Fiction

The Richest Woman in Town

Cora fumed as she watched the lighted window in the big house. For she knew that Howie was trapped by wealthy Anna with the light-blue hair

JAMES McNAMEE October 1 1954
Fiction

The Richest Woman in Town

Cora fumed as she watched the lighted window in the big house. For she knew that Howie was trapped by wealthy Anna with the light-blue hair

JAMES McNAMEE October 1 1954

The Richest Woman in Town

Fiction

Cora fumed as she watched the lighted window in the big house. For she knew that Howie was trapped by wealthy Anna with the light-blue hair

JAMES McNAMEE

THE TOWN has only one house with a copper roof, iron fretwork on the balcony and panes of violet glass above the front door. It is made of brick. Behind it is a building that was once a stable. The loft has been taken out, the stalls knocked down, the floor tilted and it has dressing rooms and a stage. Great stuff, such as The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, has been put on here successfully, for it is suspected by everyone of standing in the town that the owner of the big house would not be above enquiring into the identities of those who were, and who were not, buying tickets.

The house means much to the theatrical group who call themselves The Mimes. It means even more to the three hundred employees of t he Hesse Brick and Tile Company, to the five hundred who work for the Hesse Gypsum Corporation, the thirtynine in the Hesse Cold Storage Plant, and to the people who climb poles for the Hesse Light and Power. They feel that if Anna Hesse did not live there, things might not be so good in the brickyards and among the frozen carcasses in the cold-storage plant and the theatrical society.

On anot her street is a smaller house. It stands on a fifty-foot lot and its paint has blistered. The garden shows a solitary cypress and one ornamental pine. Howard Proctor rents it.

In the good years Howie sold cars and did well enough to get married. Then in the bad years

people started walking and Howie had persuaded an influential friend into finding him a clerkship with the Water Board.

As a municipal servant he rolled his cigarettes and carried sandwiches in a paper hag, hut there never was a month when all the Proctor bills were paid. On the evening of a day when the Hesse Light and Power had phoned Mrs. Cora Proctor of their intention to discontinue service, she went to the window and looked up the slope at Anna’s house. The stable was floodlit, for The Mimes were in action, and Cora, stung by this illumination of so much outside air, slapped the wall and said, “You turn off her water, How!” Howie showed Cora how he would turn off Anna’s water, and described Anna coming to the City Hall with a bucket and him sneering from behind his glass cage.

Howie was a local boy, but he never met Anna until the town decided to remember its seventy-fifth birthday and honor Anton, her grandfather, who had raised a tent on the river flats to sell six barrels of whisky and a sack of peppermint bull’s-eyes to the Indians. To commemorate this strongest concentration of sick Indians the west had ever seen, every male on the voters’ list was expected to grow a beard and wear a red shirt. Howie started his early. When the time came he had wool on his face like Alfred Lord Tennyson, and his picture was in the paper.

Cora trimmed the picture Continued on page 67

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 16

to fit it to a frame, discarding the part that showed Anna on the steps of the City Hall giving Howie a Junior Chamber of Commerce cheque for fifty dollars. Cora asked, “What did she say, How'”’

“She smiled,” said he, “and she squeezed my hand.”

“What did you do, How?”

“Baby, anybody can squeeze my hand for fifty dollars.”

“I get to squeeze it for nothing. What does she look like close up, How?”

“Good. No double chin, no bumps. A lot of lipstick and, you wouldn’t believe it, her hair’s dyed blue.”

“We are not comparing my figure with a shriveled, old, dyed goat, are we How?”

“Baby, could there be any comparison between you and a mere five million bucks? She squeezed my hand. This one.”

“Must have been the other one,” Cora said. “I don’t see any scales left on that one.”

Howie stood looking at himself in front of the mirror on the mantel. “I got a letter at the office today,” he said, “asking me to join The Mimes.”

Cora was surprised. “You can’t act, How. They want you to sell tickets. Half the time you sound as if you were talking through a bran muffin. Who asked you?”

“Susan Brownhill.”

“Who?”

“Hang on to yourself, babe. She’s Anna’s secretary. Anna’s putting on a play that needs a man with a beard.”

“Then Anna’s out of luck. You’re I shaving.”

Howie raised his head and fluffed his whiskers with the flat of his hand. “Anna might need a hairy vice-president who’s wasting his time clerking at the Water Board. I ought to be making more money.”

When the phone rang Howie asked if she had paid the landlord. Cora had not paid the landlord and was perturbed until she realized that although Howie’s hello had been a defiant blare he was now trilling in tones that would have intrigued a meadowlark. He said, “Absolutely, Miss Brownhill. A man with a beard? No talent, Miss Brownhill, can’t act. All hands. Talk just as if—a bran muffin. That so? Tonight?

At the house? Half an hour. Absolutely, Miss Brownhill.” He put down the phone. “That was Miss Brownhill,” he said to Cora.

“I know,” said Cora, “and she wants a man with a beard. Are you going?”

“Anna wants to see me, babe.”

“Why? To squeeze your hand? I heard a story about Anna.”

“Forget it. Anna’s an old woman.”

“With lipstick and blue hair? She’s an old goat.”

“Babe, you know me. I like them fat.”

“Who’s fat? You watch your mouth, boy, or I’ll bust it!”

HE WAS gone two hours, three hours, and Cora remembered articles she had read in women’s magazines about men of Howie’s age glowing with a second adolescence that caused them to have erratic tendencies. At a quarter past eleven he opened the door and said, “You still up, babe?”

Cora asked where he had been.

“At Anna’s.”

“Who was there?”

“Me.”

“Just you and Anna? Can’t you find a woman under seventy to take an interest in you?”

“Shut up, fat girl!”

“Did you get a job? You say that again and you’ll go to the office with knuckle marks.”

“I’m not talking.”

“And you’re not sleeping until I know what happened.”

He glared behind his whiskers like a wild revolutionary and then sat down to take off his shoes. “Ask me a question.”

“First of all, take back what you said.”

“All right, my little barrel of blubber, you’re not a fat girl. Ask me a question.”

“No. You tell me.”

He lay on the chesterfield. “Anna’s grandfather shot a black bear.” He closed his eyes. “Anna has the skin in front of the fireplace. I sat on the bearskin and Anna kept running her fingers through my beard. Is that the picture you want, babe?”

“Howard Proctor, you tell me the t ruth.”

The truth, as Howie told it, did mention the bearskin punctured by Anton Hesse, and it mentioned, too, a painting of Anton on the parlor wall. Howie knew Cora would not be satisfied unless his recital came cluttered with details, and he started with his walk along the driveway, bordered with white poplars, his meeting the watchman and the dog, what he said, what Howie said, his knocking the knocker on a big white door that was opened by a flat-faced woman in a black dress who asked him what he wanted, and he r id he had an appointment with Miss Hesse, and she took his hat. Here, he made the acquaintance of Miss Brownhill, a lady who had done considerable breathing since her thirtieth birthday, and she wore, if Cora must know, grey slacks, a grey sweater, amber beads and a tweed coat with leather buttons. She told him to stay put and she would tell Anna.

Anna was at a table reading office files in a room large enough to make a profitable pool hall, and her eyes behind glasses were the color of cornflowers slightly wilted by a drought, and her hair was like the first blue smoke of a campfire. It was a good five minutes before she spoke to him. She asked that he turn his head to the left, to the right. Howie was bewildered and turned his head and, at her request, walked across the room and stood in front of a bookcase. Anna left her glasses on the table and followed him. She pulled a cord and beige curtains parted above the bookcase to show a painting of a bearded man. The eyes were the eyes of Anna, but more vividly blue, and the beard, as full and as glossed as a chestnut, closely resembled Howie’s fifty-dollar one. Howie was impressed. He knew it was Anton. He mentioned the eyes and Anna said the likeness there was secondary in interest to t he extreme similarity of the Hesse and Proctor beards. Howie hastened to say that his father had come from New Brunswick and his mother’s people from Pennsylvania, for he had heard of Anton’s proclivities in the early days.

Anna asked if she could call him Howard. He agreed and brought up the question of his joining The Mimes. He warned Anna someone had said he talked as if he had his mouth stuffed with a muffin. Anna said he might not have a speaking part. The Mimes had suggested they do a pageant illustrating episodes in the town’s history, a series of tableaux such as Anton selling his first six barrels of flour from a tent, to be staged in November, with chanted explanations given by two choirs, one representing the settlers and the other

the indigent native population. The young man in charge of the English course at the high school was working on the book. The music, too, would be composed locally. Howie would take the part of Anton.

“That’s what she thinks,” Cora said. “You’re not going through the summer looking as if you were left behind when the fleet sailed.”

Then Anna proposed they talk about him. He did, and when the Brownhill came with coffee he was surprised to find it was almost eleven o’clock. He had a cup, and Anna shook his hand. “Did she squeeze it?”

“Just a little.”

“I’m telling you something, How You’re not carrying those spikes on your face until November.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure, babe.” “You’d better be sure because I’ve got what it takes to put you out of The Mimes.”

“What?”

“Scissors.”

One of Howard’s peculiarities was a look of minor exhaustion which shadowed his face when he told a lie. Cora was almost certain she had seen the look and, after he was in bed, sat in the living room reviewing his story for discrepancies. She was convinced it was Anna and not The Mimes who had advised a pageant, and that Anna never had such an idea prior to the moment she saw him.

ALL THE next day Anna and tier money and the interest she took in Howard were thorns stabbing at Cora’s thoughts, and she was distressed when he phoned he would not be home for supper. He had been asked to eat with some of The Mimes.

“Where?” asked Cora.

“At Anna’s.”

“Did she phone you?”

“Yes.”

“She’s not using the Brownhill anymore. When will you be back?”

“As soon as I can, babe.”

From the window Cora looked up the slope at Anna’s house. Her mood was as blue as Anna’s hair. She thought Anna to be not a sweet old lady but an old goat, and there was no such thing as a sweet old goat, nor would Anna paint lier mouth or blue her hair if she were content to occupy herself with bricks and wall board and making money. She called Anna such names she was shocked herself when she heard them. The thought of cooking and of setting a single plate on the kitchen table upset her, and she dressed to go out.

Cora plotted the route he would take from the City Hall to Anna’s place and walked down the hill, but she never met him. She passed the garage where Howie had sold cars. It had changed hands a dozen times and now most of the building was torn down and there remained not more than gas pumps and a cabin, banners and a hundred naked lights and a neon sign that said The Happy Smiler and Used Cars.

She knew The Happy Smiler. His name was Zappy Max. He had sold against Howie in the old days. They had hated each other from Monday to Saturday at eight, but ten always found them beaming over the same bottle. She stood so long on the sidewalk under Zappy’s lights that Zappy saw her from his little cabin. He was greying now and had glasses. He gave her the happy smile and patted the fender of the car she was standing by before he knew her and called her Cora. He had not seen her for years, he said, and hugged her. He did not mention she had put on flesh, and from this charity she knew that time had not hardened the soft centre in his commercial heart.

“I’ve got fat, Zap,” she said. “I’m

fat and sloppy.” He took her han, .. 1 did not simulate surprise or contradiction, but he was quick to ask if she were in trouble. “I don’t know,” she said.

Zap said he saw by the paper Howie had grown a beard. Heard he still had it. Was Howie drinking? “No, Zap,” she said.

Zap meditated. He remarked that you would almost think middle age came in bottles, too, the way it affected some people. Some got sodden or mean, or sad, and some got crazy ideas like chasing after women.

“How’s not chasing, Zap,” she said, “hut 1 think he’s being chased and I think he likes it.” Zap said the remarkable feature about marriage was that it was such a solid article compared to a week’s or a month’s or two months’ caterwauling with some loose little twirp, and anyway such cases always came to an end as quick as a cold in the head. if he kept a bigger office he wouldn’t hire a woman tinder forty and she’d have to have a face like a sailor.

“It’s not one of the girls at the City Hall,” Cora said. “Zap, it’s Anna Hesse.”

Zap took off his Panama and wiped the inside with his handkerchief. Anna Hesse, he said, had been old enough to vote when Howie still was pushing his lips against a comforter. That was a funny one. “She’s phoning all the time, Zap. She’s got him to promise to act in a play.” Act? said Zap. Since when had Howie become a male milliner? He should be selling cars.

Cora looked out and saw a man by the side of a panel truck kicking at the tires. She said, “I guess I’ll be going, Zap. You’ve got a prospect.” At the door she said, “I can’t stand it. I’m afraid of Anna. I don’t know what I’m fighting. I’m walking out, Zap.”

She had a bowl of chowder and a wedge of pie, and went to a movie that was showing two features. It was after eleven before she reached the house. The paper was still on the porch. She changed to slippers and a dressing gown, and waited for Howie, sitting under the lamp, and she told herself that at twelve she would phone the blue-haired Anna to send the man home, but she knew she was fooling herself.

IT WAS after one when she heard him on the steps. She never spoke. He took off his coat and said, “Flow are you, babe?”

“How are you?”

Howie was on the defensive, and puzzled, for from her mildness he saw no reason why he should be. He said, “I’m all right, babe.”

“How, why don’t you start selling cars?”

“Who for?”

“For Zappy Max.”

“Zappy? What’s he got besides a junk yard?”

“You could sell there in the evening. He’d have you.”

“Babe, I’ve got my minci on other things.”

“What other things? Beards? Bluetopped women? Bricks?”

“Watch it, fat girl!”

“Watch it yourself, you louse! Do you think I’m standing by while people point their fingers at you, saying, there he goes, the man with the beard, the one Anna takes an interest in, you know, a Mime, a male milliner, you know, works for the Water Board, the man with the beard, you know, do you know the man with the beard, you dirty louse, do you think I’m going to take that?”

“Shut up! Ail you’ve got in your fat head is a filthy mind.”

“How, I’m trying to tell you everybody in town will have a filthy mind.” “Just let me get a good job and do

you think I’ll care about that?”

“Do you care about me, How?”

“Not when you talk crazy.”

“How does Anna talk? Does she tell you how lonely Anna’s been all alone in a big house with a big barn, and no one understanding her until she meets a big man with ä wonderful beard, and could she touch it? Was anyone at her house besides yourself, How? Go on, tell me.”

“Fat girl! Fat girl!”

“You’re going to shave, How, and quit seeing Anna or I’m pushing you out. I’m going to see a lawyer. I’m going to bleed you. And you can tell that blue pig, too, that I’m not getting a divorce.”

“Fat girl!”

“Call me that again.”

“You heard me.”

“Call me that again.”

He stood up with his coat in his hand. She said, “You take the back bedroom. I’m pushing you out.” He opened the door to the room they never had used and closed it very quietly.

Cora slept until ten. She saw that Howie had gone to the office without his breakfast. She made coffee and phoned The Happy Smiler. She said, “I’m leaving him, Zap. I’m not spending time with a man who looks as if he made cough drops for a living.” She wondered if he had put down the phone. “Do you hear me, Zap?” He said he did. “Can’t you do anything for me, Zap?” He said he was thinking. He asked how many cars could he put in her front yard. “Why, Zap?” He was overstocked, having twelve cars too many on which he would pay storage of two bits a day each, if she didn’t mind, and if the landlord didn’t mind. “Zap,” she said, “in this neighborhood anything goes. 1 could keep twelve elephants and he wouldn’t care as long as he got his rent on time.” She should think up a name, he said, like Howie’s Hack Emporium or Cora’s Cariotta, or something like that. Any tag that would put character in the business. She could use her own front room for an office. If she made a sale, he said, the commission would be ten percent.

AT FIVE, as the quitting whistle at the brickyard blew, Cora went out to the porch and sat on the steps. The ornamental pine had been cut down and so had the single cypress, and there were two rows of three cars on each side of the walk. She took inventory and checked with a typewritten list Zappy had left her and was relieved lo st rike the same balance she had had at half-past four. When she was count-

ing the light bulbs strung between twoby-fours the Smiler had nailed to the fences she saw Howie. He staggered and his mouth fell open. Gasping, he climbed the steps and sat beside her.

She said, “I’m in business. You’d better pack your bag.”

He said, “Cora!”

“You’re out, boy,” she said.

“What happened, baby?”

Cora ignored him. A youth was bouncing the springs of a roadster his own father had probably admired when he too was a juvenile delinquent, and Cora rose from the step with a happy smile. She looked at her list. “I’ll have to phone Zap,” she said. “This price is different from the one on the windshield.”

Howie spoke with a tremor, but audibly for the first time since coming home. “One’s the price you ask, the other’s the price you’ll take. Watch me, babe.”

She saw that he had, after all, the ability to be an actor. His face dripped cordiality, interest, scorn, determination, simplicity and triumph when he came back to Cora with a twenty-dollar hill. “Give me a paper and I’ll write a receipt,” he said. “Sold for a hundred. Balance on Saturday. What’s the commission, babe?”

“For you,” she said, “the commission is nothing. We don’t hire salesmen with beards.”

“I can sell that nine-hundred-dollar one tonight to a fellow in the office.” “All you can sell is bricks, boy.” “Baby, I got a fever in my blood. I’ll shave if you let me sell the ninehundred-dollar one.”

“What will you tell Anna?”

“What’s the commission, babe? I'm not running to Anna’s if I can make ninety bucks.”

“That’s the commission. Ninety.” “Get the scissors, babe!”

“All right. And tomorrow I’ll buy some slacks and keep all the cars dusted. How about it, How?”

He said, “Babe, before I shave, we have to have an understanding. No slacks.”

“Why not, How?”

“I said no slacks, baby.”

“What’s wrong with slacks?”

“Do you want me to take this heard up to Anna’s, fat girl? I said no slacks.” “You calling me names again. How?” “Baby, 1 think you’re swell. I just said no slacks.”

“1 think you’re swell, too, How.” “No slacks, babe?”

“I could wear a smock with them, but if that’s how you want it, How, no slacks.” ★