Marie was smoking a cigarette, as she stared through the slats of the venetian blinds. She ran her hand along her thigh. “Goddammit!” she cried.
The nylons were new, and she had to catch a train. If she rifled through her valise, she would be late, but if she let it go this run would work its way down her leg. And that would be bad. No one liked to see a woman with a run in her stocking.
She put out her cigarette and looked at her watch: 6:15 PM. If she hurried, she could mend the run. The train didn’t leave until 7:00. She unzipped the valise and removed her cosmetics case. Taking the top off a bottle of clear nail polish, she went to work applying the substance to the top of the run. It would be sticky on her leg, she knew that, but it was okay. Better that than a run on the train.
People looked at you when you had a run. Women gave you one kind of look. Disapproval, the kind the nuns gave you back in school. Men, another. They’d want your phone number — if they could get away from their wives, sitting next to them. If they were alone, they might follow you to the dining car. There wouldn’t be much dining on this trip, though. The last of her bank account went to the train ticket and Marie was broke.
She walked over to her handbag, which was lying on the bed, and took her last two twenty-dollar bills out of the change purse. She folded them, pulled up her dress, and inserted the money into her stocking, near to the garter at the top.
She was hightailing it out of Chicago, New York bound, on the Twentieth Century Limited, to her sister’s apartment in Yorkville. That afternoon she’d stopped in at a Western Union. “COMING FOR A VISIT. HAVE TO LEAVE TOWN,” her telegram read.
“What happened?” Inge asked when Marie reached her on the telephone at Velma’s bar.
“Well, I can’t explain the whole story now,” Marie answered. “Suffice it to say, I’m in a world of trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?” Inge asked.
“I’ve lost it all,” Marie answered. “He cleaned me out.”
“But he seemed like such a good sort,” Inge said.
“Oh, he was. In the beginning,” Marie responded. “He was kind, handsome, and the perfect gentleman.”
“Then what happened?” Inge questioned.
“He took me for a ride,” Marie replied.
The bookstore had been quiet that day. Rain always kept the customers away. Late in the afternoon, however, a young man stopped in and pulled his umbrella shut.
“You can leave it in the stand right there,” Marie said, pointing to the wall behind the entrance door.
“What a day,” he said, with a wide-open smile. He walked back out to the vestibule to shake off the umbrella then stepped back in and placed it in the stand. Marie noticed his tousled hair and piercing blue eyes.
“Nice shop you have here,” he said, smiling.
“Oh, thank you,” Marie replied. “It isn’t mine, though. I only manage it for the owner.”
“I see,” the man said, smiling at her once more. “It’s still lovely, just the same.”
Marie felt the need to turn away for a moment. She feigned interest in the mug of coffee she had just placed on the desk.
“Is there something I can help you with?” she asked, picking up the cup, and bringing it to her lips. Luckily, the coffee had cooled off.
“Yes,” the man replied, “actually, I’m looking for a copy of…” he stopped. “Why…there it is!”
As he reached down to pick up a book off the desk, his hand came in contact with Marie’s, knocking the mug out of her hand and spilling the coffee all over her dress. It narrowly missed the blotter and assorted books on the desk.
“Oh!” she cried.
“My goodness, what a clod! I am so sorry!” the man said. “Here, let me help you.”
He reached into his breast pocket to take out a perfectly pressed white pocket square.
“My, you’re lovely,” he said, coming closer to her face. “May I help you?”
“Yes,” Marie answered, “you may,” and she let him dab at her dress.
“May I kiss you?” he asked.
“Yes,” Marie answered, surprising herself, “you may.”
He took her face in his hands and kissed her welcoming mouth. It wasn’t a hard, savage kiss, which was why Marie was so taken. It was a subtle affair, one which made her want more.
She stopped and looked into his eyes. “I don’t think I saw that coming.”
“No,” the man said, smiling. “Neither did I.”
“Don’t you think we should be introduced?” Marie asked, pulling just far enough away from him to get some distance.
“Introduced…why, yes. Absolutely!” the man answered. “I’m Steven Mann.”
“Steven…well, nice to meet you,” and Marie extended her hand to playfully shake his. “I’m Marie. Marie King.”
“Lovely to meet you, Marie,” Steven responded, returning the handshake.
“And you,” she replied. “I think…”
After they cleaned up the spilled coffee, Marie sold Steven the book, and he kissed her once more. He walked to the curb and hailed a cab. Marie stood at the window, lit a cigarette, and watched him go.
Then she pulled out her black suede purse from the bottom desk drawer and walked to the bathroom at the back of the shop. Opening the purse, she pulled out her compact and lipstick. As she applied powder to her face and freshened the mahogany color to her mouth, she looked in the mirror. What in God’s name just happened? she asked herself.
Marie placed her valise overhead and settled into her seat. She was thrilled there was no one next to her, at least not for the moment, because she needed time to think. And to sleep. She closed her eyes and tried to drift off. But sleep did not come. Her mind was a swirl of thoughts, and memories. Of stolen kisses, and nighttime assignations.
Steven had come back to the shop the following week. This time, there were customers, and he couldn’t get Marie to himself. The manager of the store, a large and not very nice man named Watkins, was hovering nearby.
“I’ll take these,” he said, handing her a copy of Esquire Magazine and a copy of The Chicago Tribune. Meet me for dinner? he had written in a lovely hand on a small piece of notepaper he had torn from a breast pocket notebook.
Marie smiled and was surprised, and handing Steven his change, surreptitiously wrote back on the note, Yes, I’ll find you around the corner at 5:30.
“Hello!” Marie said, when she found Steven waiting for her.
“Hello, yourself,” Steven said. “Thank you so much for joining me this evening!”
He took her to the corner bistro, Hal’s, where they ordered hamburgers and martinis.
“Steven, where are you from?” asked Marie, as she sipped her drink. She thought she detected a faint British accent.
“London,” Steven said. “But I’ve been traveling for many years.”
“Oh, really? What is it that you do?”
“Well,” Steven traced a pattern with his fork on the white cotton napkin, “I’m an art handler.”
“I’m not sure exactly what that is.”
“I handle the installation of works of art for museums, companies, and galleries.”
“Oh, I see,” Marie said. “It sounds very exciting.”
“It can be. The nicest part is travelling and meeting new people.” He took her hand in his.
As Marie looked out the train window, she thought about that evening and how after they were done with their coffee, she’d allowed Steven to, against all her better intentions, walk her home. When they got to her stoop, she turned to him.
“Well,” Marie said. “This was a lovely evening, Steven. Thank you.”
“Wait,” he said. “I’m having too much fun. Couldn’t I take you out for a nightcap?”
“Oh, a nightcap. I don’t know about that…”
“Just one drink, Marie. We still have so much to talk about.”
“All right. You may take me out for one night cap.”
They turned left, and walked over to North Broadway, crossing the street, and stepping into the Green Mill, a former speakeasy and jazz club that once served Al Capone.
Settling comfortably into one of the circular booths, they ordered martinis, and talked and laughed. Steven was quite close to Marie, looking into her eyes – he had a disarming way of making prolonged eye contact – and she started to feel a little lightheaded. Next thing she knew another round of martinis that she did not order had arrived. She closed her eyes. I need to get a hold of myself, Marie thought.
Steven placed his hand on hers. “Marie are you okay?” he asked, concerned.
“Yes…I…I think I need a glass of cold water,” Marie answered.
“Waiter!” Steven called. “Please get the lady a glass of ice-cold water immediately.” Marie was impressed with Steven’s urgency.
After a long sip Marie felt a little better. “Steven,” she said, “I really need to get home. I have to be at the shop at 9 AM.”
“Oh, all right,” he replied. “Break a man’s heart…”
“Steven…don’t be that way,” Marie chided.
They walked back to her stoop and climbed the stairs together.
“Now, Steven, I have to say good night,” Marie said.
“Yes, you do,” he responded. “But not before allowing me to kiss you.”
“All right,” she said. “One kiss…” and she brought her mouth up to his.
Steven put his hand behind her head, taking her soft raven hair in his fingers, and passionately kissed her. Marie did not put up a fight. In fact, she took his face in her hands and pulled him closer.
“Wait,” she suddenly said, stepping back from him. “I don’t want to stand out here,” and she pushed open the unlocked front door, pulling Steven in with her.
They tumbled into the corner, continuing their kiss, when Steven found himself running his hand up to Marie’s breast. He stopped short.
“You don’t have to stop,” she said, breathlessly. She loved the way his hand felt on her breast.
Just then, a creaking sound was heard, and Steven and Marie separated, as Miss Jones, Marie’s upstairs neighbor, came walking down the stairs.
“Oh, hello Marie,” Miss Jones said as she opened the inside door.
“Good evening, Susan,” said Marie sheepishly.
“I’m so sorry,” Miss Jones said, as she maneuvered her way around Steven and Marie.
“No, please don’t be sorry,” Marie said, as she and Steven smiled at each other. “This is Steven,” Marie said.
“Pleased to meet you, Steven,” said Miss Jones, as she opened the front door.
“Nice to meet you, as well,” said Steven, and he and Marie looked at each other, then started to laugh.
“Well,” said Steven, “I suppose I must let you go.”
“Yes,” replied Marie. “You must. Good night, Steven.”
“Good night, Marie,” and he gave her one last kiss on the mouth.
The following Friday evening, Marie was closing the shop when Steven walked in.
“Mr. Watkins is still here,” Marie whispered. “I’ll meet you outside in five minutes.
“All right,” Steven said.
When she found him, in their spot around the corner, Steven looked different.
“Is something wrong?” Marie asked.
Steven took a moment. “I just found out I’m leaving town.”
“I have to be in Paris on the fifth for an installation,” Steven replied.
“Oh, dear,” Marie said, trying to hide her disappointment.
“I know,” said Steven, taking her hands in his. “Let’s go and get some dinner. You are free tonight, aren’t you? Or am I making an assumption?”
“Well,” Marie answered. “I was planning to meet a girlfriend for a movie, but I begged off because I wasn’t feeling up to it.”
"I see.” Steven said. “Are you feeling up to me?”
Marie looked into his piercing blue eyes. “Yes, I am.”
Marie was sitting on the sofa, sipping from a cup of coffee, describing her last night with Steven.
“Then what happened?” Inge asked.
“We had cocktails, then dinner,” Marie said. “We went dancing to the Benny Goodman Quartet. Oh, it was just the dreamiest night. Then he came back to the apartment, and he made such sweet love to me. And then, he let me do the same to him. He was the first man I’ve been with who’s made love with me, not at me.”
“Oh, Marie,” Inge said, sitting down next to her. “You’ve got it bad.”
“I do, don’t I?” Marie answered, as she sipped her coffee. “I have never had the feeling of being swept off my feet. I’ve heard of it, and now I know exactly how it feels.”
“Well, aren’t you the lucky girl?” Inge asked. “I certainly have never felt that way about any man.”
“You cannot imagine what it feels like.” Marie said. “Or I should say, felt like. Because the next morning, after Steven left, I was getting ready to go to work, and I went to get a pair of stockings out of my bureau drawer. When I reached in my intimates had been rifled through and the money — the $500 that was underneath — was missing.”
“Oh, my…” Inge said.
“I called Steven at his hotel room,” Marie said, “but he had already checked out.”
The following week, Marie accompanied Inge to the Webster branch of The New York Public Library. While she was looking for a magazine, she saw the Chicago papers on the stand. Picking up The Tribune, she spotted the following item:
Chicago Man Released After Fraud. Investigation Yields New Suspect.
A Chicago resident, Steven Mann, was acquitted of charges that he stole money from one Marie King, a female acquaintance of Mann’s. King filed charges against Mann, when she discovered a large sum of cash, the result of a recent inheritance, was missing from her Uptown apartment. While authorities initially questioned Mann and believed him to be the main suspect in the case, they now believe Mann was framed by another party, whose name the authorities have not yet released.
The motivation for the theft may have been a payback scheme for fraudulent artworks Mann was recently accused of peddling. Authorities now believe Mann had nothing to do with the scheme and was, instead, being framed by the suspect in custody.
Marie put the paper down on the table. “Inge!” Marie whispered. “Look at this!”
Inge picked up the paper and started reading. “My goodness!” she said, after a few minutes.
“I’m stunned,” said Marie. “I don’t know what to say.”
On Monday, Marie was stepping down the subway stairs, on her way to a job interview, when she saw a reflection in the puddle on the floor. A well-dressed man was climbing up the opposite stairs. Rapidly, his reflection disappeared, but Marie couldn’t help thinking about Steven.
Velma was filling the ice bin when the telephone in the booth began to ring.
“Ach, always interruption,” Velma complained.
She put down the aluminum ice scoop on the bar and slid shut the top of the ice bin.
“Hallo?” she said into the receiver. “Who?...Ah, yes…no, she no here, but I can give message…you hold please while I get pencil and paper.”
Velma put the receiver down while she stepped away to get a pad and pencil from her desk in the back room of the bar. She picked up the phone receiver once more.
“Yes, okay, I take message now…what name?...Steven” Velma wrote on the pad “Mann…yes…in Chicago…UP 5-1384...”
A native New Yorker, Anita Bushell, released Lilacs in the Spring and Writing in a Library in 2016/2017. She has been published in Ford Foundation Report, Plymouth Press, Uncensored and Brooklyn Friends School Journal. Her blogs, The Western Notebooks and The Stoop can be found on her website, AB.