Read an Excerpt
THE ESCAPE HATCH
“You don’t smile much, do you,” said the man next to me.
“Smiling gets me into trouble.”
“I’m sure it does.” His eyes wandered the length of my body, from my shoulders to my shoes. I wondered if he could tell that I’d faked my stockings and that my seams had been drawn on with an eyebrow pencil. I tucked one leg behind the other, hoping to hide my ingenuity.
It was Friday night and I was at the Five Star, sitting next to this nameless man who’d just bought me my second bourbon. Glancing at my fingers, peppered with paper cuts and ribbon stains, I closed my eyes, trying to ease the headache I’d had since Tuesday. A chorus of Smith Coronas striking letterhead and the ping of two dozen carriage returns going back and forth nonstop echoed inside my head. I had just survived my first week as a typewriter for the insurance offices of Schlemmer Weiss & Unger. The job was dull—a real flat tire—and the pay was lousy. Of the twenty dollars I got in my weekly salary envelope, eight had already been grabbed by my landlady when I stopped by the rooming house to change out of my work clothes. I didn’t know how twelve dollars would carry me until my next payday, but I refused to admit that my mother was right. I was eighteen years old. Other girls my age got jobs and lived on their own. They managed. I’d find a way, too.
I took another sip of bourbon. It went down easy, smooth as Coca-Cola. I’d been in only a handful of speakeasies but I could see why they were so popular. Everyone was smiling and laughing, having a swell time. From the get-go, anyone with half a brain could have told you Prohibition wasn’t going to prohibit a damn thing. It only added to the allure of that forbidden fruit. People who didn’t even like to drink before 1920 now knocked on unmarked doors, whispered their way inside and lingered over rows of gin and whiskey bottles lined up like tin soldiers. If the Volstead Act had outlawed chewing gum instead of liquor, what do you think we would have chomped on with our friends, spent our last dollar on, and kept hidden in our garters? We always want what’s just outside our reach.
But Prohibition and speakeasies aside, I was no stranger to liquor.
“Good lord,” the man said, shaking his head, “how the hell can an itty-bitty dame like you drink so damn much?”
I wasn’t all that itty-bitty, not really. If I’d been standing, he would have seen that I was five-foot-three. But I was skinny. My body was as straight and sleek as my hair, which I wore bobbed to my chin with a thick row of bangs. Between my jet-black hair and dark eyes, made even darker thanks to my kohl eyeliner, I had that modern look, and it wasn’t lost on men like the one sitting next to me.
“I’m serious,” said the man. “How’d a little lady like you learn to drink like that?”
“My mother,” I said, swirling my bourbon in my glass. “She soaked my pacifiers in schnapps when I was a baby so I’d fall asleep.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” He knocked back his drink and fished a cigarette from the crumpled package peeking out of his breast pocket.
I finished that round with him, slid off my barstool and went looking for Evelyn. I was bushed and ready to go home. As I teetered across the wooden floor, I knew it was too late to rethink that second bourbon or the meager bowl of soup I’d regarded as dinner. I perched my hand on the wall to keep the room from tilting.
The Five Star was packed, everyone sardined in, standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Couples filled the dance floor, doing the bunny hug and the Charleston while the South Side Jazzers played onstage. I went upstairs and found the second floor was just as crowded. Cigarette girls roamed the room in their short skirts and top hats, peddling trays of Lucky Strike cigarettes and White Owl cigars. Clouds of smoke floated above the blackjack tables manned by dealers dressed in red vests and matching bow ties.
Off in the corner, I spotted Evelyn by the slot machines, standing alongside a man with an unlit cigar jammed in his mouth. She’d been end-of-the-week beat when we’d arrived but not anymore. Each time the man pulled the one-armed bandit, she jumped up and down, her long brown spiral curls bouncing as she clapped, hoping the cherries lined up.
I accidentally bumped into a man at the craps table who had a floozy on either side of him. I apologized without really looking at him. It wasn’t until after he threw the dice and his girls gave off an exaggerated round of “Awwwwwwws” that he got my attention. Tall, fit, and with his necktie askew and shirtsleeves rolled up, he had a slightly rumpled look about him that only truly handsome men could get away with.
“Can’t win ’em all, can you?” he said, giving me the once-over along with a mischievous grin, a kind of wonky, self-assured smirk no doubt prompted by the scores of innocent hopefuls who’d preceded me. It was men like him who ruined it for the next guy who came along. And there’d be the next one and probably one after that, because men like him were never anyone’s last stop on the road to happily ever after.
I was exhausted and not about to give him the satisfaction of knowing he was as good-looking as he thought he was. “Better luck next time,” I said, and turned to walk away.
“Hey, not so fast, doll.” He grabbed my hand, and it touched off a spark I wasn’t expecting. “I was winning until you showed up. What’s your rush?” He flashed that smile of his just as a few locks of hair fell forward onto his brow. Soft brown, the color of chestnuts. “If you don’t mind my saying”—he leaned in closer—“you’re a beautiful-looking woman. You must be a model.”
“Oh, c’mon.” I laughed and rolled my eyes. “Can’t you feed a girl a better line than that?”
“Okay, then how about an actress?”
“Please—do girls actually believe you when you say things like that?” I crossed my arms, hoping to stop my urge to reach over and brush that lock of hair aside with my fingertips.
“C’mon,” he said. “Let me buy you a drink. What’s your name?”
“Vera.” I looked over at Evelyn. She was still with that man at the slots, and there was no way she’d be ready to go. She’d no sooner leave his side than he’d leave a hot machine.
Even though I’d had those two bourbons already, I agreed to let him buy me a drink. He introduced himself as Tony Liolli and boy, I could tell right off he was some operator.
We had almost made it to the bar when a red light overhead flashed and an alarm sounded. I flinched, it gave me such a start.
Tony put his arm down like a crossing gate in front of me. “Oh, goddammit!” The alarm sounded again, longer this time.
“What is that? What’s happening?” I gripped his arm, sobering up fast, thinking the place was on fire. My heart was racing.
“Raid!” someone shouted. “It’s the feds! Raid! Everybody clear out!”
All at once people began hollering as they shoved past us, rushing toward the stairs. A dealer rammed into me, nearly knocking me over, while he and another barkeeper raced around, trying to get rid of any traces of liquor. I saw one of them pull a handle on the side of the bar and all the bottles on the shelves went whoosh and disappeared through a trapdoor. Two other men bolted past me, grabbed hold of the bar and flipped it upside down, making it look like an innocent hutch. Within seconds all the slot machines were spun around; their flip sides were disguised as bookcases.
“C’mon, we gotta get out of here.” Tony grabbed my hand and weaved me through the crowd, heading for the doorway. The alarm blasted again and again while everybody charged toward the staircase, knocking tables and chairs out of the way. I trampled over someone’s lost fedora and nearly tripped on an abandoned pocketbook.
“Wait!” I turned around, my heart pumping like mad. “Where’s Evelyn? Evelyn!”
“Who the hell’s Evelyn?”
“Evelyn. My roommate.”
“Forget Evelyn,” Tony shouted back, “unless you wanna see the inside of a paddy wagon.”
After one last look for my friend, Tony and I were on the move, working our way toward the front, when the direction of the crowd suddenly reversed and people started backing up, rearing into one another. The feds were heading in, and everyone who’d been trying to get down the stairs rushed back to the main room. A heavyset man wearing too much cologne stepped on my foot just as the agents burst inside with their whistles blowing shrill, high-pitched chirps.
“C’mon,” Tony said, pulling at me. “Over here.” He moved fast, yanking me toward the back of the room. When we dead-ended into a concrete wall, I froze. But Tony grabbed hold of a brass knob and turned it, and the wall slid to the right. It was just a facade concealing a rickety staircase. The dealers, barkeepers, waiters, and even the cigarette girls crowded in behind us.
I took one last desperate look around for Evelyn. “Evelyn? Evelyn!” It was no use.
Tony herded me and a dozen others down the stairs. There was no railing and not much light until we made it to the first-floor landing. Tony and another man unlatched a second doorway that led to another flight of stairs. We heard screams and cries coming from the upper floors. It sounded like a stampede.
When we reached the basement, Tony guided us to a long, narrow tunnel littered with garbage, smashed beer and whiskey bottles. It smelled of urine, and God knows what else. I began to tremble. I couldn’t see much, but I knew we must have somehow entered the sewer tunnel. Something scurried across the floor and I yelped, watching a long, skinny tail whip back and forth before disappearing into the shadows.
Tony hustled the cigarette girls and the other men toward the tunnel’s opening and one by one they vanished into the darkness. It was my turn. “Go on,” he said when I hesitated. “I’m right behind you. Go!”
It was freezing and though the air was stale and sour, I gasped for breath. The tunnel grew narrower, and something was dripping from above, landing in my hair and on my shoulders. I heard the sound of shoes sloshing through the water on the floor as the others made their way ahead of us. With each step, more filthy, icy water seeped in through my soles, soaking my toes.
Each time I asked Tony where we were, he said, “Keep going. Don’t stop, Vera! C’mon!”
“Okay—all right! I’m going, I’m going!” My feet inched along in the darkness, my fingers grazing the dripping, crumbling tunnel walls. The water was up to my ankles now and I could barely feel my feet; my toes had long since gone numb. Deeper into the tunnel, the shadows began to fade, eventually vanishing until everything became the blackest of blacks. I couldn’t see my hands in front of me. The wall was all I had, my only source of reference. I was surrounded by the sounds of sluicing water and rodents scratching and scurrying about. If Tony was still behind me, I had no sense of him. I was alone in that endless blackness, shuffling and groping my way forward.
When I thought I couldn’t take one more step, I heard the purr of automobiles and the rumble of the streetcars overhead. Shadows of the others came into view as we worked our way toward another set of stairs. A haze of light flooded down and I raced ahead, splashing through the sewer water.
Once I made it to the top, Tony was right behind me. I couldn’t believe where we were: We ended up on the sidewalk directly across the street from the Five Star. Paddy wagons were parked in front and federal agents were everywhere. I saw handcuffs on the man who’d bought me the bourbons earlier. He was being loaded into a paddy wagon along with everyone else who hadn’t made it out in time. I did another frantic search for Evelyn. Oh, God, please don’t let her be arrested. What if the feds had her? How would I get her out of jail? It took money to do that and twelve dollars was all I had to my name. Evelyn, where are you!
More people were hustled into the paddy wagons while others raced past us up and down the sidewalk, distancing themselves from the action.
Tony checked his pocket watch. “Think you’ll be all right now?”
“You’re leaving?” My voice went up an octave and I shivered. Goose bumps freckled my damp arms and legs. It was December, my feet were soaking and my coat was being held hostage inside the Five Star.
“I wouldn’t stick around much longer if I were you.”
“So you are leaving?”
He leaned over and kissed my cheek. “See ya ’round, Vera.”
“Yeah. Sure. See you ’round.” I stared at the tops of my waterlogged shoes. I was standing like a schoolgirl, pigeon-toed. I saw where the sewer water had washed away the seams I’d drawn on the backs of my calves. When I looked up again, Tony had already disappeared around the corner.
Don’t you dare cry. Do not!
Suddenly I spotted Evelyn halfway down the block, standing beneath a streetlight, hugging herself to keep warm. I began to breathe again. She searched up and down the street like a child lost at the fair, strands of her long brown curls blowing across her pale face.
“Evelyn! Hey, Ev!”
She saw me running toward her and raced in my direction. We collided, throwing our arms around each other, half laughing, half crying, both of us talking at once.
“Oh my God.” She clasped a hand over her heart. “How did we end up in the middle of a raid?”
“I can’t believe what just happened.” I was so relieved, I hugged her again. “C’mon, let’s get the hell out of here.” I reached into my pocket for a dollar bill, waved it in the air and flagged down a taxicab.
DIAMONDS AND GEMS
A few weeks later, Evelyn sat on the side of my bed shaking me awake like she did most mornings. “C’mon, get up. It’s ten after seven.”
I groaned as I opened my eyes. It couldn’t possibly be morning already.
I’d recently taken a second job so I could make ends meet. One of the girls in the rooming house had told me about it. Said I could earn two dollars a night modeling jewelry for a man who worked fancy parties for Chicago’s elite.
The two dollars I’d been promised turned out to be a buck fifty, but I needed the money. That extra seven fifty or ten fifty a week, depending on if I worked every night—especially during the holiday season—meant I didn’t have to choose between making my rent and going to bed hungry. Plus, I got to wear pretty dresses and real diamonds and pearls. Working those parties put me smack in the center of a lot of impressive, glamorous people and you never knew who you’d meet. The day after a party I’d always see the photographs all over the society pages. Once I even managed to get myself in a picture. I recognized the dress first and realized the shoulder and back of the head belonged to me. I clipped the photograph and tucked it up in the corner of my mirror. Someday, I told myself, I would be important enough to be the subject of a society page photograph.
“I didn’t hear you come in,” Evelyn said. “Was it very late?”
“After one.” I yawned. “I missed my train and had to wait forty minutes for the next one.”
“Poor thing.” Evelyn bent down and stroked my hair. She didn’t need to work a second job. She was a faster typist than I was and the best speller among us typewriters. Mr. Schlemmer insisted she proofread his most important documents, even if another girl had typed it. That right there made her weekly pay envelope ten dollars thicker than mine. Not that I begrudged her. She’d helped me plenty, lending me a dollar or two when I came up short, and it wasn’t as if she had much to spare.
“C’mon, now,” she said. “You have to get up! You’ll be late.”
“I’m always late.” I rolled onto my back and rubbed my eyes with the heel of my hand.
Grabbing her toothbrush, Evelyn slung her towel over her shoulder and shuffled down the hall to the bathroom we shared with the other girls on the floor.
Evelyn Schulman and I had been best friends from the time we were seven. Hers was the house on the corner, the big one with the steep front steps. Evelyn’s father owned a sporting goods store on Grand Avenue and all five of the sisters had matching bicycles, lined up one after another on their front lawn. I was jealous—not of the bicycles, but of Evelyn for having all those sisters. I didn’t have any sisters or brothers. I didn’t even have a father. He died when I was four years old. They found his body behind a saloon on Whiskey Row. His head, hands and feet were missing. Butchered like an animal. My mother never talked about his murder. She’d never used that word or even said out loud that he’d been killed. When she did speak of him it was always followed by, “May he rest in peace.” She acted like the rest of it hadn’t happened. But whether we called it by name, whether or not we acknowledged it, I slept with a light on until I was fifteen. I kept a lookout, leery of unfamiliar motorcars parked outside our house and strangers coming down our sidewalk. That was how I spent the bulk of my childhood: keeping watch, waiting for and expecting something else to happen.
Growing up it was just my mother and me, and Evelyn, my chosen sister. When we turned sixteen, our mothers sent us to the Queen Esther dances. Every Saturday night in the summertime they held dances outside the synagogue, beneath a big white tent. The music was never any good and the boys didn’t know how to do the bunny hug or the black bottom. But still, we went week after week, until my mother heard that I’d been spotted behind the tent, sitting on a crate with my skirt hiked up to my knees, smoking cigarettes and playing five-card stud with a group of boys. That was the last Queen Esther dance for me. My mother was angry but not surprised. She was used to me stirring up trouble. By the time I turned fifteen I was sick of being too afraid to live. That’s when I got busy, making up for lost time. There was newfound freedom in acting daring and bold, taking risks and seeing how much I could get away with.
I must have dozed off again, because the next thing I knew Evelyn was standing over my bed. “It’s half past seven. C’mon. You’re not even dressed yet.”
I dragged myself out of bed, chilled as soon as my bare feet touched the hardwood floor. There was a draft coming in through the window where it didn’t seal all the way. Our room was cramped, barely big enough for our twin beds and a set of bureaus. The faucet in the bathroom down the hall dripped, the boiler in the basement clanked all winter long and everywhere you looked paint was chipping and peeling.
Evelyn and I had moved in six weeks before. We’d both recently turned eighteen and had wanted out of our parents’ homes. Evelyn’s parents were strict, setting curfews fit for a child, not letting her wear makeup or date college-age boys. And I knew that unless I wanted to end up like my mother—alone and chained to a miserable family business—I had to get out of her house. So even though I was stuck in a dilapidated shack, it was still better than living with my mother. Especially since she was the main reason I’d moved out in the first place.
I dressed quickly, changing from my nightdress into a white shirtwaist and long black skirt. It was exactly the same outfit Evelyn had on, the same as all the other typewriters would be wearing that day and every day. I supposed since they called us typewriters it made sense to dress us like a bunch of Smith Coronas.
With three minutes to spare, Evelyn and I marched into the building and took our places at the insurance offices of Schlemmer Weiss & Unger. I yawned off and on until noon, and while the others ate lunch in the cafeteria, I curled up on a chair in the back and napped, the wooden slats pressing into my spine. I was more tired than hungry and besides, a bowl of barley soup cost a quarter. A roll with butter was a dime. Coffee was another nickel on top of that. If you wanted applesauce or gelatin, that was another dime. I figured by skipping lunch I could save two dollars and fifty cents a week. Besides, I could usually sneak some appetizers later at whatever party I was assigned to.
At five o’clock, I said good-bye to Evelyn and the others and headed from the Loop toward the Drake Hotel on Michigan Avenue. I was scheduled to work a Christmas party in the grand ballroom for a prominent law firm. Hopefully the hotel would be swarming with successful, eligible bachelors. But all I could do was look and not touch. At least not while I was working. My job was to walk through the party, smile and hand out Mr. Borowitz’s calling card to anyone interested in purchasing his jewelry. I wasn’t to speak unless spoken to, and I wasn’t, under any circumstances, to discuss the jewelry or the prices.
When I reached the el platform, I found myself crowded in between rows of businessmen and factory workers, shopgirls and office clerks. The first train arrived and before I could inch my way toward the front of the line, the cars filled up and the doors closed.
I had time and decided to walk despite the cold wind coming off Lake Michigan whipping around and through me. Even in between gusts, I had to hold my hat in place. The sidewalks were crowded with holiday shoppers darting in and out of stores, their arms loaded down with parcels. The traffic was backed up to the bridge at Wacker with drivers blasting their horns as pedestrians weaved in and around the automobiles.
When I made my way down Michigan Avenue and arrived at the Drake, a footman, dressed in his red-and-gold uniform, held the door for me as I crossed from one world into another. I paused for a moment, rubbing the chill from my hands as I took in the garlands, the wreaths and glittery decorations on the walls. The clamor of motorcars and trolleys was replaced by the delicate clinking of crystal goblets and silver tines on bone china. The dark, winter cold was overcome by the warm hum of a healthy furnace and the glow of chandeliers hanging overhead.
Downstairs in the chambermaids’ quarters, I changed from my typewriter clothes into the blue silk dress waiting for me with my name pinned to the sleeve. It was a swell number and flowed off my shoulders like it was made for me. The hem was one of those handkerchief styles that showed my kneecaps when I walked. They even gave me a pair of matching shoes with a two-inch heel. Though my cheeks and nose were still red from the cold, I applied rouge and some lipstick. I brushed my shiny, inky black bob into place, smoothing down my bangs to cover the faint chickenpox scar above my right eyebrow.
When I was ready, I went upstairs to check in with Mr. Borowitz, an oversize man whose thick, fleshy neck doubled down, overlapping his collar. Three other girls were ahead of me and he carefully draped them in earrings, necklaces, brooches, cocktail rings and bracelets. I stood still while he trimmed me as if I were a Christmas tree, reaching over and pinching a diamond earring onto each of my earlobes before he finished decorating me, sliding an emerald bracelet onto my wrist and topping me off with a matching necklace. It was always a thrill when I heard the clasp lock into place. It meant those jewels were mine—if only for a few hours.
This was my favorite part of the job. After I was dressed and wearing my jewels, just before the guests arrived, I had five or ten minutes to wander through the busy hotel. Nobody knew that dress didn’t belong to me, and that I didn’t have ten others just like it hanging in my wardrobe back home. Nobody knew the gems weren’t mine, either. As the heels of my loaner shoes clicked against the marble floor, I felt people watching me and in that moment I could be anyone I wanted to be.
Each night I tried on a new identity along with the gown and jewels. Sometimes I’d be a famous chorus girl—a Ziegfeld girl, or a moving-picture star like Clara Bow or Lillian Gish. Sometimes I’d pretend I was the daughter of a banker or a wealthy industrialist. Other times I was just famous for famous’s sake, the type of woman men fought over and women envied.
At seven o’clock the band began playing a jazzy number, The Uptown Stomp, as we girls took our places inside the ballroom, trying to appear as inanimate as the gilt-framed portraits on the walls. A giant Christmas tree, with gold and red ornaments, stood in the corner of the room, its lights twinkling as the guests filtered in. The men were dressed in tuxedos with top hats and carried walking sticks; the women glistened in beaded gowns and matching cloche hats. They puffed on cigarettes and sipped champagne, their glasses kissed with ruby red lipstick. They flitted and fluttered while waiters worked through their effervescent wake, holding silver platters of pastries filled with crabmeat, butterflied shrimp, and deviled eggs topped with dollops of caviar. When no one was looking, I grabbed a few.
A photographer asked me to step aside while he arranged a group of couples standing to my left. After squaring one man’s shoulders, he asked another man to crouch down while scooching his date in closer. I imagined myself as part of this group, mentally inserting myself into the shot, taking my place between the two men, looping my arms through the arm of the taller one, my fingertips gently caressing the fabric of his expensive suit. After adjusting the bellows of his camera, the photographer told them to smile as he raised his flash bag and—poof—released a burst of light and smokeless powder into the air. As soon as he was finished, the cluster of couples dispersed like billiard balls after a solid break. I desperately wanted to follow them.
The band struck up a new snazzy number and I watched as more couples crowded the dance floor.
“You look like a gal who’d like to dance,” said a short, stocky man wearing a crooked bow tie and a Santa hat. He pointed at my shoes.
I didn’t realize I’d been tapping my foot to the music. “I’m afraid I’m working here tonight.”
“Oh?” His mouth dropped open as his hand reached up and pulled off his hat. “How much is a dance?”
“Oh, no.” I shook my head. “God, no. Not that kind of working.” Before I realized I’d just been insulted, I opened my silver card case. “That’s my boss,” I said, pointing to Mr. Borowitz’s name on the card. “He’d pitch a fit if I started dancing, but thank you anyway.”
After he’d replaced his Santa hat and moved on to the woman behind me, asking her to dance, I returned to my rigid modeling pose.
A young couple, looking like they’d just stepped out of a Marshall Field’s display window, stopped to inquire about my necklace. I listened as they debated whether it was the right length and size for a particular gown the woman was planning to wear to a New Year’s Eve ball. Evidently they weren’t sold on the necklace they’d seen earlier at Cartier. The woman was about my age and I would have bet good money that she’d never worked a day in her life. No doubt she thought the handsome, wealthy man on her arm was her birthright. I would have killed to slip inside her skin for just a day. Hell, just an hour. What did it feel like to have no worries beyond choosing a piece of jewelry that some rich man would buy for you? While they contemplated the necklace, a waiter appeared with a fresh tray of deviled eggs. My stomach growled as they both helped themselves, balancing their eggs on the embossed cocktail napkins.
“Exactly how much is this necklace?” the man asked.
As instructed, I opened my silver card case, and as I handed him Mr. Borowitz’s card, someone pinched my behind. I spun around, only to find half a dozen men within pinching distance who would look neither at me nor at my bottom.
“Oh, sweetie,” said the woman to me, fisting up her napkin, “would you be a dear?” She placed her dirty cocktail napkin in my hand. I glanced at the napkin and back up at the woman, searching her heavy-lashed eyes, hoping she’d rethink the request. But all I got was a dismissive smile. I made my way to the opposite side of the room, pitched the napkin and snatched two canapés from a passing tray.
The band continued to play as couples moved about the dance floor, spilling drinks and filling the air with clouds of cigarette and cigar smoke. It wasn’t in my nature to stand back and watch the others having all the fun. Time seemed to pass slowly but finally the party was over and I went downstairs to change into my work clothes, which always felt rough against my skin after I’d been clothed in real silk. I had replaced the good wool coat that I’d lost in the Five Star raid with a secondhand wraparound. It had a torn lining and a hole in the pocket that I kept forgetting to mend. I’d lost a lipstick that way, and my favorite hair comb.
Upstairs in the lobby, Mr. Borowitz helped me off with the bracelet and the necklace. It wasn’t until I went to unclip the earrings that I realized one of them was missing. While Mr. Borowitz impatiently tapped his foot, the panic grew inside me. I scoured the floor and patted myself down from my ears to my hips, but the earring was gone.
“You’d better hope to God you find it,” Mr. Borowitz called after me as I went to retrace my steps.
I returned to the ballroom, frantically asking the waiters whether they’d seen the earring, checking with the musicians as they packed up their instruments. I went back to the chambermaids’ quarters. I checked inside my shirtwaist, inside my skirt. I shook out my wrap coat and emptied my pocketbook. I scoured every inch of the vanity. Sweat broke out along my forehead as I went back to Mr. Borowitz to explain that I couldn’t find it and apologize.
“You’re damn right you’re sorry. Do you have any idea how much those earrings are worth? Two hundred bucks! I knew the minute I laid eyes on you. I should never have trusted you. You probably stole it, you—”
“Hey!” My voice echoed off the marble floors and ceiling, loud enough to shut him up. I was so angry I was shaking. “That’s enough! I’m not a thief. It was an accident. I said I was sorry. You want to fire me? Fine. Go ahead and fire me. But don’t you dare accuse me of stealing. And besides, if I was going to steal your damn earring, don’t you think I’d be smart enough to take the whole pair.”
I heard someone behind me clapping. “Well done, young lady.”
I turned around and there was a man coming toward us. He was beautifully dressed in a double-breasted pin-striped suit with a gold watch chain hanging down. His dark hair was parted in the center and slicked back with brilliantine, revealing a lovely widow’s peak that pointed like an arrow toward his strong, straight nose.
“This is between me and her. Stay out of it,” Borowitz said before turning back toward me. “You owe me two hundred bucks, girlie!”
“I said it was an accident!”
“I want my two hundred bucks!” Borowitz was going red in the face.
“Two hundred?” asked the man with the widow’s peak. “Was that two hundred dollars you said?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash thick as a fist. I didn’t blink once, watching as he peeled two hundred-dollar bills off the top. Stuffing them into Mr. Borowitz’s breast pocket, he said, “I think that ought to cover it.”
My jaw flopped open and before I could thank him, the man turned to me and said, “You seem like a nice girl. Go home.” He reached into his pocket again and put a five-dollar bill in my hand. “It’s late. Take a taxicab.”
“But”—I held out the bill to him—“you’ve already done more than—”
“Take the money.” He reached over and closed my fingers around it. “It’s cold out there tonight.”
I stared at my clenched hand and when I looked up, the man with the widow’s peak was walking out of the Drake with his arm draped over the shoulder of a sensational-looking blonde. Lucky girl, whoever she was. She had a good man looking out for her. You just knew nothing bad was going to happen to her as long as she was with him. God, how I wanted to know what that felt like. This wasn’t envy; it was honest-to-goodness longing.
ENTER IZZY SELTZER
I lined my eyes in front of the mirror, making them dark like the models in the fashion magazines. Evelyn and I were getting dolled up for a Saturday night on the town. It was my first day off in a week after taking a new job working the late shift as a switchboard operator. I made seventy-five cents an hour and had Saturdays and Sundays off. Because I had to work Monday night—and that was New Year’s Eve—Evelyn and I decided we’d bring in 1924 a few days early.
Evelyn took a roll of bandages from her bureau drawer and wrapped them around her breasts, smashing herself down in front. Thank God I was flat-chested. I would have hated doing that. I couldn’t have worn that rubber reducing girdle of hers, either. The ads said it melted away excess pounds, but all it did was make her sweat. And really, Evelyn wasn’t fat. She just had those big boobs, but she didn’t need to wear a rubber girdle.
While Evelyn brushed out her long brown curls, I smoothed down my bangs and combed through the blunt ends of my bob. Puckering my lips, I painted them a deep bloodred, making them look like a cherub’s. I slipped into a frock and wrapped the strand of pearls around my neck that I’d borrowed from Barbara Lewis down the hall, a perky little blonde with a gap-toothed smile. Nothing rallied Barbara’s support like a date or special occasion. Eager to help, she’d send you off in a dress or lend you a hat. She’d even let you borrow her jewelry and evening bags, too. Barbara was the one you went to for clothes and I was the one the girls turned to for makeup tips. I had a knack for it and showed them how to line their eyes and apply their rouge. Even Helen next door, with her bad overbite and ruddy complexion, managed to look pretty when I was finished with her.
“How’s this?” Evelyn turned to face me, holding the black grease-stick liner in her hand. “Did I make them even this time?”
I tilted my head and studied her dark brown eyes for a moment. “Almost.”
She frowned and looked again in the mirror.
“It’s not bad,” I told her, reaching for the liner. “Let me just get the outer edges for you.”
By the time we were ready to leave for the night, Evelyn and I looked right in fashion, just as long as you didn’t get too close to see a mismatched button here, a loose thread there, or the safety pins holding up our hems.
We rode a crowded el car, holding on to the leather ceiling straps for balance until our stop at Lawrence, where we got off and walked over to Broadway. When we arrived at the Green Mill, the hostess stood in the doorway ushering us inside. It was early, but the place was already stomping. The Green Mill had the best jazz in the city and I’d heard it was the place to meet eligible men. That was a plus since Evelyn was still hoping to find a date for New Year’s. We’d barely gotten our coats checked and already a young man with a neat little goatee came over.
“How’s about a dance?” he asked, looking at me.
I could tell by the way he snapped his fingers that he had no rhythm. “Maybe later,” I said. “Mama needs a cocktail first.”
“Well, let me take care of that for you.”
Even though they weren’t the kind of fellas I was looking for—no flair, no charisma, no sex appeal—I never had a problem meeting men when we went out. Not like Evelyn. It was harder for her. Usually I’d bring the guys over and introduce them to her. That’s how she met Izzy Seltzer. She can blame that one on me.
I wasn’t even finished with my first drink when Izzy came up to me, twisted his pinkie ring and said, “You’re a doll, you know that? A living doll.”
He did have those movie-star looks with his strong jawline and cleft chin, but I wasn’t falling for his charms. He was just like that Tony Liolli, and something told me I couldn’t trust him.
But Evelyn couldn’t take her eyes off him. “Who was that?” she whispered when he walked away. “Do you know him?”
After watching her follow him around the room with her puppy-dog eyes, I finally went and got Izzy and brought him over to her.
“What are you girls up to tonight?” he asked, turning toward me, looking at my mouth first and then my body and then my eyes.
“Just out for a little fun,” answered Evelyn. “What about you? What are you up to?”
“I gotta get a drink,” he said, still looking at me. “You girls need another?”
Evelyn and I held up our full glasses.
“Do you think he’s coming back?” Evelyn fretted after he’d walked away, craning her neck to keep an eye on him.
“Relax. He’s just at the bar. And when he does come back, don’t act so eager.”
Evelyn nodded, still looking at Izzy.
Izzy was skirting his way through the crowd with his drink in hand and I cringed when Evelyn waved him over. “Hey, Izzy!” she called out. “Over here!”
So while Evelyn jabbered away with Izzy, I watched a group of loudmouths at a front table playing a drinking game that involved four cigarettes and three matchsticks.
The one dealing out cigarettes saw me staring. “Wanna play?” he asked.
“What’s the object?” It seemed to me that no matter what the outcome, they all took a drink anyway.
“To get as drunk as you can, as fast as you can.” They cracked up laughing and started in on another round.
“Sounds swell, but I think I’ll just watch.”
As I fished an olive out of my martini, I looked up and noticed a short, round man coming through the doorway wearing a canary yellow overcoat, cuffed trousers, and a homburg. He was accompanied by two men considerably taller than him.
As soon as she saw him, the hostess was on her feet. “Well, if it isn’t Snorky! How ya been, Al?” She held a sprig of mistletoe above his head and planted a big kiss on his mouth. She didn’t bother with the other two men. Draping her arm across the short man’s shoulder, she led him to the center booth that had remained empty all night despite the packed club. Obviously it had been reserved for him.
The table of loudmouths dropped it down a notch or two when he walked by. I overheard one of them say, “Yeah, that’s him. That’s Al Capone.”
“What’s he doing up here on the North Side?” the one fellow asked.
“Capone’s a big jazz buff. He’s a regular here.”
I glanced back over my shoulder. I saw the faint scars on his face, the thick cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth. Wow, that was him, all right! I had no idea this place was Capone’s hangout. He looked younger in person than in his newspaper photos. I remembered seeing one of him taken at a White Sox game where people were lining up to shake his hand, have their picture taken with him.
Not long after arriving, Capone seemed to notice something with a start. He got up, flanked by the two big guys. My pulse jumped when I realized he was heading for Izzy.
Removing his cigar, Capone said, “What’s the matter? You and your girls get lost tonight?” He gazed over at Evelyn.
Izzy propped a cigarette between his lips and struck a match against the underside of the bar. “Just thought I’d see what you palookas were up to.”
“Too bad you can’t stay long enough to finish your drink.”
Izzy took a drag off his cigarette and exhaled in Capone’s face. I couldn’t take my eyes off his scars. One ran from his ear to the side of his mouth. The other was etched along his jaw.
“Either show yourself out or I’ll have my boys here do it for you.” He gave Izzy the kind of look you didn’t argue with.
Capone went back to his booth, but the two tall guys stayed with us. I glared at Izzy, wondering what the hell he was waiting for. In my mind, I was already halfway out the door.
Finally, Izzy flicked his cigarette to the floor and ground it out beneath his heel. “This place is dead. C’mon, let’s go where the real action is.”
“Was that really Capone?” Evelyn asked as Izzy led us outside.
“Shhh.” I gave her a look.
Obviously Capone didn’t want Izzy sticking around the Green Mill and I wasn’t sure I wanted Izzy sticking around us, either.
“Ev.” I pulled her aside as we followed Izzy down the street. “I don’t think we should go with him.”
“Oh, c’mon. Besides,” she said under her breath, “I already blew my taxicab money and at least he can give us a ride home later.”
“Here we are,” Izzy said, pointing to the motorcar parked out front. It was a real sharp tan-and-black touring car with velvet upholstery. As soon as she saw it Evelyn gave me a look, her red lips growing as big and round as her eyes. We’d never ridden in a motorcar like that and while I may not have liked Izzy Seltzer, I was madly in love with his automobile. When he opened the car door I climbed into the back and Evelyn slid into the front seat, sitting as close as she could to him.
I glanced out the window as we whipped past the streetlamps, empty sidewalks and darkened storefronts. It was late; the city had turned in for the night but we were just getting started.
I ran my hand along the velvet upholstery, the leather trim. I had no idea where Izzy was taking us, but by now my reservations about him were replaced with expectations for an exciting night on the town.
• • •
Izzy took us to a place called the Meridian on the north side of town. It was a huge limestone building with a big red awning and a circular driveway filled with expensive-looking automobiles.
As soon as we stepped inside, I felt underdressed in my jersey frock. The women were all in beautiful fringed and sequined dresses. Some wore jeweled turbans, and others had plumed headdresses. The men were just as stylish in three-piece tailored suits. There was a big band up onstage and the place was jumping. Between the Christmas tree and the holiday lights sparkling about the room, it already felt like New Year’s Eve in there.
Evelyn tugged on my sleeve and pointed. “Vera, look!”
“Oh my God! That’s Charlie Chaplin!” He was sitting at a front table, less than three feet away. Without his funny mustache and bushy eyebrows he was a handsome man with thick, wavy dark hair and surprisingly somber-looking eyes.
We started for his table, hoping to get his autograph, but a couple of photographers cut in front of us to take his picture. Their flashbulbs popped like firecrackers, sending clouds of smoke hovering above their cameras. I stood there, unable to take my eyes off him. I couldn’t believe it. First Al Capone and now Charlie Chaplin. Capone may have been a gangster, but he was famous, too. I was a believer in signs, and I took this as a big one that things were about to change for me.
After a round of drinks, Evelyn took off with Izzy while I danced with a college boy from the University of Chicago. He wore two-tone shoes that kept perfect time with my toes. While he shuffled me from side to side, other couples on the dance floor were kicking up their heels and shaking their shoulders and behinds, keeping a perfect beat with the music.
“What do you say we mix it up a little?” I said.
“Sure thing.” He twirled me and lost what little rhythm he had.
In the middle of that number I broke away from him and started doing a crazy little dance step, snapping my fingers and swaying my hips. I kept my eye on the boy as my borrowed pearls swung to and fro and my bobbed hair swished to the left and then to the right. The trumpeter gave me a wink, and people turned to watch as I circled around the college boy, who stood there like a maypole.
When the number was up, I thanked him for the dance and headed to the bar. As I was catching my breath, someone leaned in close and whispered, “You always dance like that in public?”
I turned and nearly lost my balance. Standing before me was the man with the widow’s peak from the Drake Hotel. I hadn’t expected to ever see him again and my heart took a leap forward. He reached across the bar for my drink and placed it in my hand.
“Well, fancy seeing you here,” I said, trying to play it cool by giving his martini glass a clink with mine. “You really helped me out of a jam. I never got to thank you for—”
“Not necessary.” He smiled. “Just please tell me you’re not still working for that schmendrick. You know what it is? A schmendrick?”
I nearly spilled my drink. “You know Yiddish?”
“What Jew doesn’t?”
I looked him up and down. “You’re Jewish?”
“You sound so surprised.”
He was nothing like the Jewish boys I’d grown up with. For one thing, he didn’t look Jewish. He had a strong chin and a slender nose. His hair was dark, almost black like mine, and he had that widow’s peak that I found sexy in a strange sort of way. I decided he was nice-looking. Maybe not handsome like that Izzy Seltzer, but he had a certain something. There was an elegance to him and he was wearing another expensive-looking three-piece suit. He had style—no doubt about that. He smiled and it sent a ripple of excitement through my body.
“What’s your name, Dollface?”
“Vera. Vera Abramowitz.”
“Well, there you have it. We Jews have to stick together, don’t we?” He rocked back on his heels, showing off his spats.
His name was Shep Green. He was older, maybe twenty-five or twenty-six. Turned out that Izzy worked for him.
“He works for you, huh? Doing what?” I couldn’t help but think about Izzy’s run-in with Capone earlier. If Izzy knew Capone, chances were so did Shep.
“Izzy’s my right-hand man. He helps me run things around here.”
“Here?” I searched around the room.
“The Meridian,” he said with an easy hand gesture. “I own the club.”
My jaw nearly hit the floor. “You own this place? Do you know who’s here tonight? Charlie Chaplin!”
“Charlie always pays a visit when he’s in town. He just left or else I would have introduced you.”
“No foolin’? So you really do own this place?”
“Is that okay with you?” He smiled.
“I’ll say.” I did a half twirl, taking it all in, making him laugh.
Thanks to Shep, my martini was promoted to champagne and we spent the rest of the night drinking and dancing. And boy, did he know how to dance.
When the band went on break, I excused myself and went to the ladies’ lounge to freshen up. Evelyn followed me. It was crowded in there with dozens of women touching up their makeup, their hair, some even painting their fingernails. The air smelled of floral perfumes, nail polish and cigarette smoke.
“Oh, Vera, wait till you hear what Izzy called me.” The two of us pushed our way toward the mirror. “He said I was ‘a living doll.’ Do you believe that!”
“No fooling, huh? He called you a living doll, did he?” I twisted up my lipstick and shot her a glance through the mirror. “I’d watch him if I were you.”
“Aw, Vera, he’s the berries!”
I smiled. “Like I said, just be careful.” Evelyn was always falling for the wrong kind of guys, probably just to spite her parents. They never would have let her out of the house with a fellow like Izzy.
She glanced around and lowered her voice. “Too bad he’s a gangster. So is Shep, you know.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
She pulled me aside. “Izzy and Shep Green—all the guys here are members of the North Side Gang.”
I set my lipstick down, thinking about the bankroll Shep had on him the first night I saw him at the Drake. I knew no one legit walked around with that kind of cash on them. “Are you sure?”
“So help me God.” Evelyn held up her hand and swore herself in. “I overheard some girls here talking about it. Look at what just happened at the Green Mill with Capone. And you know someone’s supplying all the liquor here.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.” I tried to laugh it off. “Everyone in this town serves liquor. And they’re not all gangsters.” And I told myself not all gangsters were thugs and criminals. Some of them, like Capone, were practically celebrities. Some might argue that gangsters like that were useful people to know as long as you stayed on their good side. So what if Shep rubbed elbows with some bad sorts every now and again. He wasn’t the only one. Especially in Chicago.
I turned around, patting my hair in place. “Well, one thing’s for sure, Izzy and Shep aren’t your typical boring college boys, now, are they?” I ran a finger across my front teeth to clear away any traces of lipstick. “C’mon, they’re waiting for us down there.” I took one last look in the mirror, thinking, So what if Shep knew Al Capone, he also knew Charlie Chaplin.
I was helping Evelyn get ready for a date. It had been a week since she’d met Izzy and already they’d been out twice, including New Year’s Eve. Meanwhile, I hadn’t heard so much as a peep from Shep Green.
“Want me to ask Izzy about Shep?” She turned her back toward me and lifted her hair, exposing a dozen buttons needing attention. “I could find out if he’s seeing anyone.”
“No. No.” I worked my way up her buttons, starting at her waist. “Don’t say anything. But if Izzy asks, tell him I have a date tonight.” It wasn’t a complete lie. I had been asked out by one of the junior partners at Schlemmer Weiss & Unger but begged off, thinking a good night’s sleep sounded more appealing than an evening hearing about claims and contracts.
When I was younger, immersed in romantic novels and still living at home, I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to date. No one told me that all the anticipation, the trying on of outfits and the primping of hair, would be wasted on an evening of awkward silences and clumsy uncertainty. Then, to my mother’s dismay, the boys started coming around—older boys—and I went along happily, expecting so much more than what I got. Oh, how many times had I sat in soda fountains with nice young men, listening to stories of how they’d run varsity track in college or were captain of their debate teams. They’d nervously bounce their leg beneath the table, making the surface of my soda water tremble as they cleared their throat, licked the perspiration from their upper lip and asked if they could hold my hand. Would Rudolph Valentino have asked Gloria Swanson if he could sweep her off her feet? Where was my leading man? That’s what I wondered.
I fastened the last button on Evelyn’s dress. She’d borrowed it from Barbara Lewis, who in exchange had borrowed one of Evelyn’s hats for a date she had that night with her fiancé. I’d met Monty Perl only once, when he was waiting out front for Barbara. He had a good job, selling restaurant supplies, and was nice-looking with a full, dark mustache. They were getting married that spring, and Barbara was excited about quitting her job, counting the days until she could move out of our dump and into a real home.
Getting married and settling down—if that was all a girl had to look forward to, then cash me out now. I wanted to get married and have a family someday, but I planned on having a lot more fun and excitement before that happened.
Evelyn hummed to herself, irrepressibly giddy. “How do I look?” Her warm eyes fluttered at me.
“I already told you, silly. You’re stunning.” And she was. She wore her hair down that night, letting her light brown curls reach the center of her back, hanging loosely in a series of delicate spirals. “Your eye makeup is perfect and that shade of lipstick is going to drive Izzy crazy.”
“You really think so?”
“I know so.”
Evelyn never realized how attractive she was. I suppose that was what happened when you had four older sisters who’d all been crowned Queen Esther at those blasted tent dances.
“So, what are you going to do tonight?” Evelyn asked, coating her lips a second time with her beet-red lipstick.
“This right here.” I patted a stack of fashion magazines at the foot of my bed, all of them back issues that I’d found abandoned on streetcars or discarded in the downstairs parlor. It was my first night off in a week. It wasn’t even seven o’clock and I could barely keep my eyes open.
After Evelyn left for her date, I helped a couple girls with their makeup, including Helen, who no matter how many times I’d shown her still couldn’t put her lipstick on straight.
Afterward, I went to the luncheonette around the corner, ordered a bowl of beef stew and ate my way through the breadbasket. I should have brought a book or magazine with me; I felt self-conscious sitting by myself on a Saturday night. Each time I glanced up an older woman at the counter with a wrinkled face and bags beneath her eyes looked at me in sympathy, as if we had something in common. As soon as I finished my stew, I paid the bill and hurried back to the rooming house.
No one was in the parlor and the halls were all quiet. I tried not to think about the other girls out on dates, dancing and dining. I wished I’d had the money to go to the movie house with the single girls on the floor. Here I was, working myself to exhaustion and still I couldn’t spare an extra nickel for the movies. It didn’t seem fair.
I got undressed, crawled into bed and leafed through last October’s Vogue. It struck me that when that issue had been on the newsstands, I was still living at my mother’s, dreaming of being on my own and moving downtown. And here I was. I’d done it. But what was next for me? What was the dream now? I wasn’t ready to get married and have children. If I’d wanted that, I could have found a nice, decent fella, just like Barbara Lewis did. I wanted something more.
As simple as it sounded, I wanted to have fun! I didn’t have much of that growing up. While other children were playing, my mother dragged me into work with her. It wasn’t a place for children and I hated it. When I put up enough of a protest, she hired a housekeeper and left me with the emptiness of a fatherless house. I never felt safe, never felt protected, always burdened with worries and fears—both real and imagined.
But I’d broken free from my past and wanted to put it far behind me. Now I wanted just the opposite of what I’d grown up with. I wanted to lead a glamorous life filled with excitement and adventure, with fascinating people and interesting things. I wanted to find a place for myself and know that I belonged somewhere, to someone. I wanted to be important enough to command my own photographs in the society pages. I thought Shep Green might have been the answer, but clearly I was wrong about that.
I didn’t want to think about him. Or anything else for that matter. It was exhausting, making my mind grind over the same rough patches again and again. I turned to an article about Coco Chanel but didn’t even make it halfway through before I was out.
• • •
After another couple days had passed, I had given up on ever seeing Shep Green again, when out of the blue, someone knocked on my room door.
“Vera? Vera! Telephone call for you. It’s a man!”
I went downstairs to the parlor, picked up the phone, held the receiver to my chest and took a deep breath before I answered. “Hello?”
“Is your dance card free Saturday night, Dollface?”
“Who is this?” I teased, shifting my weight back and forth.
He laughed. “Who do you want it to be?”
I caught my reflection in the mirror above the phone. I was smiling. “How are you, Shep?”
“I’ll be great if you let me take you out Saturday night.”
Three nights later Shep arrived out front in a fine automobile. He was impeccably dressed and I began doubting Barbara Lewis’s silk two-piece with the pleated skirt, thinking I should have gone for something more formal.
Shep took me to a wonderful restaurant with crystal chandeliers and gold-trimmed plates and water glasses. The linen napkin in my lap was softer than my bath towel. I’d never dined in such grand style before and tried to keep that to myself, not wanting him to see how unsophisticated I was. I could hear my mother saying, Ach, who needs fancy-schmancy restaurants? Nothing but a waste of money. But oh, how I loved it, even as I fumbled with the oversize menu and later hesitated over the assortment of silverware, waiting to take my cue from the women at neighboring tables.
“I don’t know about you,” Shep said with a laugh, “but I never know which fork to use. I just start on the outside and work my way in.”
I wondered if he’d said that because he noticed I was nervous, but it did help me relax. We chatted after placing our orders and once our dinner arrived, he told me how pretty I was and said I had a sweet voice. “Do you sing?” he asked.
“I doubt that.” He smiled and cut into a glistening rare porterhouse. “I do love the sound of your voice. I could listen to you read me an entire book, cover to cover.”
“Oh, yeah? What book?”
He puzzled over it for a moment and changed the subject, telling me about his childhood and mostly about his mother. “She was in a wheelchair from the time I was twelve.”
“A streetcar accident.” He reached for his cigarette case, turning it over in his hand. “I always tried to take care of her. Did the cooking. All the cleaning. Hell, I even carried her to the water closet when she had to go. And we didn’t always make it in time,” he said with a sad smile. “She passed away two years ago.” He stared at the tablecloth. “I go to the cemetery every couple of months. Clear the weeds. I should go more often.” There was another, longer pause. He raised his eyes to mine and gave a slight shrug. “Sometimes I talk to her. Before I leave, I always place a rock on her headstone.”
As he said that a dull, empty ache settled in my stomach. I realized I didn’t even know where my father’s grave was. I was young when he died and hadn’t really known him, but still, he was my father, and I felt robbed that he’d been taken from me. Just thinking about it made me sad, even a little angry.
My mood dipped but then brightened again as we lingered at our table, nursing brandies and exchanging stories long after our plates had been cleared.
When I asked about his father, Shep gave his brandy a swirl. “He worked for the railroads. Put in sixteen hours a day and still couldn’t make ends meet.” He shook his head. “My older brother and I sold newspapers and shined shoes to help out. The two of us shared a bed. Well, I guess you could say it was a bed. We slept on a mattress on the kitchen floor.”
“You didn’t have a bedroom?”
“That was our bedroom.” He smiled.
“Was this here in Chicago?”
He nodded, set his glass down. “Lovely part of town called Little Hell.”
“Oh, dear!” I cupped a hand over my mouth. I’d heard horror stories about that part of town.
“Yep, we lived in a deluxe four-room shanty.”
“Was it as rough a neighborhood back then as it is now?”
He looked somewhere over my shoulder. “Let’s just say I saw a lot of holdups and murders.”
He looked back at me and nodded. “I saw people get stabbed and beaten to death.” He opened his cigarette case and offered me one. “So, what about you? Where’d you grow up?”
“Brighton Park.” I leaned in while he lit my cigarette. As I exhaled, watching the smoke drift away, I thought about the old neighborhood. Ours was the shabbiest house on the street because my mother was too busy working to notice the broken shutters or care for our lawn. I was ashamed of how our house looked, knowing the neighborhood children ran by on their way to the park at the end of our street. While other families sat down to formal dinner tables, my mother and I stood over the kitchen stove eating straight from the pot of stew or the pan of flanken the housekeeper had prepared while my mother was at work.
“Hey.” Shep leaned forward. “Where’d you just go? What are you thinking about?”
“Oh, sorry.” I flicked my cigarette and smiled. “It’s just that Brighton Park is worlds away from Little Hell.” I looked at him and flicked my cigarette ash again.
Shep told me a few more stories and it wasn’t until he said his father had died when he was young that I realized we had anything in common.
“My father died, too,” I said. “I was four years old. How old were you?” Shep didn’t answer. He just reached over and, without asking permission, held my hand. His skin was soft and warm, and there was something in his touch that made me say the rest. “It was the Black Hand,” I volunteered, surprised to hear those words leave my lips. “They murdered him.”