I Can Get It for You Wholesale, page 24
“You mean just like that you got rid of him?”
“Oh, well,” I said, dusting my ashes elaborately, “just like I get rid of anything else I can’t use.” Hm. “There were a couple of minor details, of course, but I’d taken care of all that in advance. I knew he’d run to Babushkin, so I’d spoken to Babushkin in advance. I knew he’d run to the lawyer, so I’d fixed it with Golig in advance. In fact, before Teddy Ast knew what hit him, he was out on his ear with nothing but his original investment and his share of the profits to date, which, compared to what that business is capable of earning, is the equivalent of not only taking his shirt, but his pants too.”
“You mean that from now on the whole business is yours, Harry?” she said, leaning toward me across the table.
The light began to dawn so suddenly, that for a moment I almost forgot to look down into the front of her dress. But you don’t get as far as I’ve come if you haven’t got a halfway decent portion of self-control. So I managed to keep my face straight and at the same time get my look in, too. Hell, I was paying for it.
“Practically,” I said. “I’ve still got Babushkin, but I really need him. He’s my designer. But I’m not worrying about him. There’s one thing you can be sure he’ll never die from, and that’s brains.”
“Gosh, Harry,” she said, shaking her head at me admiringly. “A young man like you, with a business like that!”
Well, anyway, it looked admiringly. But whether it was or wasn’t, there was one guy she wasn’t kidding. And that was the president of Apex Modes, Inc., Harry Bogen, to you.
“This is only the beginning,” I said. “You just watch my smoke.”
Smoke was right. I was hot enough to burn.
“How about another drink?” I said. “Waiter!”
“Oh, no, Harry, please! I’ve had enough.”
“Let’s get something to eat, then.”
“Gosh,” she laughed, “don’t you ever want to do anything but eat?”
“Sure,” I said quickly, “but this is about as good a substitute as I know.”
Am I subtle! Boy, like an after-dinner speaker.
“Yes, sir?” the waiter said at my elbow.
I looked at her. “No, nothing, Harry.”
“Check, please,” I said to the waiter.
In the cab going uptown I put my arm around her, but when we came to her door and she said, “Good night, Harry, call me in the morning,” I wasn’t surprised. I was disappointed, but not surprised.
And even though I was in the same place I’d been every night at the same time for almost a month, out on the sidewalk, this time I wasn’t sore.
The first time she’d stopped me at the door, I admit I was surprised. Maybe, I thought, maybe, Mama knows best. Teddy had said she had some kind of a heel of a husband floating around somewhere, but I didn’t attach much importance to that. I didn’t even ask too much about it. It was enough for me that they didn’t live together. That’s all I ever want to know about husbands. So at first I figured maybe I’d picked a foul ball. But then I remembered how attractive she was, and all the guys hanging around her in the showroom. There was no sense in kidding myself. She had dates and she went out with married men, too. And when a dame like that goes out with a married guy, it’s not so he can read poetry to her, either. So why should it be any different for me? If she wouldn’t have been married, I’d have thought well, maybe. But she was married, or she’d been married. So what was one more slice off a cut loaf? The first time I figured all right, maybe the flag was up. But I’d seen her every night for almost a month. So that was out, too. Which left what? Until to-night the answer was search me. But now the answer was different.
And that’s why, even though I was still standing out on the sidewalk, this time I wasn’t sore, the way I’d been every other night. Because this time I had the combination. Now, at last, I had the formula. From now on at least I knew where I was going. I was going to play her way. It was going to be expensive, but what the hell did I care about that? She was an actress, wasn’t she? Actresses weren’t like bookkeepers or stenographers or models. You had to play them differently. But that was all. Once you got the hang of the game, the rest was the same. And whether dear old Martha knew it or not, she was going to come through with a bang.
The best part of all, though, was that I had a hunch she knew it all right.
MOTHER PRETENDED TO BE surprised when she saw me.
“Oh,” she said, “look who we have to-night! A guest in the town!”
That was a nice way to start off an evening that I knew in advance was going to be lousy.
“What’s the matter, Ma?”
“Nothing,” she said, setting the table as she talked. “Only it’s getting already a surprise to see you when it’s still light enough so we shouldn’t have to turn on the electric.”
I reached for a piece of bread, but she pushed my hand away.
“Here’s the point,” she said, giving me the hard brown end of the loaf. “I saved it for you.”
“Thanks, Ma,” I said.
I bit into the rubbery chunk and chewed slowly.
“What time did you get home last night?”
“Oh, it wasn’t late,” I said.
I was thinking fast, trying to shift the conversation to another subject—it would get back to this soon enough—but I couldn’t.
“Sure it wasn’t late,” she said. “He comes home God knows when—fourteen, fifteen o’clock—so by him it’s not late. Sure not. It’s already early in the morning.”
She screwed up her face and twisted her lips in an exaggerated imitation of my expression and said, “Aah, Ma! Aah, Ma! Everything I say, all the time I talk, it’s by him always ‘Aah, Ma!’”
She made a motion of disgust with the ladle she was holding and turned back to the pots on the gas range.
After a few moments I said, “Well, Ma, what do you know that’s new? Anything happen during the day?”
“What do you want should happen? The skies should fall? The ocean should dry up? What do you want should—?”
“No,” I said, “I was just asking, that’s all. Can’t I ask a simple little question like that, without you getting all excited?”
“Who’s excited?” she demanded. “You see maybe I’m excited? You ask questions like a donkey, so I answer them you should understand. That means I’m excited? Go, go, eat better. Talk a little less and eat a little more. The talking isn’t worth by you anything, anyway, so at least do a little eating.”
I began to eat slowly, still thinking of the best way to begin. But I knew it was useless. There wasn’t even one good way. So how could there be a best way?
“Oh, yeah,” Mother said suddenly, turning from the gas range with a plate in her hands. “I forgot to tell you. Ruthie called you up.”
“I guess it just accidentally slipped your mind, didn’t it?” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, “I forgot all about it.”
Yeah! Like she forgot to collect from me when the end of the week came around.
I continued to eat in silence.
“About seven o’clock, she called. Maybe a few minutes after.”
“That’s not a bad time to call,” I said, still eating.
She set the plate down before me and took up the one I had been using.
“I told her you weren’t home,” she said.
“Since I wasn’t,” I said, “that was the best thing you could do. After all, there’s no sense in lying about it.”
“Don’t you wanna know what she said?”
“No,” I said. “I can guess.”
She set down the pot she was holding with a bang and turned to face me, her hands, on her hips.
“Listen, Heshie,” she began.
“Please, Ma,” I said. “Let’s not get into an argument over Ruthie Rivkin. I didn’t come home for that to-night.”
Well, there was the opening. What the hell was I afraid of?
“Nothing,” I said. “What ever gave you the idea I came home for any special reason?”
“Nothing,” she said sarcastically. “Except only for God knows how many weeks already you’ve been coming home with the chickens, three, four o’clock in the morning, ruining your health—”
“I am not,” I said angrily. “I feel all right. So what if I do come home a little late? I don’t get up till late the next morning, do I?”
“In my house,” she said, “you’ll do your sleeping at night, like regular people, not during the day.”
“All right, all right,” I said, mumbling in a low voice to make her forget the long speech she had been starting out on.
“So,” she continued, “after so many weeks of showing your face for a couple of minutes in the morning, before you grab your behind in your hands and run like a crazy one downtown, now, to-night you all of a sudden come home half-past seven, like a real person for a change, and you sit down with a face long like a horse, and then you ask me how I know you came home for a special reason? What am I all of a sudden, a dope?”
“Aah, hell, Ma, that’s—”
“Never mind with the ‘Aah, hell, Ma’ business. I know you a little longer than you know yourself, my Heshalle. You became all of a sudden smart since you became a businessman. But I was smart yet when you were peeing in the diapers, Heshalle. You can be smart with those dumbbells you got for partners. But don’t think you can be smart with me.”
I figured there was no sense in trying to put one over on her.
“All right, Ma,” I said quietly, “I did come home early for a special purpose.”
“I wanted to tell you something,” I said, smiling suddenly and talking lightly. “I’m taking a little place downtown, near my business. I’m going to be living away from home for a while, Ma.”
I should have known better than to try to treat it humorously. Her own manner changed abruptly. The anger went out of her face and she dropped into her chair at the table, facing me across the dishes.
“You’re not going to live home,” she said quietly.
“It’s only for a little while, Ma,” I said. “Maybe a couple of weeks or so. Till we get the new line going good.”
She stared at me without speaking for a few moments. Then she said, “You know, Heshie, sometimes I wish you were back again working for fifteen dollars a week.”
“Aah, Ma, that’s no way to talk. This won’t be for long. It’s only on account of business that I’m doing it.”
“Business!” she said bitterly.
“It is business, Ma,” I said quickly. “You know I wouldn’t lie to you. It’s on account of business I’m doing it.”
She shook her head.
“I don’t say you’re lying to me, Heshie. I don’t say it’s not business,” she said.
“Then what’s the sense of feeling that way about it?” I said. “The way you act, Ma, somebody would think I was dying or something.”
“It’s the same thing,” she said. “Since you started with that business of yours, you’re not the same. The business sees you more than I do.”
“Don’t say that, Ma. It’s not true.”
“I don’t have to say it,” she said. “Other people say it. The neighbors they say it. I get all dressed up. I put on the fancy clothes you bought me. I put on the fur collar. I walk in the street. The neighbors they stop me, they tell me how nice I look, they ask me where I get the nice things. I tell them I have a son and how good he is to me. And they look at me like I was a little crazy. You have a son, they say? They never see you. You’re all the time buried in that business of yours.”
“What do you care what the neighbors say?” I said. “Does it matter to you what they say? You still have me, haven’t you? It’s not like I’m going away to Europe or something. I’ll still be here in the city. And it’ll only be for a couple of weeks or so. I’ll send you all the money you need. I’ll send you dresses and things like that. I’ll even bring them up to you when I’m not busy. You know that, Ma.”
“What’s the good of having fine clothes, of having a fur collar, if when you walk in the street the people think you went and bought it for yourself? How do people know I have a son if they never see you?”
Well, I could see where she’d be working that line to death for a while. I swear, if I had the guts, I’d handle these things by mail.
“I think you pay too much attention to what the neighbors say. If they want to talk, let them talk. I can’t run my business to suit the neighbors, Ma.”
“There’s other people in business, Heshie. Not only you. Why is it other people, they run their business, they make a living, they come home at night to their wives, to their children, to their mothers. Why should it be different for you?”
“Because I’m in business differently from them. They work like niggers, they make a little profit, they come home, and they’re satisfied. They might just as well be working for somebody else for a salary. I don’t want that. You never get rich that way. If you want to get rich in business, Ma, there’s no time for coming home at night and sitting down and wasting time. You’ve got to work at it twenty-four hours a day. When I’m through at the place, I have to take buyers out, I have to entertain, I have to do a thousand things, Ma. I can’t be satisfied with just a little bit. I can’t sit back and say all right, I’m getting by, I’ll take a rest. I can’t do that, Ma.”
“But why?” she cried. “Why should it be different for you? Why shouldn’t you be satisfied with a little, like everybody else? What do you need the whole world money for?”
“I don’t know, Ma,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s hard to explain those things. I could do things the way the others do. But it wouldn’t be me. I got my own rules. With me it’s a question of giving as much as I’m taking. If I wanted to be satisfied with a little money, so I’d spend a little time in my business. But I want a lot of it, so I have to spend a lot of time at it, that’s all. But what’s the sense of talking,” I said, “you don’t understand, Ma.”
“Don’t worry, Heshie,” she said. “I understand only too well.”
First she said she didn’t understand. Then she said she did. Well, that’s the Bogens. We learn fast.
“I’ll be living downtown for a while, Ma,” I said. “And that’s all. It’s not going to kill anybody.”
She looked at me without blinking, as though she hadn’t heard my last words.
“You know what I sit here and try to figure out, Heshie?” she said finally.
“How a thing like a few months in business could change a person so. What,” she asked, “what can your business give you that your own mother can’t?”
Martha Mills instead of Ruthie Rivkin, for one thing, if she really wanted to know.
“I swear, Ma,” I said, shaking my head and smiling at her, “you ought to be an actress. All I keep hearing is how I’m changing. What kind of silly talk is that? I’m changing! What am I, getting taller? My nose is getting shorter? My hair is changing from black to red?”
“I wish it only was that,” she said.
So did I.
“Then let’s forget the whole thing,” I said, starting to get up. “I don’t know how the hell we ever get into these long-winded arguments—”
She continued to stare at me, without moving, and I dropped back into my chair.
“I think I know what it is,” she said.
“You don’t need me any more,” she said slowly. “You got something you want better.”
“Aah, Ma,” I said sharply, “you know that’s not true.” It makes me sore as hell to have to go around insisting I’
I reached across the table and took her hand in mine, but there was no answering pressure when I squeezed it.
“That’s it,” she said again, “you don’t need me any more. You’re not soft like you were when you were a boy, a year ago. You don’t need a rest any more. You’re hard now. That’s what business did for you. That’s what those rules of yours, that’s what your way of doing business, did for you.”
“That’s not true, Ma,” I said. “I feel the same as I always did. I’m not different.”
She nodded and smiled a little. But it wasn’t funny to see.
“Yes you are, Heshie,” she said. “You said it yourself. There used to be a time when you had to come home at night. You said you had to come home and sit by the table and eat blintzes and stretch your legs out and get a rest where nobody is going to jump on you from the back, like you said. You said—I remember even the words—you said you had to come home because here it’s not—you said it yourself—here it’s not dog eat dog.” She shook her head. “But it’s not like that any more. You’re hard now. You don’t need a rest any more. Now it’s all right by you if it’s dog eat dog all the time.”
“I don’t know what wound you up to-day, Ma,” I said, shaking my head. “I come home and tell you a simple little thing like that I have to sleep downtown for a couple of weeks because of business, and you give me a long speech about I don’t like you any more, I don’t have to come home any more, I don’t have to do this, I don’t need that, I’m changed—for crying out loud, Ma, what’s going on here?”
“Maybe a year ago you would have understood me,” she said, getting up and beginning to collect the dishes. “But now—” She shrugged. “Maybe it’s my fault, too,” she said. “Maybe I should have talked to you before. But now, now I’m afraid it’s too late. You’re changed, Heshie, you’re changed.”
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