Sunday, June 16, 2013

Issue #54 -- June 2013

By Arlette Lees

Chic Denver sits in the morning sun in front of The Stag Hotel For Single Gentleman, his hat on the sidewalk in front of him. He doesn’t sing or play the harmonica, but people still drop enough change in the blind man’s hat to keep him in whiskey and smokes.

Chic has always lived on Lower Commerce Street, but in his sighted days when he ran numbers, he was a snappy dresser and lived much higher on the hog. In the 1950s, Commerce is a mixed neighborhood, not yet entirely black. It’s squeezed between the packing plant and the railroad tracks on the lower east side. The street is lined with bars, pawn shops, gaming rooms, back street brothels and tenements. If you press your ear to any wall, you'll hear both laughter and tales of woe in equal measure.

Chic’s troubles began five years ago, as all troubles begin, with a woman. His common law wife, Ruby, watched him enter The Edge of Town Motel with a fancy lady in a faux leopard coat. When they emerged two hours later and, laughing and a bit tipsy, headed toward Chic’s canary yellow Caddy, Ruby was waiting with a cup of acid at the ready, rendering him blind and burning smoking holes the size of kittens in the faux leopard coat.

Chic might have told Ruby that his sister, Hissy, was driving in from Detroit for a visit, but no self-respecting sporting man hands a woman his daily itinerary. Besides, he’d already concocted more “cousins” and “sisters” than your average Mormon patriarch, so she was unlikely to fall for that malarkey again. She was unreasonable, but she wasn’t stupid.

The judge, who presided over her trial, said he’d never seen a more vindictive woman, always focused on the dark side of human nature. When Ruby left to do her stretch, their one-year-old daughter Chickadee, now six years old, stayed on with Chic in the tight-knit neighborhood of grifters, gamblers, hookers and drunks.

“You already got two bits in your hat, Paw Paw,” says Chickadee. She’s a cute little doll face with soft caramel coloring and ten stubby braids on the crown of her head, each fastened with a blue butterfly barrette.

“Well, that means lunch from the hot dog stand, doesn’t it?”

As the August morning warms up, kids race down tenement steps with balls and squirt guns and little red wagons filled with dolls and toy trucks. Chickadee follows them to the vacant lot like she does every day when the weather is good. As she disappears from sight, Chic’s best friend, Johnny O’Brien, comes out of The Stag. Johnny’s a whippy young man in button-fly jeans, black leather jacket and a gun concealed in his waistband.

“It’s me, Chic,” he says.

“I know. I can smell your aftershave. Who you trying to impress?”

“Guts Collins wife, Sally. He’s been roughing her up pretty bad lately.”

“You’re sleeping with Sergeant Collins wife?”

“Let’s just say he turned his back on the wrong guy. Listen Chic, we need her on our side. We’ve only got two weeks to make the big score.”

“You trying to get yourself killed?”

“I’ve been working on that since the day I was born.” Johnny sputters a laugh and Chic joins in, his gold tooth flashing in the sunlight. That’s how they always start the day, laughing and joking.

Johnny knows that tonight the bars, brothels, bookie joints and gaming rooms will be heavy with weekend cash. That’s when Guts, weighing in at a dainty 300 pounds, drops in to collect his weekly cut. Anyone brave enough or stupid enough to buck the system can expect a raid or a mysterious fire, maybe even have their liquor license pulled. After his bag is full, Guts gets his ashes hauled by Georgia Flynn above the Velvet Camellia. He’s not a hard guy to find if you know where to look.


Nine p.m. Johnny and Sally wade through the smoky interior of the Velvet Camellia Bar on Fulbright Street. She’s small and cuter than most of the other girls who started smoking and drinking before they dropped out of high school. As they climb the narrow stairway to the cribs, Georgia passes them on her way down, a cigarette smoldering between her fingers. The cancer in her throat gives her voice a gravelly sexuality, but her breath smells like dead fish.

“He’ll be here any minute,” says Georgia. “I was just doing my job, Sal. I hope you know I meant no offense toward you. That old man of yours cracks another rib with that gut of his, I’ll be in the bread line.”

“No offense taken,” says Sally. “Come on, Johnny, let’s get this done.”

Fifteen minutes later, Tom the bartender, passes the weekly envelope across the bar to Guts who puts it in the bag with the rest of his ill-gained loot. As he starts up the stairs, the building lists to starboard. A nail squeals. A board snaps like a dry chicken bone. He enters the room, puffing from exertion, and sets his bag on a chair. Johnny smells the fat man’s sweat from behind the closet door.

Guts looks toward the bed and sees a lump hidden beneath the red velvet blanket. Not much of a welcome for one of Georgia’s regulars.

“Come on, let’s get with it,” he says. “I’m late for church Bingo.”

The closet door bursts open and Johnny stands there with a gun, catching Guts with his pants around his ankles, his tool buried inside a pillow of fat.

“What the hell!” says Guts. “How did you get in here? What’s going on?”

“Plenty,” says Johnny. “First I’ll take the bag.”

“You can’t fucking do that! I’ll have you up on a charge of grand larceny.”

Johnny snorts a laugh. “Because I stole the money you stole first? That’s choice coming from a dirty cop that hasn’t passed his fitness requirement in ten years.”

Guts hurls the bag at Johnny who catches it casually with a left hand like a steel trap. It’s even heavier than he’d hoped.

“You just wait. I’ll get you for this, you shanty Irish trash.”

“We got one more surprise for you,” says Johnny. Sally throws backs the covers and sits up in bed, waving a piece of paper.

“SALLY!” Guts’s heart bounces painfully in his chest.

“Divorce papers, darling. Caught you with your pants down. You contest it and Georgia’s going to spill the beans in court.”

Guts’s face goes from beet red to a sickly shade of corpse grey as he clutches his chest. A light falters and extinguishes in his eyes. His knees wobble and he goes down with the grace of a wrecking ball.

“Shit. That was almost too easy,” says Johnny.

Johnny, Sally, Georgia and the bartender split it four ways.

“By the way, you got a dead elephant in Georgia’s crib,” says Johnny.

“Jesus, you didn’t have to…”

“I didn’t. It was natural causes.”

“How the hell do I get him out of here?” says Tom.

“Out the window,” says Sally. “I’ll give you the number of my piano mover.”


It’s a balmy starlit night, Chickadee tucked in with her doll. Johnny waits in his folding chair on the roof of The Stagg for Chic to come up, ice cubes rattling in his tall glass of bourbon. He looks over the rooftops of the only home he’s known outside reform school. Back then it was a dumping ground for kids whose parents had abandoned them. He’d learned a lot when he was in Corrections, all of it useful, but none of it good.

He’s nursing his drink when he hears a commotion on the street and looks over the low rim of the flat tar roof. Chic’s in a squabble, the uproar spreading like a fast-moving virus down the block. He stashes his whiskey and bag of cash behind the chimney and races down the stairs.

Johnny gets to the street and sees Chic faced off with a lumpy colored woman in a tight red dress. Her blonde wig looks like a cat sleeping on her head.

“You’re not taking Chickadee anywhere,” says Chic, groping for his cane. “She my baby now. She happy here.”

“No court in this land is going to keep a mother from her chile and give her to a blind man on the skids.“

“What’s the problem here?” says Johnny, calm as a cucumber. He touches his friend with a reassuring hand and gives him his cane.

“Who the hell you be, cracka?”

Johnny does not respond.

“Ruby’s come to take Chickadee,” says Chic, trembling and near tears.

“Naw,” says Johnny. “She looks like a reasonable woman. You’re a reasonable woman, aren’t you Ruby?” He sees a man leaning against a black Buick at the curb. His arms are folded across his chest, his eyes hidden beneath the shadow of a yellow plumed hat. “That your pimp?” says Johnny. “I wonder what the courts would have to say about him.”

“I done my time. He done his time and I got my rights. The only reason Chic is the baby daddy, is cuzz I says so and I ain’t saying so no more.”

“What’s the kid worth to you?” says Johnny, shifting his weight casually to one hip and lighting a smoke.

“What do you mean?” she says, suddenly giving Johnny her full attention.

“A thou? Two thou? Kids are a lot of trouble. Why should a pretty lady like you tie yourself down?”

Her eyes take on a suspicious, but greedy, glitter.

“We can make it two, can’t we Chic?” says Johnny.

“Sure, Johnny. Two be a righteous number.”

“Where you get that kinda dough?” says Ruby, hands on hips.

“What, you want a notarized chain of custody or you want the cash? Let me just go inside. I’ll be right back and we’ll settle up.”

“So you can take the kid out the back door. You think I was borned yesterday?”

“I’d let you come with me, but it’s stashed on the roof and you can’t make it up the stairs in those fancy high heels.”

“You just watch me, little man,” she says, the cat on her head slipping slightly to one side.

There’s not much light on the roof, just a red bulb above the access door. Johnny picks up the bag and starts counting the bills.

“Let me see what you got there,” says Ruby.

“Stay away from the edge. It’s a long way down,” but she’s already in his face, pawing at the bag with fingernails the size of garden trowels. “Don’t crowd me, Ma’am.”

“Maybe, two big ones ain’t enough, big boy,” she says.

“How about this instead?” He leans down and picks up his glass of bourbon. “Remember the acid? Bet it burned like the devil. Here’s payback,” he says, tossing it in her eyes.

“It burns!” she shrieks, clawing at her face. “I can’t see!”

“Neither could Chic…Ma’am.”

She takes a few awkward steps backward, stumbles on the low rim circling the roof and goes girdle over wig to the sidewalk.

Johnny looks over the edge to make sure that no one is hurt on the ground. Chic’s chair is flattened on the concrete, Ruby’s head looking like something that fell with great force from a watermelon truck. Yellow Hat jumps in the Buick and takes off like a man with warrants in multiple jurisdictions.

Johnny is amazed at the power of suggestion. It was just bourbon and ice, for crissake. But then, Ruby’s mind always did focus on the dark side.


Two weeks later, Johnny and Chic drive west toward the setting sun, Chickadee napping in the back seat with a doll in her arms, pink teddy bear barrettes on her ten stubby braids.

“You sure about this?” asks Johnny.

Chic shakes his head. “Gotta be done.”

Hours later, they pull in front of a large brick building in Chancellor City. It’s set among green lawns and shade trees and a giant sun dial that catches the moonlight.

“What if it doesn’t work?” says Johnny.

“They accepted the application and we got the scratch.”

The three of them walk up the flagstone path to a solid oak door, Chic’s hand touching Johnny’s arm, Johnny carrying Chickadee’s suitcase. He thumps the heavy brass door knocker. A man in a long black cassock opens the door, a slice of light spilling across the stoop.

“Father Donnell?”

“Yes. What can I do for you?”

“I think you’re expecting Mr. Charles Denver and his daughter, Rose Marie. I’m his friend Johnny O’Brien.”

The priest’s eyes linger briefly on the father and child, clearly not at all what he was expecting. There’s a fleeting moment when things might go either way. Then Father Donnell breaks the silence.

“Well, yes, yes, I am. I …” He shakes Johnny’s hand, then Chic’s. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Denver. Welcome to St. Bede’s, Rose Marie.” Chic hands the priest a year’s tuition stuffed in a wrinkled, slightly greasy paper bag smelling vaguely of Chinese food.

“It’s to the penny, Father,” says Chic.

“I’m sure it is,” he says, noticing a soy sauce packet floating among the bills. He looks at Chickadee. “Would you like to come in so Sister Margaret can show you around and introduce you to the girls?” She looks up at Chic and he feels her eyes on his face.

“It’s okay,” he says.

Johnny hands the priest the child’s suitcase.

“It’s a little late,” says Father Donnell, “but if you like we can give all of you the guided tour.”

“It’s been a long drive, Father. Why don’t we let her get settled in and we’ll come back on orientation day,” says Chic.

“Very well.”

The little girl tugs on her father’s sleeve. “Paw Paw, will I ever be Chickadee again?”

“You’ll always be my little Chickadee, baby, but Rose Marie Denver is the name of a young lady who’s going places in this world. You go on in now.”

There isn’t a lot of conversation on the way home. Finally Johnny says, “We pulled off the big score, didn’t we?”

“Did we ever,” says Chic, flashing his gold tooth. “First colored child ever admitted to St. Bede’s Catholic Boarding Academy For Young Ladies.” A few moments pass in silence. “So, now that Guts is out of the way, what are you going to do about Sally?”

Johnny gives him an incredulous look.

“Same as you’d do. I’m going to run like hell.”

And that’s the way they always end the day, joking and laughing.  

Arlette Lees is a crime fiction writer whose latest book, Angel Doll-A Crime Novel, from Wildside Press, is available at Amazon Books. Her next novel, Hollywood Heat, featuring 1950s detective, Rusty Hallinan, is scheduled for release later this year. She publishes both here and in England and is a regular in Hardboiled Magazine, edited by Gary Lovisi. She writes from northern California.

1 comment:

  1. Dogtown shantys or Penthouse rooftops this story plays where it wants to 'cause it touches us all right in the heart. And nobody that counts ever minds laughter -- 'specially when it's coming from kids. Very, very cool.