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"I guess we've seen each other a couple of times before, haven't we? Me and my wife, we live downstairs."
"Yeah, I know who you are. What do you want?"
"Just want to talk to you about something."
"No. Just close that door behind you and we'll sit on the steps."
"All right. That suits me. Now what's the big idea?"
"Today we was robbed. Somebody come in the apartment, turned the whole place inside out, and got away with some money, and my wife's jewelry. Three rings and a couple of wrist watches. It's got her broke up pretty bad. I got her in bed now, but she's crying and carrying on all the time. I feel right down sorry for her."
"Well, that's tough. But what you coming to me about it for?"
"Nothing special. But of course I'm trying to find out who done it, so I thought I would come around and see you. Just to see if you got any idea about it."
"Well, I haven't got no idea."
"You haven't? That's funny."
"What's funny about it?"
"Seems like most everybody on the block has an idea about it. I ain't got in the house yet before about seven people stopped me and told me about it, and all of them had an idea about who done it. Of course, some of them ideas wasn't much good, but still they was ideas. So you haven't got no idea?"
"No. I haven't got no idea. And what's more, you're too late."
"How you mean, too late?"
"I mean them detectives has been up here already. I mean that fine wife of yours sent them up here, and what I had to say about this I told them, and I ain't got time to say it over again for you. And let me tell you something: You tell any more detectives I was the one robbed your place, and that's right where the trouble starts. They got laws in this country. They got laws against people that goes around telling lies about their neighbors, and don't you think for a minute you're going to get by with that stuff no more. You get me?"
"I'll be doggone. Them cops been up here already? Them boys sure do work fast, don't they?"
"Yeah, they work fast when some fool woman that has lost a couple of rings calls up the station house and fills them full of lies. They work fast, but they don't always work so good. They ain't got nothing on me at all, see? So you're wasting your time, just like they did!"
"What did you tell them, if you don't mind my asking?"
"I told them just what I'm telling you: that I don't know a thing about you or your wife, or your flat, or who robbed you, or what goes on down there, 'cepting I wish to hell you would turn off that radio at night onct, so I can get some sleep. That's what I told them, and if you don't like it you know what you can do."
"Well, now, old man, I tell you. Fact of the matter, my wife didn't send them cops up here at all. When she come home, and found out we was robbed, why it got her all excited. So she rung up the station house, and told the cops what she found, and then she went to bed. And that's where she's at now. She ain't seen no detectives. She's to see them tomorrow. So it looks like them detectives thought up that little visit all by theirself, don't it?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean maybe even them detectives could figure out that this here job was done by somebody that knowed all about me and my wife, when we was home, when we was out, and all like of that. And 'specially, that it was done by somebody that knowed we had the money in the house to pay the last installment on the furniture."
"How would I know that?"
"Well, you might know by remembering what time the man came around to get the money last month and figuring he would come around the same day this month, and that we would have the money here waiting for him. That would be one way, wouldn't it?"
"Let me tell you something, fellow: I don't know a thing about this, or your furniture, or the collector, or nothing. And there ain't nothing to show what I know. So you ain't got nothing on me, see? So shag on. Go on down where you come from. So shut up. So that's all. So good-bye."
"Now, not so fast,"
"What now? I ain't going to stay but here all night."
"I'm just thinking about something. First off, we ain't got nothing on you. That sure is a fact. We ain't got nothing on you at all. Next off, them detectives ain't got nothing on you. They called me up a little while ago and told me so. Said they couldn't prove nothing."
"It's about time you was getting wise to yourself."
"Just the same, you are the one that done it."
"I say you are the one that done it."
"All right. All right. I'm the one that done it. Now go ahead and prove it."
"Ain't going to try to prove it. That's a funny thing, ain't it? Them detectives, when they start out on a thing like this, they always got to prove something, haven't they? But me, I don't have to prove nothing."
"Come on. What you getting at?"
"Just this: Come on with that money, and come on with them jewels, or I sock you. And make it quick."
"Now wait a minute.... Wait a minute."
"Sure. I ain't in no hurry."
"Maybe if I was to go in and look around.... Maybe some of my kids done that, just for a joke—"
"Just what I told my wife, old man, now you mention it. I says to her, I says, 'Them detectives is all wrong on that idea. Them kids upstairs done it,' I says, 'just for a joke.'"
"I'll go in and take a look—"
"No. You and me, we set out here till I get them things in my hand. You just holler inside and tell the kids to bring them."
"I'll ring the bell and get one of them to the door—"
"That sure is nice of you, old man. I bet there's a whole slew of them robberies done by kids just for a joke, don't you? I always did think so."CHAPTER 2
"This here," said Mr. Kemper, after contemplating for a time the rear elevation of the Public Library, "is a bum park. You can twist your neck around till you got a crick in it and still you can't tell what time it is. Let's go down to City Hall. It's plenty clocks down there."
Mr. Needles said nothing.
"What the hell you doing with that paper anyhow?" continued Mr. Kemper fretfully. "You been gawping at it for a hour, and in the same place. If you can't read it, then say so, but don't keep looking at it that way. That there annoys me."
"This here," said Mr. Needles, "is a terrible thing."
"What is it?" said Mr. Kemper.
"A guy what's getting littler all the time," said Mr. Needles. "Look at him. 'Living at Soldiers' Home in Sawtelle, Cal., he was five feet seven inches tall in 1914; now he is four feet ten inches. The case is of rare type.'"
"Rare and then some," said Mr. Kemper. "More like raw."
"How you mean?" said Mr. Needles.
"I mean it's so rare it ain't so," said Mr. Kemper. "That there is just one more of them lies what the guys would get tired of that devilment after a while."
"That there is so," said Mr. Needles.
"H'm," said Mr. Kemper.
"Because look at them pants," said Mr. Needles.
"Well," said Mr. Kemper, "them pants is for a bigger guy than he is, that's a fact. H'm. And that coat don't fit so good, neither."
"That there is true," said Mr. Needles. "I know it's true. I feel it in my bones."
"Well, then," said Mr. Kemper, "what of it? Maybe that guy is better off little than he was big. He don't eat so much, and that makes it easier. Or would, anyway, if he had to panhandle his grub off these eggs around here, 'stead of getting it free in a old soldiers' home. Bryant Park. Was this here William Jennings Bryant a Scotchman, do you suppose?"
"I ain't thinking about him," said Mr. Needles. "I'm thinking about myself."
"What you got to do with it?" said Mr. Kemper.
"Plenty," said Mr. Needles, and lapsed into a gloomy silence. Then, after a long time: "I been worried about myself a long time. I ain't as big as I was. Not nowhere near as big. And suppose I got this here disease too? 'The case is of rare type,' but if they got one, why can't they have two?"
"No reason at all," said Mr. Kemper. "'Cepting what ails you is you don't get enough to eat. If you would get offen that bench more and work up and down Forty- second Street, panhandling enough nickels and dimes to get some grub what would stick to your ribs, why, then, you wouldn't have that there disease. Nobody can't stay the same size on coffee only."
"He's getting littler all the time," said Mr. Needles. "Maybe I am too. And that there is a terrible thing."
"What's so terrible about it?" said Mr. Kemper. "I already told you maybe he was better off. And maybe so are you."
"But suppose he would shrivel clean up like a balloon what has a leak and the wind all goes out?" said Mr. Needles. "Or maybe go away altogether, like a ... like a ... well, what the hell is that there like anyway?"
"Like a hole what somebody et the doughnut," said Mr. Kemper.
"Yeah," said Mr. Needles.
"Well, then," said Mr. Kemper, "suppose he would? The next war what he fights in, nobody couldn't shoot him. Looks like to me he would be still better off."
"But how about his soul?" said Mr. Needles.
"That guy," said Mr. Kemper, "he don't look to me like he even got a soul."
"But I got a soul," said Mr. Needles.
"How you know?" said Mr. Kemper.
"Never mind how I know," said Mr. Needles. "I know, and that's enough."
"Well, then, if you know, that's enough and you ain't got nothing to worry about. You never hear tell of no soul going out like a hole what somebody et the doughnut, did you? A soul, why that there is something what's built to last."
"I know," said Mr. Needles, "but if I all shrivel up and go away like that, am I dead yet or not?"
"Well, now," said Mr. Kemper, "that there is a question. It sure is. Of course, if you ain't there no more, I guess you're dead legal, all like of that. But are you really dead, let's see now. I got to think about that."
"I ain't even sure I'm dead legal," said Mr. Needles. "If it ain't no dead body, how can a guy be dead legal? No coroner wouldn't give no verdict without no remains."
"That's right," said Mr. Kemper. "It's funny I didn't think of that myself. Must of been because I was figuring on this other side of it."
"What's that?" said Mr. Needles.
"What's that?" said Mr. Needles.
"Suppose after you shrivel up and go out like that," said Mr. Kemper, "suppose, then, you would start growing again. How about that?"
"What was that again?" said Mr. Needles.
"Suppose," said Mr. Kemper, talking very slowly and distinctly, "after you went away and you wasn't there no more, why maybe you got cured of this here disease and begun growing again. How about that? Would you be the same guy or would you be another guy? Or like the fellow says, a couple of other fellows?"
"Holy smoke," said Mr. Needles. "Holy smoke, I never thought of that."
"This here," said Mr. Kemper, "is a very rare case. This here interests me a whole lot."
"Let's talk about something else," said Mr. Needles. "I ... I ... I don't like this here. It's got me worried."
"Then let's go down to City Hall, like I said," said Mr. Kemper, "so we can see what time it is."
OCTOBER 20, 1929CHAPTER 3
Vinny felt his mouth go numb as he entered the apartment and saw what was on the table. He stood for a moment moistening his lips as he stared at it.
"Piece of mail for you," he heard his sister-in-law call. "Looks like a phonograph record."
"Sure," he replied, and was surprised at how casual he sounded. "I been expecting it. How's everything?"
"O.K. Dinner'll be ready in a few minutes."
He picked up the record, went to his room, and sat down on the bed. He had been expecting it all right. Or hoping for it anyhow. Ever since that day in the store.
He hadn't covered himself with glory that day, that was a cinch. He just hadn't had the nerve to make the grade.
He had gone in to make one of those personal phonograph records, a record to send his brother Ike, who had moved to Cleveland. But he had had to wait.
Then the girl arrived. She was a pretty girl, and she sat down so close to Vinny that he could smell the fur of her little summer neckpiece. He wanted to speak to her, to start a little conversation that would lead to his asking her if she didn't want to go with him and have an ice-cream soda. He opened his mouth to say it was hot, wasn't it. Nothing came out of it. He tried to catch her eye, so he could shake his head and fan himself a couple of times with his hat. Then he would probably have the nerve to say it was hot. But she didn't look at him.
Pretty soon the radio announcer came out, with his accompanist and the lady in charge. The girl stood up.
"But I think this gentleman was ahead of you," said the lady in charge.
"'S all right," said Vinny. "I'll wait."
When she came out she would probably stop to thank him or something for letting her go first. Then he could say it was hot, wasn't it, a pretty good day for an ice-cream soda.
She came out with her record under her arm, stopped, started to speak, and fled without saying a word.
"It's your turn now," said the lady in charge.
He sat down in front of the microphone and took out of his pocket what he was going to say to Ike. He had it all written out, so he wouldn't get rattled and forget it in front of the machine.
"When the red light goes on," said the lady in charge, "it's time for you to begin. I'll turn it off ten seconds before the record is used up, so you'll have time to finish."
The red light.
"Hello, Ike! you old son of a gun; how are you and what do you think of this for pulling a fast one on you? It's cheaper than calling up on the long- distance telephone, hey, Ike, you old son of a gun?"
It had seemed pretty funny when he wrote it out, but it sounded stale and flat now.
The red light out.
"Well, so long, Ike, this is all they allow me this time and don't take any rubber nickels."
"That'll be seventy-five cents unless you want a package of needles, and that'll make a dollar."
"All right. Put the needles in."
"A dollar, thank you. And now, if you don't mind writing your name and address here in this book ..."
"Aw, never mind about that ..."
"Well, we usually ask for the name and address—"
"I know, so you can send me a lot of that advertising junk and—"
He stopped. Looking up at him from the book in a threadlike, feminine hand, were a name and address:
Miss Amy Clarke
130 East 35th Street.
"All right," he said, and photographed this signature in his mind's eye as he wrote his own beneath it. A fat chance he would forget it.
"Say," he said innocently, "I believe I'll make another record. Just remembered somebody else I want to send one to."
This time he sat down at the piano. He could play a little, well enough for this job anyhow.
The red light.
He started up "You're the Cream in My Coffee." It sounded lousy, but it would give her the idea. Then he stopped singing and turned to the mike. "I'm the guy," he said with a guarded look at the lady in charge, "that wanted to speak to you today and didn't. And that you wanted to speak to and didn't. Believe me, I want to speak to you and if you feel the same way about it, you meet me at the Dreamland dance hall, up on a Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street, on Saturday night, at ..."
He mailed it, then spent three days of agony. Most of the time he felt like a sap, but sometimes he would play with the idea that the girl would go back to the store after she received the record, find the name and address after her own, and mail him a postcard saying "I'll be there" or something like that.
Now, here it was Saturday night and instead of a postcard there was a phonograph record, addressed in the same threadlike hand.
Trembling he cranked up his phonograph and clipped a needle.
A few bars of piano music. An old tune. Where had he heard it?
A thin, pretty, trembly voice:
Meet me tonight in Dreamland Under the silvery moon!
"Dinner's ready," called his sister-in-law.
"I don't want any dinner!"
"But it's ready!"
"Sorry. Can't wait!"
Vinny was gone.
SEPTEMBER 15, 1929CHAPTER 4
Down in the country when they built the state road it was a couple guys worked on it name of Luke and Herb Moore. And they was brothers, but their old man was stingy and wouldn't never give them nothing for their work. Because they didn't hire out to the contractor direct, but drove teams for their old man and the contractor paid him and he paid them. And he got thirty-five cents a hour apiece for both them double teams, and paid them $12.50 a month for driving them.
So all them other guys that worked on the road was all the time giving them the razz, and letting on their old man must be pretty rich by now, account he's got a big farm but don't never spend nothing, and goes to church every Sunday but don't never put nothing on the plate, and all like of that; until Luke and Herb got so they hated to see the old man show up on Saturday afternoon to sign the payroll. So along about the first of October they begun mumbling to each other in the lunch hour, and then they give it out they was going to do something that would make them other guys on the road look pretty sick. And what they was going to do was go on a bender. They had just got their month's wages, and that was $25, and they was going to swipe one of the old man's horses, after he had went in the house that night, and drive down to the railroad station what was about six mile away, and hop the 6:46 in to Washington, and then come back on the owl what got in at 12:22, and then drive on back and put the horse in the stable without the old man knowing nothing about it. Because they figured that $25 would pay for a pretty classy drunk, and then they would have a comeback if they heard any more of this tightwad stuff.
Excerpted from The Baby in the Icebox by James M. Cain, Roy Hoopes. Copyright © 1981 Alice M. Piper. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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