One Good Turn...
A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
April 1930"Hey, fella, I need to get to my trash can. Go sleep it off somewhere else."
Ella Oransky planted her left fist on her hip, glowering at the unconscious man sprawled across the dented metal can tipped on its side. This explained the racket outside that had awakened them all early this morning: hers wasn't the only can knocked over with garbage spilling out, and the noisome aroma of rotting food, spoiled milk and other trash best left unmentioned filled the grimy alley. She wanted to throw out the bulging paper bag full of fishbones she held as quickly as possible.
The Danzigs' trash can was still upright, and for a moment she considered dumping her load there. But old lady Danzig was a loudmouth and the last thing Ella wanted was for Poppa to find out.
She gave the drunk a prod with her foot, hoping he wouldn't dirty her new shoes. She'd bought them especially for her interview yesterday in order to have some footwear that didn't have cardboard for soles. If this guy upchucked on them, she'd kill him then and there.
"Hey, mister!" she said more insistently, and shoved at a shirtsleeved shoulder which appeared moderately clean. The force was enough to roll him off the can and he landed on his back on the rubbish-strewn concrete with a grunt and moan.
"Holy cats," she exclaimed when his face came into view, for it was swollen on the right side and smeared with blood from a cut just across his left temple; his left eye was also blackened. He wasn't old, either, as she had first thought not much more than thirty, with thick dark hair.
The heck with it. She tossed the fish remains into the Danzigs' trash can and squatted at the man's side, shaking his shoulder.
"Cut it out, kid," he finally managed thickly. "I'm off your damned trash can, now leave me alone."
"Well, gee, pardon me for tryin' to help," Ella retorted, hurt, withdrawing and standing up straight, brushing off her skirt noisily in pointed commentary.
He attempted to rise, then fell back, wheezing. She had turned away, but at the sound of his labored breathing returned to his side. Despite her outwardly tough attitude, she'd always been a softy at heart, the kid who picked up stray cats and dogs off the street. "C'mon, fella, lemme give you a hand at least."
He didn't have much choice right then and allowed her to help him without protest, first to a sitting position, then upright, where he stood on shaky legs, bracing himself against the splintering, once grey-painted walls of the tenement house with one hand while rubbing his head with his right.
Now that Ella had a good look at him, she could pretty much tell he wasn't hurt severelyhe looked no worse than Poppa after one of his innumerable barroom brawls. And he was dressed fairly nicely, in a once pristine white silk shirt and tie, creased wool trousers, and black oxfords that had never seen the men's shoe department at Woolworth's.
"Whatcha doing in this neighborhood, mister, slumming?" she demanded tartly as he pulled a reasonably clean cotton handkerchief from his trouser pocket and wiped his face, wincing at the blood he saw there. She couldn't help feeling a bit defensive, standing in a trash-laced alley in her faded cotton skirt and a blouse Momma had made over from one of Paulie's shirts.
Now that he could see his guardian angel, he grinned a little. She was a tall girl, a real looker, with brown hair cut in a smart bob, full lips, her cheeks dabbed with a touch of rouge. Nice legs, too, he could tell, even under her full skirts.
Where was heas if he couldn't tell from the accent in her voice. Brooklyn, of course, the other side of Sheepshead Bay, and he'd been running a con on what had looked like a couple of rube investors. He'd underestimated those two badly, he knew, gingerly touching the stinging cut on his forehead.
"You okay?" Ella asked, concerned at his silence. Suddenly she wondered if he was one of those crazy guys, the kind that enjoyed beating up on folks. She started to edge away.
"Hey, hey..." he said, reaching out an unsteady hand. "I'm not going to jump you. Just trying to get my head clear."
His protest halted any further escape, but she stayed on the alert. "So what did you run intoor rather should I say who?" she continued.
He snorted. "A couple of sneak thieves. I deal in business shares. I thought I was working a sale with a couple of guys interested in investing in wireless transport. Instead they slugged me and took all my dough."
Ella made a cynical face. "C'mon, mister, who are you tryin' to snow? No one does legit business in this neighborhood. Who'd you try to con?"
She was a sharp one, all right. He grinned and she relaxedwho could be a nutcase with a smile like that? Of course he was as fake as a three-dollar bill, but she sensed nothing evil about him.
"Know the DelFusco brothers?" he asked, finally gaining the courage to step away from the wall. He swayed slightly and Ella caught his hand as her eyes widened at his words.
"You tried to snow Big Tony and Al the Gimp? Mister, you ain't no con man, you're tryin' to get yourself killed."
"Scott," he said.
"Not 'mister,' Scott. Scott Sherwood." He switched on as much charm as he could muster with a bruised mouth and a squint.
By this time his mind had begun to work; he couldn't risk going back to that hotel room, and there wasn't much there he needed anyway, just clothing that could be replaced. He smiled at the young woman with a now shy grinintended to melt her and asked, "I don't suppose there's somewhere around here a fellow could wash up before skipping town, is there?"
Ella wondered whether to fall for the lopsided grin or not. She finally answered, "Sure. You can come upstairs and use our kitchen. It ain't much, but it's clean. It's fourth floorthink you can make it?"
"Piece of cake," he returned, voice more assured than he felt.
She motioned him out of the alley. Around them neighborhood life was in full swing, small children goggling at them from the next stoop, people chatting outside the grocery across the street, signs over the nearby shoe repair store and butcher shop swaying in the strong early-summer breeze coming off the river. Somewhere in the distance they could hear the raucous bray of a street musicians's hurdy- gurdy.
Ella had her hand on the dented brass doorknob, about to push it open, when she stopped and eyed him. "Heyjust one thing. This ain't no...invitation, get it? You get funny, I know where to kick."
"Got it." Trying to wink at her gave him a headache.
The narrow, steep wooden stairs, walled on either side and with no illumination save from tiny windows on each landing, were almost too much for him, even with Ella supporting one arm. He forced himself to concentrate on placing one foot ahead of the other, although the overpowering scent of cabbage boiling at the landing for the second floor flat almost made him retch. By the time she opened the door into the apartment, he felt like he'd emerged from a coffin.
The stairs led directly into a kitchen that had definitely seen better days: the counters covered in faded oilcloth, a soapstone sink large enough to be used for laundry as well as dishes, a small icebox with an nearly overflowing pan, a black wood stove that had been converted to gas. The floor had once been wholly shellacked, but was now down to bare wood on the more highly-trafficked areas, and the green-sprigged yellow wallpaper was faded and pasted down at the edges. But the place was scrubbed to within an inch of its life, and a pot of coffee brewing slowly on a back burner gave the place a welcoming scent.
Ella disappeared down the hall for a moment to return with a rather threadbare, yellowed towel; a big square of strong soap already sat on the drainboard. She handed him the towel and then asked awkwardly, "You want like I should go into the other room while you wash up?"
"No, that's okay," he said.
While he scrubbed his face and hands with cold water and soap, she emptied the icebox pan out the back porch and wiped up the spill under the icebox before returning the pan.
"Say, you want something to eat? Momma bakes a mean coffee cake."
He wanted to say no, but something about her playing hostess, standing awkwardly next to him, her hands behind her back, stopped him. "Sure," he said, through the suds.
By the time he had finished scraping the dried blood from his hair and cleaning his bruised hands and arms, she had taken a golden-brown ring cake on a chipped willow plate from the cupboard, setting it on the big kitchen table, then poured two cups of coffee from the blue enameled pot and put out forks and two plates. The plates were mismatched and one was chipped; she had taken the coffee cup with the broken handle.
"Milk?" she asked, as if she was serving tea.
"I'll take it black, thanks."
She poured milk into her own cup directly from the bottle from the icebox, then selected a tarnished knife from a drawer and cut two slices of cake as he sat down. The chair creaked under him, but held.
"So," he asked, after sipping the coffee and tasting the cakewhich was, as she indicated, excellentyou live here on your own?"
She gave him a look that marked him as either a wise-guy or stupid, then pointed out the wall over the table. A family photograph hung there, evidently a recent one, as he recognized his benefactor immediately. She stood behind an older man and woman seated in a plush, Victorian-type loveseat; to her left were a young man and woman who looked a few years older than her, and to her right stood a younger girl in a middy dress who looked as if she were still in school.
"Pop's out...looking for work," she said, hesitating only slightly. "He got laid off from the Brooklyn Iron Works after the Crash. That's Momma next to him. She sews in a sweatshop down on Mulberry. She'll be home for lunch in about an hour." She pointed on. "Paulie, he's working in the Bronx, at the box factory, and Anna's got a place right down the street at the candy store." She smiled then, indicating the youngest. "That's our Amy. Momma calls her 'my late-in-life baby.' Anna picked out her name, after that Amy character, you know? In that book Little Women?" He didn't know, but he nodded politely. "We've been workin' hard to make sure she gets through high school. She's real smart, not like me, and she's takin' the business course to become a bookkeeper. She's been dreaming about it most of her life."
"How about you? Still in school?" he asked, with raised eyebrow and a grin.
Ella snorted. "Hello, Mister Blarney Stone. Nah, I flew that coop when I finished eighth grade. Just in time, too...couldn't make heads or tails of that algebra stuff. I got a job doin' errands for Mr. Schnitzel, at the glove factory. Then I found out they needed an organist down at the Bijou."
Seeing his surprised expression, she laughed. "My Grandma Lena taught me to play the organ from when I was just a kid. I'm pretty good at it, if I don't say so myself. Used to play for the silents, then the intermissions and the overtures when the talkies started. Wish I was still there."
"Why'd you give it up?" he asked, now curious, setting down his cup and propping his chin on his fist.
"Mr. Kasperwell, when the Crash came last October, he kinda went with it." Ella's voice choked for a moment. "Like right out a fifth-story window. He lost everything." She swallowed, recovered, her eyes downcast. "So there went that job. I been working with Momma at the shop, but I'm not fast enough. When you get paid piecework, that's the kiss of death. So I quit yesterday. Told Momma I got another job at a five and dime in the Bronx." She kept her eyes fixed on the scarred floor. "I...didn't really. My cousin Doris, she found me a better job. Dancing...you know, at a club...I mean, it's not a joint or nothin'..."
"Yeah, I know," he said to save her further stammering. He knew what type of club would give a girl with her figure a good job.
"Anyway, the money's a lot better," she answered defensively, ready to stare him in the eye again. "That lousy factory my brother works in only pays women 10 cents an hour. Four bucks a week don't go far. Doris said once I get the hang of performing the boss might give me $5 bucks a night!"
He was considering what to say for so long that she burst out, "And it ain't like that, either. Doris says sometimes the customers paw you a little, but they've got a bouncer and he takes care of 'em. The boss is a married manwith kids! He doesn't like that stuff."
"Hey, you said it wasn't a joint," he protested. "I believe you."
"Yeah, well..." He was finished with his coffee, so she rose to take both cups and the crumb-scattered plates to the sink and wash them off with a rag under the faucet.
"Say," she asked casually, "that cut on your head is still bleeding a little. Want I should fix it up for you? Hold on..."
He, the one usually not a loss for words, didn't have a chance to respond. She disappeared as swiftly as she had the first time and returned with a bottle of iodine and a wet rag and a dry one.
"Hey, you don't..."
"Oh, heck, don't worry. It really looks nasty, and I've done this lots of times when Pop..."
Ella shut her mouth. What on earth was she doing? First she'd told him about the new job when she hadn't had the nerve to mention it to anyone else, and now she was just about to go running on about Pop and the real reason they'd let him go at the Iron Works.
He had no predicament to talk his way out of, so he kept his mouth shut. It was evident from her deft handling of the washrag and how gently she applied the iodine that she'd patched up someone often. He suspected dad wasn't looking for work so much as warming up a barstool, which would account for the threadbare state of everything despite four people in the family working. Good thing she was a tough cookie; she'd have to keep up with it if that upcoming job was any indication.
"So how about you," she asked, finishing with her ministrations and backing up to check out the job. "I mean now that your scam fell through?"
"Go home for a couple of days, I suppose," he said, offhand, leaning back in the creaking chair. "I have an aunt who's kinda taken me under her wing. I'll see her, stick around a few days and help her out, tell her my boss was an unreasonable old goat who fired meI told her I was working for the City of New York in the public works departmentand she'll give me some traveling money and I'll find something else to do. Maybe now's the time to buy that boat." He smiled dreamily, almost to himself. "Been thinking of sailing around the world."
Her eyes widened. "Wow. You know how to sail?"
He shrugged. "Can't be too hard. Bound to be a book about it somewhere. Piece of cake."
Ella laughed. "You know, you're a real piece of work. I bet you don't know a thing about the ocean, either."
"And that's where you're wrong," he retorted, as spiritedly as if he were her brother. "I was in the Merchant Marine for four years."
"Really?" Ella sat back down, placing the iodine and rags on the table, her nursing duty forgotten in the appeal of hearing about exotic climes. "Did you see any of those foreign places like in the newsreels?"
"You mean like Havana, Caracas, Panama, Rio de Janeiro?"
Her enthusiastic response loosened his tongue. He'd loved an audience since he was a small boy, and despite the surroundings not being what he was used to, he felt comfortable in the warm kitchen and equally comfortable talking to this unpretentious, self-possessed young woman. And so he started the Rio story, which led into the Virgin Islands story, which lead to another, and another...
And then somewhere in the middle of the fourth, watching her smile and laugh, he realized he was getting too involved; not a good thing. It was time to go.
"Oh, will you look at the time!" he exclaimed, giving a quick glance at his watch. " I gotta hop a train in about an hour and still have to grab my stuff. Besides, better not to have to explain to your mother why you have a beat-up guy in your kitchen, right?" He stood up rapidly, still slightly dizzy, but managed not to sway. "Hey, thanks for rescuing me. And the cake and the coffee and the iodine."
She nodded, hiding her disappointment at the end of his tales, rising from the chair and offering him her hand. "It was my pleasure. Hey, you ever come back into town, I'll be performing at the Purple Kimono, okay?"
He nodded. "Purple Kimono. You betcha."
"And you take care of yourselfno messing around with guys like Al the Gimp again, okay?"
"Cross my heart," he lied, laughing. "You watch yourself, too." He moved toward the door, with her in tow. "Hey, no, I can show myself out. No use your walking all those stairs again."
"Yeah, thanks." she said, holding the door open as he started down the stairs. "Later, alligator."
"In a while, crocodile," he called back, voice echoing upwards as he clattered out of her life.
He realized only later, as he settled back into his seat in the swaying smoking car, his ticket courtesy the stash he always kept folded in his belt, that he had never even asked her name.
* * * * *
October 1935"You're late, Sherwood," Harry Bixley boomed.
Scott Sherwood smiled, the grin that had worked the world over. He was dressed to the nines for this guy, someone he'd heard about from his father. Harry Bixley was into oil wells, big time. And other investments. It was high time he had some connection with the Sherwood way of doing business.
"Give a guy a break, Harry," he protested, as his companion rose from his seat. Bixley was a big guy, over 250 pounds, and it took him a moment. "I was out there flirting with the hat check girl. Cute little number, isn't she?"
Bixley's saturnine face relaxed into a lecherous grin. "Oh, you'll find Eddie keeps a nice selection of 'cute little numbers' around here, Scotty. Specialty of the house. Come on, take a seat."
Scott settled down at the ringside table Bixley had reserved at the Sassy Cat. This was a fairly new club in San Diego, he'd understood, frequented by guys just like Bixley, who were willing to pay the admission priceand sometimes the bail billsto watch toothsome young ladies stripping themselves down to nearly nothing. The fact that Bixley wanted to meet here, instead of some hotel or restaurant, was a clear bonus in Scott's book.
A blond waitress was at Scott's side immediately. At least she took drink orders like a waitress; she was dressed like some confection in one of those French magazines newsstands sold "under the table," a low-cut pink top that accented her cleavage to great advantage, and shiny pink silk tap pants. Her alluring blue eyes were lined with kohl to make them even larger and bright scarlet lipstick outlined pouting lips.
"What's your poison, Sherwood?" Bixley boomed.
"Scotch, straight up," he answered, eyes not leaving the girl. Bixley laughed, ordered a Scotch and soda, and the waitress blew him a big kiss and hurried off.
"And you wanted to meet at the Vendome," Bixley chuckled, watching Scott's appreciative face. "Now, tell me, isn't this better than some stuffy hotel bar?"
"Much," Scott said, settling back in his chair. It was a small club, for select members; six of the dozen tables were occupied by men he could fleece of a couple of thou in investments in a moment. He smiled to himself. If he got that much out of Bixley, he was off to Europe in style. There was a liner sailing from Long Beach in three days that had connections in New York to Southampton; certainly enough time to get the cash and make tracks before Bixley's accountants found out the stocks were genuine, but worthless.
"So, H.B.," he said, leaning back, sliding a cigar out of his pocket with practiced ease, and clipping the ends before lighting it, "about these petroleum sharesyou can't go wrong-"
"Sherwood, surely you're not going to talk business here!" Bixley exclaimed. Just then the blonde returned with their drinks. She winked at Scott, then snuggled up to Bixley for a moment and whispered something in his ear. He laughed heartily and patted her backside. "Naughty girl. Maybe later."
Definitely a regular. "Well, H.B., I thought while we waited for the show-"
"Evenin', gents!" Scott was interrupted by the club's owner, a tall red-headed man in his forties, striding upon the stage. "Welcome to the Sassy Cat!" The scruffy jazz trio crowded at the foot of the stage burst into a rather half- hearted fanfare; it was evident that the customers didn't come to the Cat for its sterling musical acts.
The clientele burst into applause, Bixley loudest of all, as he asided to Scott, "Too late, boy. Relax and enjoy! You'll get your chance tomorrow at lunch to talk business. Tonight I just want to get to know Rand Sherwood's kid."
Scott grinned back at him, but chewed on the cigar restlessly. Another day...
The club owner had continued his introductions by listing the considerable charms of each of his dancers, including a new girlScott didn't hear her name because Bixley leaned over to him once more. "Hear that, Scotty? She's the one I'm here to see, the new one. Eddie's arranged for me to meet her after the show." He gave a wolfish smile. "See, I don't want to talk business before pleasure."
Scott arched his eyebrows and relaxed. Might as well not fight it. And maybe Eddie might have a lady for him as well; he had no problem with being closeted for the night with a pretty girl.
By the time the third acta girl with feathers and not much moreended and left the stage, he had the beginnings of a headache. He'd quit smoking during his year out at sea and gotten to enjoy the solitude, so the smoke and the noise had become overwhelming. Reacclimating would come slowly.
"And now, gents, the gal you've all been waiting for," Eddie boomed from the stage, "our newest purr-fect lady here at the Sassy Cat, Miss Maple LaMarsh!"
The spotlight irised to pure yellow, focusing on the crushed velvet curtains lining the back of the stage. They parted and a young woman stood posed...
The applause and whistles rose to a shriek. Scott couldn't blame them. She was gorgeous, stacked as all get-out, her blond hair piled in luxuriant curls on the top of her head. She was wearing a cut-down version of a man's tuxedo, only the trousers were sharply creased tap-pants, revealing two long, lovely legs that ended in shoes with three-inch heels. For a moment, Scott was almost envious of Bixley.
As she continued with her strip routinethe cane she whirled and swirled turned out to be a trick umbrella, with which Miss LaMarsh strategically pretended to cover anything too revealinghe began to feel bad for her, ending up stuck with a lech like Bixley. She was singing, in a damn good voice, a clever little song about a rainy night on a date, which she'd either written herself or paid to have written for her; it was far above the caliber he'd seen so far. She deserved better, a high-class night club, not a strip joint.
Plus there was the niggling feeling he'd met her before. Lord knew he wasn't celibate and would never claim to have been. But he was sure he didn't know her that way, and she wasn't one of his marks. Maybe he'd just been too many places, seen one too many pretty face.
Her set was over with a clash and flourish from the band, and with that came intermission. Bixley ponderously rose, trying to prink at his collar unobtrusively.
"Why don't you wait here, Scotty," he purred, in a chummy voice that seemed composed of equal amounts of sex and Scotch, "and hold our table while I go have a word with Eddie? Just want to see if my little assignation is still on."
Scott nodded and grinned at him, the facial equivalent of a sniggering slap on the back, then relaxed as Bixley disappeared. He closed his eyes, willing the headache away, as the jazz trio thankfully broke into something low and crooning.
After about ten minutes, he heard raised voices, one a woman's that sounded familiar, although he couldn't place where he'd heard it before. In a few more minutes, the raised voices were enough to make the crowd lower their babble and the jazz band silence.
"Look, I didn't say I was gonna put out for anybody," the woman protested loudly. "So lay off."
And with a jolt five years vanished and he remembered the Brooklyn girl who'd picked him out of the alley and dressed his head wound, fed him cake and coffee, told him about her family.
Days later he wouldn't recall just when he got out of his seat, or when he threaded his way through the tables of laughing, catcalling men to find himself backstage. He wouldn't even remember why he suddenly felt he had to see what was happening: surely "Maple"or whatever her real name was had known what she was getting into working in a place like this.
And hell, he had no room to talk. He'd accepted "services" like hers before.
But he knew that in all his life he'd never forced any woman to be with him. If they came, they came on their own volition, whether it was from attraction or remuneration.
The little drama was taking place in the wings: Eddie, his flaming red hair matched by a now equally flaming face; Bixley, his sagging jowls twisted in a furious scowl; and Maple herself, out of costume and in street clothes, pocketbook clutched in front of her like a shield, her expression one of anger and humiliation.
Eddie's voice had changed from the one he used on stage; it was lower, uglier. "C'mon, toots, stop playing round heel. You knew all my girls...treat our customers on the side. It's part of your job."
Maple's eyes widened. "You mean not only do you pick out some guy to drag me off, but I don't even get paid extra? Wow, that's generous of you, Eddie. Excuse me if I scram."
Bixley grabbed her arm as she wheeled and started for the stage door. "Where do you think you're going, honey? You can be angry at Eddie later. Tonight I've got dibs on your cute little caboose-"
Maple aimed a smart kick at him, but missed. "Get your paws offa me, you big baboon!"
Scott spoke up, his voice loud, but still with humor in it, "Give the kid a break, Harry. Eddie obviously didn't fill her in on the particulars. C'mon, we can find you someone else."
Bixley turned on his heel, his face apoplectic, his hand still tightly grasping Maple's upper arm. Despite the pain from his grip, she was staring open-mouthed at Scott.
"Keep your nose out of this, Sherwood," he barked. "I paid for this little lady's company tonight and I'm going to have it."
"Paid!" Maple yelped furiously, struggling, but Scott's voice, steady, deadly, overruled her. "Let her go, Bixley. She said no."
"Who asked you, mister?" Eddie growled, taking a step toward him. Scott pivoted, his fists cocked; Eddie backed down for a second, then yelled, "Marco! Get the hell back here." At the same moment, Bixley twisted Maple's arm, attempting to pull her away.
It was over before he knew it. Scott wheeled, landing one punch, then another, to Eddie's jaw, and the club owner went down like the king pin on a new set-up. He turned back to Bixley, using the leg moves he'd learned fighting dirty in Singapore, and the mammoth screamed and let Maple free, stumbling over his collapsing legs and landing sprawled face- first on the dirty floor.
"Run for it!" Scott yelled, and, three-inch heels and all, Maple did.
They bolted for the stage door, Scott blocking with his arm and then knocking down the one man who tried to place himself between them and the exit. He grabbed her hand and yanked her down the brick alley, then skidded left around the corner. They made it five blocks before collapsing, breathless, against a streetlamp that only weakly illuminated the show window of the candy store behind them.
"You gotta skip town," Scott wheezed. "Where's your stuff?"
"A coupla miles from here," Maple panted. "Over in a boarding house on Fifth."
"Anything you can't live without?
She stared at him, drawing in deep breaths of air to steady her breathing. Finally she admitted, "Not much. A coupla dresses, two pairs of shoes. I had some bad luck in Hollywood and was broke or-"
"-or you wouldn't have taken a job with Eddie the pimp. Yeah. Look-" A gypsy cab had just turned the corner and Scott jumped out in front of it. "You got somewhere you can go?"
"Kindabut hey, Eddie never even paid me for this week. I guess he was going to give it to me after I entertained Big Boy there..."
"Quit worrying." The cab had stopped, the driver watching them curiously. "Do you have a place to go?"
"Slow down, will ya? Heck, I don't know...there's my friend Sally Ann...I suppose-"
He glanced behind him, hoping he was only imagining the pounding of pursuing feet in the distance, then yanked opened the rear door of the cab and shoved her in, scrambling in behind her. "Bus station. And get a move on."
This might have been San Diego, but the cabbie had evidently learned to drive a few miles up the road in Los Angeles; when he made the next turn, Scott nearly found himself in Maple's lap. By the time they were disentangled, Maple had her wits back.
"It's you, ain't it? You're the guy from the alley Scott...whatsisname."
"Sherwood." He laid his head back. What did you know?the headache was gone.
And so was his deal with Bixley.
She looked at his face, chewing her lower lip, finally found the words. "Hey, I want to thank you for gettin' me out of there. I really, really didn't know Eddie...well, that Eddie's girls..."
"I guess he figured you were so hard up for a meal you'd cave in." Now that he'd caught his breath and wasn't looking at her in the heat of anger, he wondered how he hadn't recognized her from the start; she hadn't changed much except for the now-blond hairunless it was that she was even more attractive now than the day he first met her.
"Lemme tell you, I hope I ain't never so hard up I'll do that," she said angrily, crossing her arms in front of her. "Not that I'm Tess Trueheart, mind you, but...well, if I want to snuggle up with some guy, I'll make my own decision, ya know what I mean?"
"Yeah." He couldn't fault her on that; he'd done it five minutes ago, tossing a perfectly good scam out the window.
She smiled at him, her eyes grateful. And he grinned back. He had to admit it had been quite a ride.
Ten minutes later the cab stopped before the large bus station, its Trailways sign only half illuminated. Scott slid easily from his seat, circling the cab and helping Maple out. The night air was cool and she shivered; after paying the sour driver, Scott hustled her inside.
At that time of the night, it was almost empty, its large plain waiting room host to a dozen scattered travelers, mostly weary drummers, seated on the long wooden benches, some of them propping their feet on their suitcases. Maple, pocketbook still forming a barrier between her and the world, looked dazed. "Mr. Sherwood-"
"Scott," he amended.
"Scotty," she said urgently, "what are we doing here?"
His eyes darted around the area, spot-casing the occupants, only when he finished did he relax. "I thought that was obvious." He grinned. "Getting you out of town."
"I told you," she hissed, even though the nearest person was some distance away, "I haven't got any money. I'd just gotten in town and Eddie hadn't paid me-"
Scott shrugged. "I'll pick up the tab."
She pulled herself up, mouth set in a hard line. "Look, I already said I was grateful for what you did for me back there, but I ain't no charity case-"
"Aw, Mapes, don't be sore," Scott protested, reaching out to touch her shoulder. "Who said anything about charity? Consider it...a loan. Besides, I owe you one. You picked me up out of an alley, remember, fed me coffee cake, let me slop up your sink."
She licked her lips, started to speak, but he added, "And who knows? Five, six more years down the line, maybe you can do me a favor again."
He jerked his head toward the small lunch counter tucked in one corner of the station, between big billboards for Continental Trailways. "Come on. How about I treat you to a cup of joe and a sinker?"
She ducked her head, smiling shyly, "Yeah, okay."
The counterman, a dour, balding older man swathed in a white apron that looked a size or two too large for him, wordlessly took their orderScott a black coffee, hers with milk, as five years earlier, plus a couple of doughnuts from the pedestal display further down the counterand then went back to sweeping up and cleaning the grill and coffeepots as they chatted, oblivious to what was obviously a reunion.
"You remembered!" Maple laughed when he ordered her coffee. "Hey, didja ever get your boat?"
"Sure did," he responded, astonished that she had also remembered. "Prettiest little second-hand schooner you ever saw. I was out to sea a little over a year. Once I was washed up off the coast of Samoa and had to wait a week for help. Ever try to eat a barnacle?"
They sat, unmindful of the time, catching up on each other. Occasionally the loudspeaker would come up, announcing a new bus.
"So," Scott asked finally, "where's this friend of yours?"
"Sally Ann? She's in Chicago. You know, I got a letter from her before I started at the Cat, talkin' about this club she worked at. Guess I shoulda gone there, huh? But I figured I'd already promised Eddie I'd work for him. Boy, what a dope." She chewed on her doughnut for a moment, then made a face. "And I suppose if things don't work out in Chicago, there's always Pittsburgh...girl I worked with in New York says they're startin' a new burlycue place there, the Crimson Follies..."
"After what I heard tonight, you'd be a natural for it. I liked your song."
"Didja? This guy I met at the Purple Kimono wrote it for me. He was waitin' at the stage door one night-"
The loudspeaker scratched to life again, calling for passengers to Las Vegas, the first bus since they had arrived that was going East, leaving in fifteen minutes.
"Sounds like your cue, Maple," Scott said, rising from his stool and reaching for his wallet. "Ticket counter's over there. Here, let me give you a fifty to tide you over."
Maple stood up slowly, swallowed, licking her lips. "You know, Scotty," she said, one smooth, manicured hand reaching out to caress his shoulder, "I think we're safe. I mean...I don't think Eddie's gonna follow us herewe ain't really worth his time. And I'm sure there'll be another bus going East tomorrow. You know, I don't- I don't have to go anywhere tonight. I mean, you and me, we can...maybe get a room-"
Her hand wandered up, smoothing his hair, and Scott found himself imitating that swallow. She certainly was gorgeous, and it would be so simple to slip into her warm arms, reward himself for losing that deal... And then he saw her eyes.
That idiot Bixley. He'd gone looking for a floozy and could have had a ladymaybe not a lady by the standards of the DAR and the WCTU, but one nonetheless, one who always paid her debts.
As he moved forward as if to kiss her, he grunted audibly.
"You okay?" she asked, startled, her hand freezing before she touched his cheek.
"Yeah...kinda," he winced, reaching down and rubbing his right thigh. "When I went for Eddie, he got me first...well, let's say in a sensitive spot, if you know what I mean."
Maple bit her lip, coloring, and he added, "I'm afraid neither of us would have much fun. But...it's the nicest offer I've had in a long time."
She'd been watching him as he landed those punches on Eddie; he hadn't been touched. For a moment she was hurt, then she understood what he was doing for her. Tears blinded her and she ducked her head, not looking up again until she could control them.
"Walk me to my bus, maybe?" she asked shyly.
That he could do: he counted out the money for the fare at her side at the ticket counter, wordlessly handing her the change which she quickly tucked into her pocketbook, and then they walked outside to the curb, where the bus engine was already idling, filling the alley with smelly exhaust. The double doors of the bus were open and a grey uniformed driver stood slouched by them, waiting to take tickets. A young man carrying a big sample suitcase hurried by them, shoving his ticket at the driver before climbing into the bus.
"Not to be nosy," Scott asked, "but Maple LaMarsh isn't your real name, is it?"
"It is now," she said with a toss of her head. "I like it. Kinda sets me apart from everyone else."
Scott grinned. "As if you weren't one of a kind already." He gave her a chaste peck on the cheek. "Take care of yourself, kid."
The bus driver straightened up, yawning. Yet another drummer, this one older, with "Barton Mousetraps" stenciled on the side of his suitcase, boarded the bus.
"Guess I'd better get on, too," she said reluctantly.
She handed her ticket to the driver, and had just started up the steps when Scott called impulsively, "Say, Mapesyour sisterAmy, wasn't it? the one who wanted to be a bookkeeper- -did she make it?"
Maple turned, her face wreathed in a smile. "Sure did. Graduated mammary cum laude, too! And you know what? Six months later she married her boyfriend and now she's changing diapers instead of adding up change. Weird, huh?"
"C'mon, toots," the bus driver interjected. "I got a schedule to keep."
"Okay, okay, don't be a noodge. I'll see ya, Scotty. Say, if I want to say hi, you got an address I should write to?"
He fished in his wallet for a business card printed up back in the days when he was fairly flush; it was frayed around the edges, but it would work fine. "That's the aunt I told you about; she saves my mail. Me, I never know where I'll be."
"Sounds familiar, Scotty," she smiled, her eyes crinkling as she tucked the card into her pocketbook. "When I get settled, I'll send you an address, okay?"
"Lady," the bus driver protested, and she rolled her eyes at Scott before she disappeared into the bus.
He watched her take a seat near the frontshe looked out the window, wiggling her fingers in farewelland remained standing there as the driver shut the double doors and the bus pulled out, inching its way out of the narrow alley and onto the highway. Then he retreated into the men's room for a necessary stopas well as to check the contents of his wallet.
So much for that luxurious cruise to Europe. He mightif he watched his penniesmake it on to a small packet steamer headed through Panama and then on to New York, and then make it on a smaller ship to Europe, nothing more. And he'd have to sit in on a couple of good poker games during both voyages just to get some spending money.
He returned to the waiting room, thoughtful, his eyes drifting to the lunch counter where they had sat a few minutes earlier. And then he remembered the expression on Bixley's face as he'd lost his grip and gone crashing to the floor.
He grinned. The look of surprise on the fat weasel's face had been enough.
First things first: a ticket to Long Beach was in order. And then...well, "then" would take care of itself. It always had.
Still, he'd have to make it a point to get back to Chicagoor Pittsburghsome day.
After all, who knewit might be the best decision of his life.
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