how broken I looked. My hair was brittle, more ash-gray than straw, and my face was lined, with crow’s feet at the corners of my eyes, sunken cheeks, and broken blood vessels across the bridge of my nose. I looked worse than my father did when he died, and he was almost ten years older then than I was now.
"You don’t want a drink," I said to my reflection. Then I watched as I sighed, exhaling through my nose, and my whole body sagged.
Why the hell was I back in Maryland, I asked myself, back in Calvert City?
But I knew why. It was time to pay Clothilde’s private hospital again. And I owed money to Hank Auger. I owed money to Max Pearson. I owed money to Hub Gilplaine. And those were just the big amounts, the thousands of dollars. There were all kinds of other creditors that wouldn’t be too happy to know I was three thousand miles from S.A. There had to be money for me in Quinn’s will. Otherwise Palmer wouldn’t have called me.
The door from the hall opened in the front room. It crashed shut and Vee appeared in the mirror, framed by the square arch that separated the rooms. "Don’t you just love it?" she said.
She was in a knee length sable coat with a collar so big it hid her neck. She wasn’t bad to look at normally, deep red hair, unmarked white skin, and what she was missing up top was made up down below. In the fur and heels she looked sumptuous.
"It’s the wrong season for that," I said.
She came forward. "He’d been saving it."
"I hope he’s planning to p— to give you more than a fancy coat."
"He’s paying for the suite." She opened one side of the coat, holding the other side across her body, hiding herself. But I could see that she wasn’t wearing anything underneath anyway. She slid onto the bed behind me, putting her hands on my shoulders. In the mirror, a line of pale skin cut down her front between the edges of the fur.
"He didn’t wonder why you weren’t staying with him?"
She faked shock, raising a hand to her mouth in the perfect oops pose. "I’m not that kind of girl," she said, and then she made herself ugly by laughing, and flopped back on the bed, her whole naked body exposed now, her arms outstretched, inviting me to cover her.
"You were just with him," I said.
"But now I want you. That was just business anyway."
I shook my head, my back still to her, although I could see her in the mirror.
She dropped her arms. "What’s wrong with you?"
"I want a drink," I said.
"Then have one."
"Forget what the doctors say." She was losing her patience. "You’d feel a lot better if you took up drinking again instead of always whining about it. Now come here. I demand you take care of me."
I looked back at her. She should have been enticing, but she was just vulgar. "I’ve got to go." I stood up.
"Like hell you have to go," she said, propping herself up. "You bastard. You can’t leave me like this."
"The will’s being read at noon. As it is I’ll probably be late. That’s what we’re here for in the first place, remember?"
"You pimp. I’m just here to pay for you. I should have stayed with him upstairs. At least he knows he’s a john, you pimp."
"If I’m a pimp, what’s that make you?"
"I know what I am, you bastard. You’re the one with delusions of grandeur."
I could have said, that’s not what she thought when she met me, but what would be the point? I left the room, going for the door.
She yelled after me. "You’ll be lucky if I’m here when you get back."
I went out into the hall. I should have left for the lawyer’s before she got back. I had heard her go through that routine more times than I could count, but it was the last thing I needed this morning. No matter how much she got, she couldn’t get enough. An old man couldn’t satisfy a woman like that. But when I first met her, I hadn’t felt old. She’d made me feel young again, and I hadn’t realized what she was until later. I wasn’t any pimp, I’ll say that, but a man’s got to eat, and she was the only one of the two of us working.
I took the elevator downstairs to the lobby. Instead of pushing through the revolving doors to the street, I went into the hotel bar. The lights were off since enough sunlight was creeping through the Venetian blinds to strike just the right atmosphere. It took my eyes a moment to adjust. When they had, I saw that I was the only person in the bar other than the bartender, who stood leaning against his counter with his arms crossed looking as though he was angry at the stools. I went up to the bar. "Gin Rickey," I said.
He pushed himself up, grabbing a glass in the same motion. He made the drink, set it on a paper doily, and stood back as if to see what would happen.
I drank the whole thing in one go. I immediately felt lightheaded, but it was a good feeling, as though all of my tension was floating away. I twirled my finger, and said, "Another one."
The bartender stood for a moment, looking at me.
"Room 514," I said. If Vee’s "friend" was paying for the room, he could afford a little tab.
The bartender brought my second drink. "Don’t get many early-morning drinkers," I said, picking up the glass.
"It’s a bad shift," he said.
"And let me guess. You worked last night too."
"Until two ayem."
I tipped my glass to him and took a drink. He watched me like we were in the desert and I was finishing our last canteen. I set the glass down, careful about the paper doily. "If you came into big money, I mean as much money as you can imagine, what would you do with it?"
He twisted his mouth to the side in thought. Then he said, "I’d buy my own bar."
"But this was enough money so you didn’t have to work again. You could settle down anywhere, or don’t settle down, travel all over."
"What would I want to leave Calvert for?"
"Get a new start. You said yourself you were miserable."
"I said it was a bad shift."
"Aren’t they all bad? Every last one of them."
He put his big palms down on the bar and leaned his weight on them. "No, they’re not. Are you finished with that? Do you need another?"
I waved him away. "When you’re a kid, you know how you dream you’ll be a college football star or a fighter pilot? How come you never dream of just being satisfied?"
"I like tending bar."
"Right." I drained the last of my drink, and felt composed, at least enough for the reading of the will, even with Joe there.
"Kids don’t know anything anyway," the bartender said. "What do you do, mister?"
"Nothing anymore. I was a writer."
"Anything I would have heard of?"
"Probably not," I said.
"You need another?"
I shook my head. I had a soft buzz on, and it felt good. It felt better than it should have. "Put the tip on the tab," I said. "Whatever you think’s right."
I shrugged. "I just came into some money."
I waved away his gratitude. It was making me feel sick.
I walked out of the bar and pushed my way through the revolving door in the lobby onto Chase Street. The August heat and humidity had me sweating before I got to George and turned south towards downtown. Calvert hadn’t changed much since Quinn and I lived here in 1920. Or was it ’21? The Calvert City Bank Building over on Bright Street that now dominated the skyline hadn’t been there, and there had been more streetcars instead of busses, but overall the short and stocky buildings of the business district were the same. I remembered when those buildings had seemed tall, after Encolpius was published and I suddenly had enough money to marry Quinn. Now Quinn was dead and Encolpius and all my other books were out-of-print and even Hollywood had thrown me out and my life would never be as good as that day here in Calvert thirty years ago.
I was one poor bastard. If I had known how much of our married life was going to be screaming at each other and trying to outdo the other with lover after lover, pill after pill, drink after drink, I would have—at least I hope...yeah, I would have called it off. Quinn knew how to make me jealous from across the room. It was only natural when I started stepping out. And there were the two miscarriages and then Quinn started bringing a bottle to bed and finishing it in the morning, so of course I did the same. It got to the point where I couldn’t think without something to get me going. We tried the cure, once in New Mexico, once in upstate New York, but it didn’t last long, and when we got to Paris, we didn’t care anymore, it was all-out war.
Copyright © 2012 by Ariel S. Winter.