The story so far…
Joe was on the way up in the world, a young VP heading for a partnership in Triple-I. He met Celia at one of Rudi’s famous parties in Miami. A whirlwind courtship was followed by a wedding and romantic honeymoon. But the honeymoon didn’t last. Both Joe and Celia eventually had numerous affairs which gradually took its toll.
Then one day in Chicago, Joe found a photograph from the Roaring Twenties hidden in the drawer of an old desk. Apparently taken at a sporting event it showed a woman looking straight at the camera, although the focus of the camera was really a man sitting close by; the infamous Scarface.
But it was the woman who captured Joe’s attention. Separated from her by a generation, she yet seemed to be staring right at him… but just who was she? He felt a powerful attraction toward her. A sensation grew that she and he were a part of the same story. But what story? In this Part Two we being to find out…
* * *
By N. G. Edwards
'Tis but her picture I have yet beheld,
And that hath dazzled my reason's light;
Proteus, of Julia, The Two Gentlemen of Verona: II, iv
The day was fine, bright sunshine, no clouds and warm. I hailed a cab and told him to take me downtown. As we negotiated Chicago traffic, the driver insisted on filling me in on some of the notable landmarks. It’s a common trait with cabbies – that’s a term I picked up in London England, a few years back – they seem to need to talk, often about nothing, and sometimes with accents you can’t understand. This guy was obviously Mexican – not so common this far north of the border – but, to give credit, he did demonstrate he knew at least something of local history. Our (mainly one-sided) conversation began.
“You in town on business?”
“No. I’m flying from O’Hare tomorrow.”
“That’s a shame. There’s some great places in town. Very historical, Chicago. Many famous places.”
We drove on, him talking, me sometimes listening and throwing in the occasional platitude to show he wasn’t speaking to a brick wall. After a while he indicated out the window. “See there?” There was a vacant lot where scaffolding was being erected, nothing special that I could see. “That’s where the Lexington used to be. Famous hotel, used by Al Capone.”
I felt a tingle. Al Capone. The photograph. With the woman. Well no, perhaps not with her, but close.
“Prostitution, racketeering; he did it all from there. He had a vault inside. They opened it on live TV but there weren’t nothing to see. Building got pulled down in the 80’s and now they’re gonna put up condos or something.”
I responded with a meaningless grunt, but my attention had been caught. The cabbie continued.
“Yeah. He organized the St. Valentine’s day massacre but never got caught, even though everyone knew it was him. Did time for tax evasion, can you believe it? They couldn’t pin nothing else on him, see. Then he went and died from syphilis. That’s kinda poetic, ain’t it? Him being behind the prostitution, and all.”
From nowhere I was overcome by a sudden and overwhelming urge to get out.
“Okay, you’re the boss.” The driver pulled over and I disembarked, dropping some bills into his hand. “Hey, thanks, man!”
I knew I’d given him way over the clock with the tip but I didn’t care. It was just paper; and anyway, right at that moment a compelling need was driving me to be out on the street. Not just any street: this one. And not just anywhere on the road but right there. I can’t say if there’s such a thing as fate – I’ve never been much of a one for philosophizing – but if ever I could have been persuaded about destiny, that was the moment.
So there I was in the Loop, stood on the corner of Cermak and Michigan, an officially retired businessman seeking… what? I watched the men working on the site for a while. They were oblivious and didn’t watch back. Now what? The urge to be somewhere was still pushing at me so I began walking east along Cermak towards the Great Lake. A refreshing breeze was now coming in from that direction and scores of gulls were wheeling overhead, raucously calling to each other. I hadn’t gone far when that scent I’d originally noticed when I first looked at the photograph returned, coupled with a certain conviction that I was being watched. I stopped walking but the feeling persisted. Turning slowly I cast around and there she was, across the street, the woman from the photograph, dressed in the same clothes, hair held by a black hat, the wide brim of which fluttered a little as the wind caught at it. She was standing by the open door of a black, nineteen-twenties Cadillac, complete with running plates and looking wholly incongruous against the host of modern vehicles that sped carelessly between us. She didn’t say anything but I knew she was waiting for me. I crossed over.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said. Her voice was old Chicago, all drawn out vowels and hardened t’s. Without warning she put her arms around my neck and kissed me. Then, letting go, she asked “You wanna get a brat? C’mon, get in. I know a joint.”
I slid into the passenger seat while she fired up the engine. The smell of old cigars and hotdogs permeated the vehicle, augmented by the taint of cheap perfume and even cheaper booze. Before I could think further she twisted sideways, and again put her arms around me, smothering me with a deep, energetic and totally passionate kiss. I just sat there, stunned. As our lips parted my vision blurred momentarily. When it cleared my perceptions of the world were changed. The vibrant colors, sounds and smells of modern Chicago were replaced by… to be honest exactly the same colors, sounds and smells only… different. Older. Seedier.
The woman spun the wheel and we drove off, I don’t rightly know where. After a time we pulled over across from an alley sandwiched between buildings that looked like, one day, their tops would collide. We got out and the city was a completely different place to the one I knew. The street was crowded, pedestrians and cyclists outnumbering automobiles by a large factor. The buildings were different, newer yet grubbier. It was like being on a movie set where the overall effect the director was aiming at was smudgy brown. This was the Chicago of yesterday.
The woman from the photograph led me into a café, a word that gave the place way more credit than it deserved, where we settled at a table by the window.
“The caaffee’s free with your order. Whadda ya wanna eat, there?” A hard-faced women in a stained apron placed two cups of hot black in front of us.
I said nothing but my hostess seemed to have already decided for me. “Two brats, extra onion, hold the mustard.”
While the waitress was filling our order my companion took hold of my hand, and caressed it. But not a tender caress; it was sexual. Her foot started to play the length of my shin. An excitement surged through me, jogging loose a memory from junior high when red-headed Moira dragged me into the girls bathroom and introduced me to the pleasures of her early-pubescent body: first and second base without even trying! And here that thrill was returned, that same sense of naughtiness, of risk from being caught. I resisted the impulse to reach across the table and touch her skin, play with her hair. Instead, I freed my hand to take the photograph from my pocket. The woman pulled her foot away and watched from behind the steam rising from her drink.
“Yeah, that’s me. Sure seems a long time ago.”
“But how? It can’t be you! In the picture. I mean, you haven’t changed. Not one bit! All this time? How?”
She put down her cup and shrugged. “Who knows?”
The waitress returned with a sour expression and placed two bratwürsts smothered in onions on the table. Then she disappeared to attend to other patrons.
“Snorky never liked these,” my companion told me, taking a large bite. “Eye-talian, see? All he ever ate was Eye-talian.”
Her image in the photograph was accurate. She wasn’t especially beautiful; her nose was too long, her mouth too wide, her hairstyle too, well, old-fashioned – although maybe it was swish in its day. And to be frank, the way she ate reminded me of a dog snuffling after food in its dish. There really wasn’t much you could call lady-like about her at all and yet… there was something…
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Who are you? What do you want with me?”
“Julia. That’s my name. And I’m here because you and I, honey, are meant to be together.”
Between mouthfuls, Julia recounted her story.
“There was lots of us girls, of course: Betty, who took up with Leo Vincent’s brother; Viola, Anna, Catherine, Louise – she ended up with that scumbag Jack McGurn. We all hung around the wise-guys. Then there was Gladys, Lena, Marion, Josephine, Victoria, Louise. And Mae Coughlin, of course. I’d team up with Snorky when she wasn’t around. Most of us started out working for the syndicate one way or another – and I ain’t saying what we did was right and proper, but a girl’s got to make a living somehow. The boys would take us to the best restaurants and speakeasies. We’d go see a show, or to the track, or a ball game – that’s where that photo was took, ya know.”
I interrupted her, briefly. “Who’s Snorky?”
“Al. The guy in the photograph. Don’t tell me you didn’t recognize him. Everyone knows Al. Snorky’s what his closest acquaintances called him. Except Mae – she only ever called him Al. We lived the highlife, alright, and some of the girls got under the skin of some of the guys, and got took off of the streets to live in fancy apartments. I guess that’s what most of us dreamed of…”
She was talking quickly, so fast that sometimes her words seemed jumbled up, but I was spellbound by her Southside brogue as well as the cheap scent that somehow made it to my nostrils over the powerful würsts.
“Yes?” I prompted.
“He was the biggest. The best,” she continued, a dreamy haze crossing her eyes. “When he talked about the other girls he called them floozies and for sure he was right, but he always called me Julia and never once bad-mouthed me. Did I say I was his favorite? I met him before any of the others, even Mae, way back when he first arrived in the Big Apple. But then, she was the one he married, soon as he found out she was pregnant.”
She took out a cigarette and lit up with a silver lighter. I looked around, half expecting somebody to complain, but the place was empty now, asside from the waitress, and she was sitting behind the counter staring into space. It struck me then how unreal everything was. It all seemed solid enough. I could feel the heat from the coffee, taste the savory odor of the meat, hear the traffic outside – if this was a dream then it was one like I’d never had before.
“In the very early days, back before Snorky got to be big, before the twenties had even got started, I was working for a guy named Johnny Torrio in New York. I’d run away from Chicago because of my father. He was a bastard, beat me every day. The Big Apple was a dream to me, much swankier than slum-town Chicago and Johnny treated me okay. He introduced me to Snorky when he was just a kid. I guess I kinda fell for him right off the bat. He said he liked my Windy City accent!”
She laughed and I couldn’t help hearing an echo of the gulls. What the hell was it that I found so absorbing about this woman? I couldn’t deny it, though. The more she talked, the more I caught the light in her big brown eyes – definitely her best feature –the more I found myself being sucked into her strange web of attraction. A libidinous understanding of men almost oozed from her. Floozy. Hooker. Street-walker. They were just names but what she had went beyond words. That was why it was inconsequential that she didn’t conform to any archetypal vision of beauty or femininity. She didn’t need to look like a movie star; sex leeched from every pore. Any man who put himself totally in her hands knew from the very start that there was no way he’d ever leave unsatisfied.
“I tended his face when he got into that fight over Frank Gallucio’s sister,” she continued, “after Al said she had a nice ass. That’s the only time I ever heard him say he was sorry to anyone; Lucky Luciano and Frankie Yale made him apologize and I figure that maybe saved his life. He and Gallucio made up, later. Al gave him a job as a bodyguard.” She sighed. “You know, we had some good times just Snorky and me. Even after he met Mae, though not so much.”
I had never before, and never have since, had a conversation so strange as that one. Not much of a conversation, I suppose, since mainly I just listened.
“She was two years older than him but he still fell in a big way. Then he got her pregnant. When I heard there was a baby on the way I knew I’d missed my chance. I told him I’d step aside, not get between them, though it cut me to do it. And then you know what? The baby died, early on, during the first semester. Lots changed then. Snorky pulled back from the rest of us for a while, stayed close to Mae. She was family, see? It’s an Eye-talian thing, family. Very important to them. He pretty much never left her side except on business. Well, hardly never. But he was still a man, with a man’s needs, and it was kind of expected for the wise-guys to show they were still big with the ladies, keep their reputations. And at that time Snorky was a wise-guy who still had a name to make.
“So he came to see me – just me, none of the other girls.” There was emphatic possession in her tone. “More than once, the first time not two nights after Mae aborted. Said he needed what his wife couldn’t give him just yet.
“I ain’t no dumb Dora. I never took stupid risks. I always made sure my Johns were protected, even though they complained. And those that did complain didn’t do so for long once they knew I was working for Torrio. But when Snorky said he didn’t want to wear no shadow… Well, I couldn’t never say no to Snorky.”
This tale, fascinating though it was, frustrated me. I was still no closer to learning what this was all about. Before I could prod the conversation on Julia continued, only now there was a hard edge to her words.
“On the night I gave birth Snorky came to the maternity hospital with some of the guys. He’d covered the cost of all the care: private room, full-time nurse, nothing but the best. But now he wanted payment. And he took it!”
No man can ever fully appreciate how a mother must feel when her child is snatched from her, the fetus she bore and nurtured within her belly for nine long months, the baby she gave birth to. I saw no tears but I felt the wash of emotion that poured from her, a heavy, terrifying flood of loss that no dam built by man could ever have held back.
“You asked why I was here and what I wanted,” she said. “So now I’ll tell you. I want that you should ice your wife.”
Ice. I knew what she meant. It was one of those words hijacked and twisted into a cruel irony by secret monsters who needed to convey by code the real words they were afraid to use. Bump, clip, hit, ice, waste, whack – they all meant the same thing. Should I have been more shocked by what Julia had said than I actually was? Probably not. Our society – by which I mean all our neighbors in the affluent West – is enlightened by the media, and the media is a beacon stoked by the inextinguishable flame of violence. Newspapers, television, movies – anything with access to the human eye is awash with images of unrest, upheaval, crime, death. Okay, it’s sanitized to a degree, at the insistence of a few self-selected vociferous caretakers of the moral well-being of the people – though I sometimes wonder if that constraint wasn’t engineered by the media barons themselves, who knew well the benefits of titillation: give ’em a taste of the insalubrious and unwholesome, engineer a protest at the vulgarity of it, then sit back and wait for ’em to clamor for more.
But I shouldn’t blame the press or Hollywood. All they do is profit from the troubles of the real world. Most of the time what they show isn’t made up. And I did have personal motive, of course. After long years of marriage my feelings towards Celia had hiked their way down from mere dislike and were now camped close to the border of serious animosity, hatred even. The idea of getting rid of her was not a new thought, though I believe it had never before been more than a fanciful consideration.
As we sat with our coffee and brats that morning, I didn’t then know the history of Julia’s baby and I didn’t learn that until our later. Our first meeting was suddenly and abruptly brought to a close by her rising from the table and announcing she had to go. She dropped some greenbacks at her place and walked away, leaving the sausage half eaten, the coffee half drunk, and me like a cake mix ready for the oven with no chef around to finish the job. It was a week before I got to see her again.
By the time I got out the door Julia and the Caddy were out of sight. I looked around. The neighborhood had seen better days but it was full of life, like a pair of patent leather shoes that were worn and faded and had soles as thin as paper but were still determined to give the wearer more miles yet, before they were ready to be discarded. I saw old-style vehicles driving the streets – Buick 45’s, Packard Eights, Dodge Brother’s Tourers, autos I’d only before seen in museums or old movies. But the cars weren’t the only oddities around. There were men wearing cloth caps wheeling barrows loaded with fruit and vegetables, women dressed in styles my own mother would have found out of date in her youth. Everything around me was as old as the photograph, yet as solid and real as the cab I’d stepped from forty minutes earlier.
The surreal vision made me feel nauseous, like I was on a carousel that was spinning too fast. Giddy, I closed my eyes tight, held my breath and leant against a streetlight for support. How long I rested there, brain spinning, heart pounding, I’ve no idea but at some point a voice cut through and somebody shook my arm.
“You okay there, buddy?”
Cautiously I parted my eyelids to let in a sliver of light. A curious and concerned face was looking at me. A freshening breeze washed my face. The sepia-tainted imagery from the last century, when flapper girls had Charleston’d their way through the Great Depression, when law enforcement and the criminal elite were practically indistinguishable, when you praised the Mob for their speakeasies with one breath and cursed the sound of their Thompsons with another – all gone as if never there, and twenty-first century Chicago restored. Wherever I’d been, however I’d gotten there, now I was back.
I whispered thanks to my benefactor. I was fine. Just suffering a little exhaustion.
Letting go of my support and lurching away I guess the impression I gave was probably of someone who’d imbibed more than his share, but I didn’t care. I wandered the street for a long time, trying to sort out my crazy head-full of thoughts. I didn’t come up with any answers that would pass for rational. Eventually I gave up, found a taxi and returned to the C&CB.
It all seems so long ago, now, but it’s actually less than a year.
I recall that I didn’t stay much longer. I know I engaged in fragmentary exchanges about nothing in particular with some of the other guests before I said my goodbyes, but I wasn’t really attentive. My thoughts were elsewhere and my distraction did not go unremarked. Rudi asked if I was okay, and at one point Celia came up and asked if I’d seen a ghost. I forced a smile and muttered something about being so used to living with her for so many years I wouldn’t notice a real ghost if one passed right through me. I remember the frosty look as she left to fondle the buttocks of her beau, right where she was sure I would see. I slipped away from the function pretty soon afterwards.
The next day I left my apartment – I was staying in one of the suites on the top floor of the C&CB that we kept for senior management and important clients – and returned to the room where I’d found the photograph, but the decorators were at work in the corridor so I didn’t even get out of the elevator. As I continued my journey to the first floor I fished the picture from my pocket. There she was, still looking at me, a curious half-smile on her lips. I wondered who she was. I was soon to find out.
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©2014 by Nigel Edwards. All rights reserved
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