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I WAS AN ONLY child—and so I became an only man.
My name is Joshua Bigg: a joke life played on me, as I am quite small. Five feet, three and three-eighths inches, to be precise. In a world of giants, those eighths are precious to the midget.
That was the first of fortune's tricks. There were others. For instance, I was orphaned at the age of three months when my parents were killed in the sudden collapse of a bridge over the Skunk River near Oskaloosa, Iowa. As their pickup truck toppled, I was thrown clear and was found later lying in a clump of laurel, gurgling happily and sucking my toe.
People said it was a miracle. But of course they weren't the orphan. Years later, when Roscoe Dollworth was teaching me to be an investigator, he had something to say on the subject. He had just learned that he had a small gastric ulcer, after months of worrying about stomach cancer. Just an ulcer. Everyone told him how lucky he was.
"Luck," Roscoe said, "is something that happens to other people."
I was raised by my mother's brother and his wife: Philo and Velma Washabaugh. He had an Adam's apple and she smelled of muffins. But they were dear, sweet people and gave me compassion and love. I wish I could say the same for their three sons and two daughters, all older (and taller) than I. I suppose it was natural that I should be treated as an interloper; I was never allowed to forget my diminutive size and parentless status.
My uncle owned a hardware store in Ottuma, Iowa. Not a prosperous store, but there was always sufficient food, and if I was required to wear the outgrown clothing of my older and larger cousins, it seemed ungrateful to complain.
On the basis of my high school grades and financial need, I was able to obtain a scholarship to Grenfall. It was a very small scholarship to a very small liberal arts college. During term I held a variety of jobs: waiter, movie usher, gas station attendant, tutor of football players, etc. In the summers I worked in the hardware store.
It was my ambition to become a lawyer but by the time I was graduated, Bachelor of Arts, with honors, I had realized that a law degree was beyond my means.
A short man in tall America has a choice: he may become dark, embittered, malevolent, or clever, sunny, and manic. I chose the latter, determined that neither lack of bulk nor lack of funds would prevent me from making my way in a world in which I was forced to buy my clothes in Boys' Departments.
So, packing my one good blue suit, I stood on tiptoe to kiss uncle, aunt, and cousins farewell, and took the bus to New York City to seek my fortune. I was resolutely cheerful.
My first few years in the metropolis I lived in the YMCA on 23rd Street and worked at a succession of depressing jobs: dishwasher, drugstore clerk, demonstrator of potato peelers, etc. I lived a solitary, almost desolate life. I had no friends. I spent my free hours at museums (they didn't charge admittance then) or in the public library. I have always been an omnivorous reader. Balzac, Hugo, Dumas, and Theodore Dreiser are my favorite authors. I also enjoy reading history, biography, and novels in which the law plays an important part, as in Dickens.
Now I must tell you about my sex life. It won't take long.
It is true that in our society small men are at a decided disadvantage in wooing and winning desirable women. I have read the results of research studies proving that, in America, success is equated with physical size. Most corporation executives are large, imposing men. Most successful politicians are six-footers. Even the best-known attorneys and jurists, doctors and surgeons, seem to be men of heft. And then, of course, there are salesmen, policemen, professional football players, and bartenders. Size and poundage do count.
So I think it only natural that most women should link a man of impressive height and weight with determination, aggressiveness, energy, and eventual success. A small man, particularly a small, penniless man, is too frequently an object of amusement, pity, scorn, and automatic rejection.
However, during my four years at Grenfall College (coeducational), I had learned a valuable truth. And this was that if I wished to make myself attractive to women, I could not attempt to imitate the speech, manner, or forceful behavior of large or even normal-sized men. Rather, I could only succeed by exaggerating my minuteness, physical weakness, and meekness.
Despite what some advocates of the women's liberation movement may claim, I say there is a very strong "mother instinct" in most women, and they respond viscerally and warmly to helplessness, particularly in the male. So, during my college days, this was the string I plucked. And when they took me onto their laps, murmuring comforting words, I knew I was home free and might expect to see my fondest fantasy come true.
Six years before the story I am about to tell commences, I had been working as a temporary clerk in Macy's during the holiday season. After Christmas I was again unemployed, but I had money in my pocket and was able to take a week off without worries. I had a few good meals, wandered Manhattan, went to museums, read in libraries, saw the ballet, and called a young lady I had met while serving at the men's underwear counter. We went to a Chinese restaurant, saw a movie, and later I climbed onto her lap.
But then, since my funds were rapidly approaching the panic level once again, I bought the Sunday Times and spent the afternoon circling Help Wanted ads with a red crayon. I started out Monday morning, working my way up the eastern half of Manhattan. The fourth Help Wanted ad on my list was for a mailroom boy at a law firm. I was 26 and wasn't certain I qualified as a "boy." If necessary, I thought, I could lie about my age. But I didn't think it would be necessary. In addition to my shortness, I am small-boned and slender. My hair is almost flaxen, my eyes are softly brown, my features are regular. I shave only every other day. I felt my appearance was sufficiently juvenile to pass the initial inspection, and I headed right over.
TORT—the law firm of Tabatchnick, Orsini, Reilly, and Teitelbaum—was located on East 38th Street, in the Murray Hill section of Manhattan. It occupied a five-story converted townhouse, and when I arrived late in the morning, there was already a long line of men leading from the doorway, down the steps, along the sidewalk, halfway down the block. All ages, wearing overcoats, pea jackets, windbreakers, sweaters, whatever. Thin men, fat men, tall men, heavy men. I was, of course, the smallest.
"The mailroom job?" I asked the last man on line.
He nodded dolefully, and I took my place behind him. In a few moments, there were a half-dozen applicants behind me.
Then I noted a puzzling phenomenon: the line was moving forward swiftly, and men were exiting the building as fast as they entered. The flow was constant: the hopefuls in, the rejected out.
The man ahead of me grabbed the arm of one of the rejects.
"What's going on in there?" he asked.
The rebuffed one shook his head bewilderedly.
"Beats me," he said. "No interviews. No applications. No questions even. This high-muck-a-muck takes a look at me and says, 'Sorry. You won't do.' Just like that. A nut!"
I was moving with the line up the block, along the sidewalk, up the stairs, through the door and finally into a large, imposing entrance hall with vaulted ceiling and walnut-paneled walls. The line stumbled up a wide carpeted staircase, so quickly that I scarcely had time to inspect the framed Currier and Ives lithographs on the walls.
I made it rapidly to the second-floor landing. The line now wavered down a long hallway and ended at a heavy closed door of carved oak. Placed alongside the door was a small desk, and seated behind the desk was a young woman, poised, expressionless. As each rejected applicant exited from the oak door, she called "Next!"
As the line moved forward, and I heard "Next! Next! Next!", I could not take my eyes from that comely guardian of the sacred portal. My initial reaction on seeing beautiful women is usually despair. They seem so unattainable to me, so distant, almost so foreign.
The line was moving forward quickly and I soon found myself the next specimen to be exhibited on the other side of that forbidding oak door.
It opened. The doleful one who'd been in front of me exited, head hanging. I heard "Next!" and I stepped into the chamber and closed the door softly behind me. I had a confused impression of an enormous, shadowed room, lined with law books in glass-enclosed cases. There were club chairs, a globe, a heavy dictionary on a pedestal.
But dominating the room was a gigantic mahogany desk, all carved flourishes and curlicues. The top was bare of papers, but set precisely with a student's lamp, blotter, pen-holder, letter opener, scissors—all leather-bound or leather-trimmed. There was a telephone-intercom with rows and rows of buttons and lights. Even the telephone handset had a leather-covered grip.
The man seated behind the desk appeared to have been bound in the same material: dark calfskin perhaps. He seemed ancient; the hands resting motionless on the desktop were empty gloves, and the face had the withered look of a deflated balloon.
But the blue eyes were bright enough, and when he said, "Come forward, please," his voice had vigor and resonance.
I moved to the desk. He was seated in a high-backed swivel chair. It was difficult to estimate his height, but I could see the narrow shoulders, a thin neck, slender arms.
"How tall are you?" he asked abruptly.
I lost all hope.
"Five feet, three and three-eighths inches, sir," I said.
He nodded. "How soon can you start?" he said.
I don't believe my jaw dropped. I don't believe I staggered, blinked, and swallowed. But I can't be sure.
"Immediately, sir," I said.
He nodded again. He leaned forward, lifted one of those dead hands, and with a forefinger that looked like it had been pickled in brine, depressed one of the buttons on the telephone intercom.
"Miss Apatoff," he said loudly, "the position has been filled. Thank the others and dismiss them."
Then he sat back in his swivel chair again and regarded me gravely.
"Name?" he said.
"Joshua Bigg, sir."
He didn't laugh, or even smile.
"From where?" he asked.
"BA degree, sir. With honors."
"Miss Apatoff, the lady in the hallway, will take you to our office manager, Hamish Hooter. He will complete the necessary paperwork and instruct you in your duties."
"Thank you, sir."
"Salary?" he said.
"Oh, well, yes, sir," I said confusedly. "What is the salary?"
"A hundred a week," he said, still staring at me. "Satisfactory?"
"Oh yes, sir."
He raised one finger from the desk blotter. I took this as a gesture of dismissal, and turned to go. I was at the door when he called ...
He had risen. Now I could see his size.
"I," he said proudly, "am five feet, three and seven-eighths inches tall."
Only after I had left the office did it occur to me to ask the pulchritudinous receptionist to whom I had just been speaking. "Oh, that's Mr. Teitelbaum, senior partner, and I'm Yetta Apatoff," she added, bending forward enough so that I got a glimpse of cleavage I would never forget. "Welcome to TORT."
And that's how I came to work for Tabatchnick, Orsini, Reilly, and Teitelbaum.
I stayed in the mailroom about two years, during which my salary was increased four times to a gratifying $150 a week, and my hopeless passion for Miss Yetta Apatoff, our nubile receptionist, grew in even larger increments.
And, finally, my opportunity for advancement came, as I knew it would.
One of the more than 50 employees of TORT was Mr. Roscoe Dollworth, who bore the title of Chief Investigator. This was a kindness since he was our only investigator. Dollworth was an ex-New York City policeman who had resigned from the Department for "medical reasons." He was an enormously fat drunk, but neither his girth nor his awesome intake of vodka (from a thermos kept in plain view on his desk) interfered with the efficient performance of his duties.
A salaried investigator for a large firm of attorneys is assigned the same tasks smaller legal associations might delegate to private investigators, as needed. Tracking down witnesses, verifying clients' alibis and those of the opposition, escorting recalcitrant witnesses to the courtroom, locating technical experts whose testimony might be advantageous, and so forth.
In addition, there had been several instances in which Roscoe Dollworth had conducted original investigations into the culpability of clients accused of crimes, although criminal defense was only a small part of TORT's activities. In all such cases, Dollworth's past association with the New York Police Department proved of great value. This was probably why his employment was continued despite that desktop jug of vodka. Also, the Chief Investigator was 61 years old at the time I joined Tabatchnick, Orsini, Reilly, and Teitelbaum, and he had made it clear that he intended to retire to Florida at the age of 65, to play shuffleboard and watch the pelicans.
I believe Roscoe Dollworth liked me. I know I liked him. He never made any slurring references to my size, and treated me more as a friend man as the lowest man on the TORT totem pole. So I was happy to run his errands: dash out to buy him a fresh quart of vodka or hurry back from my own lunch to bring him the hot pepperoni pizza he ate at his desk each day (the whole pizza, plus pickles, peppers, and a frightening wedge of pineapple cheesecake).
In return, he told me stories of cases in which he had been involved while he was a uniformed patrolman and later as a detective, third-grade. He also taught me the techniques and tricks of a professional investigator, all of which I found fascinating. I hadn't realized police methods were that complex, or how few of them could be found in books. They could only be learned through personal experience, or the experience of other cops.
Occasionally, when I had time, and always with the permission of one of the three senior partners of TORT (Sean Reilly had died seven years previously; he had choked to death on a piece of rare London broil), Roscoe Doll worth would send me out on an investigative task. These began as simple assignments: find the apartment number of so-and-so, check where this man parks his car, see if you can discover when this woman divorced her first husband.
Gradually, over a period of months, Dollworth's requests became more involved and more intriguing.
"Doing anything tonight, Josh? No? Good. Follow this guy. He says he goes to a chess club every Wednesday night. I ain't so sure. Don't let him spot you. This is a divorce action."
Or ... "Find out who really owns this nightclub, will you? You'll have to start out down at the Hall, checking records. You'll learn how it's done."
Or ... "See if this dame has any regular visitors. She lives alone—but who knows? You may have to slip the doorman a fin. But no more than that, or he won't respect you. This involves the probate of a will."
And so on ...
I completed all my assignments successfully, and began to wonder if I didn't have a natural talent for investigation. Part of my success, I thought, might be due to my physical appearance. It was impossible for me to come on strong, and my shy, hesitant, almost helpless manner seemed to arouse the kind of sympathy which urged, "Let's help the boy out." And so I succeeded with the same methods that had aided me in my conquests of women: the whole world wanted to take me onto its lap.
I had been with TORT for almost two years when Roscoe Dollworth called me into his office, commanded me to shut the door and sit down.
This time, it wasn't about an assignment, exactly. It was about much more than that.
I said nothing, just watched Mr. Dollworth pour himself a paper cup of vodka from his thermos. He sipped it slowly, staring at me thoughtfully across his desk.
He was a blobby man, with a belly that kept his swivel chair two feet from his desk. His scraggly, straw-colored hair was thinning; patches of freckled scalp showed through. Darkish eyebrows were so snarled that I had seen him comb them. His nose had evidently been broken several times; it just didn't know which way to turn. His lips were glutinous, teeth tobacco-stained. But the eyes were hard and squinchy. Looking at those eyes made me happy I was his friend and not an enemy.
Excerpted from The Tenth Commandment by Lawrence Sanders. Copyright © 1980 Lawrence Sanders. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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