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Authors: Jerome Charyn

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Howell had to sit in the hall like a prisoner until Mr. Hugo arrived. His mustache barely bristled. He seemed disappointed in Howell.

“You can't marry my little girl,” he said. “Not because you're the super's boy. I've always liked you, but I don't fancy you as my son-in-law.” Howell was fifteen at the time. “You'll never have an artistic career, and Naomi would die without culture.”

Howell packed whatever little he had, got on a Greyhound, and had been wandering ever since. He'd had a hundred different jobs until he discovered his own particular way with women. He'd never been rich, but it didn't really matter. He wanted no permanent attachments.

Now he was back where he started, and
his
Yankee Stadium sat like a feeble, gutted ghost beside the new stadium. But what irked him wasn't a green graveyard at the bottom of the hill. It was that other ghost out of his childhood.

“Nando, what is Miss Naomi doing in 6A?”

“She never left. She's been sittin' up there since the day she was born.”

“Even when the crackheads ruled this part of the Bronx?”

Nando sneered at him. “We never had crack at the Lorelei. Mr. Hugo still owns the building. He and Miss Naomi gotta eat.”

“Did the Little Miss ever marry?”

She had many suitors, Nando said. “She was a real ball breaker.” She had invitations to Italy, cruises along the Nile. The finest Manhattan chefs were chauffeured uptown to give her private cooking classes. But she had no one to test her new palette on except her own papa. And so she prepared candlelight suppers near the Lorelei's wrap-around windows that looked out onto the ravaged heartland of the Bronx. And after all her tutors, and all the little tasks, she ended up in Mr. Hugo's office, as some sort of executive secretary.

She was ravishing in her tailored jackets and argyle socks. But a hardness appeared at the edge of her mouth. She looked at you with eyes that were like tin telescopes. Her voice turned shrill. She began to lose her hair. She herself managed several of her father's apartment houses. She would show up in a hard hat, like some truculent crusader. Soon she was limping, and then she couldn't walk at all. Specialists from Mount Sinai examined her for six months. She was confined to a wheelchair when she was forty. And she had sat and sat on that aluminum throne ever since.

Mr. Hugo was ninety, but he still hopped around on the balls of his feet, like that fencer out of Harvard. He still went to work, still made deals, when he wasn't gallivanting with Naomi in her wheelchair.

H
owell picked up whatever furniture he needed at a Bronx fire sale. No sheriff in Louisiana or spurned widow could ever have tracked him to the Lorelei. He lived directly below the Waldmans, in a kind of squirrel's retreat. All his life he'd lived like a squirrel, moving from one retreat to the next.

He found a note on his kitchen table. It was a dinner invitation for that very night, in a childish scrawl.

Dearest Carl, Welcome Home

Dinner at Seven

(We Eat Early in the Bronx)

Apartment 6A

It wasn't even signed, or perhaps “6A” was enough of a signature. He searched for a flower shop and a local winery and found none. He had to invade Manhattan in his Town Car for a white rose and a decent bottle of wine. He wore his best suit, with a paisley tie and a black-on-black shirt.

Mr. Hugo met him at the door. He was also wearing a black shirt.

“My protégé,” he said.

Howell liked to introduce himself with a bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild. The name intrigued him. He was certain it couldn't be found in the Bronx.

The little duchess sat on her aluminum throne at the dinner table, in the wondrous light of a candle. She had aged, certainly, and could have been puffed with cortisone, but she had on the same lipstick she wore at seven, the same red smear, when she was the Scarlett O'Hara of her elocution class. He offered her the white rose.

“Carlton,” she said, never even bothering to shake his hand, “that's rather daring of you.” Her voice had the same old fiddler's ring. That sound fired up his loins. He was her prisoner after a single sentence.

“Honey,” Mr. Hugo said. “Don't talk in riddles. You'll scare Howell away.”

“But it's not a riddle, Papa,” she said, thrusting the rose into her hair, with its thorns. “The white rose is the symbol of love as everlasting war.”

Smilin' Jack scratched his mustache and stared at his daughter. “That sounds a little like real estate . . . and we have nothing to sell Howell.”

“We have plenty to sell, Papa,” she said, while the old man used his corkscrew as some kind of tourniquet to suck that cork right out of the bottle of Bordeaux.

“And what are we selling tonight?”

“Me,” the little duchess said.

The old man sat down and started to pour the wine.

“Papa, you'll cause a scandal. You have to let that bottle breathe.”

She lurched in her wheelchair and took the bottle out of her father's hand.

“Sit,” she said to Howell. “And take off that tie. I can't really bargain while my suitor's wearing such an elegant rag.”

Howell laughed deep within his throat and shucked off his paisley tie. A few more minutes of her patter and he would have given all his bank accounts away.

She was the one who served the salad, who raced into the kitchen and raced back in her wheelchair. The old man never moved from the table. Naomi poured the wine after twirling the cork once or twice.

“Papa,” she said, wiping some salad oil from her mouth. “You shouldn't have broken our courtship.”

“I didn't,” he groaned.

“I might have married Carl.”

“You were thirteen—a child. Isn't that right, Howell?”

“Fifteen,” she said. “With Bronx millionaires breathing down my back. I wanted Carlton.”

“But he was the super's boy. He couldn't even play the fiddle.”

“He would have fiddled with me.”

She served the baked potatoes and the salmon steaks in their tinfoil. She refilled her father's glass.

“If you had really loved me, you would have taken Carl in as a junior partner.”

“People would have laughed at me . . . a cellar rat selling real estate.”

She swiped her father's cheek, softly, with her silk napkin, but it was the same as a slap.

“You were jealous of him,” she said. Then she turned on Howell. “Look at you. You never even crawled out from under my father's shadow. A pair of Smilin' Jacks.”

Howell was in misery. She'd robbed him of whatever little thunder he had left.

“Well,” she said, “you brought the white rose. What does it mean?”

“Love as everlasting war.”

“Didn't I tell you?” she said, rocking in her aluminum throne.

“Miss Naomi, I never loved another living soul.”

“And how long have I been waiting, huh, Carl?”

“As long as it took me to crisscross the country a dozen times, romancing widows and a couple of old maids who couldn't even hold a candle to you, swindling them out of a little of their life savings . . .”

“Well, I'm the oldest maid you've ever met. Why haven't you swindled me?”

Suddenly Howell was getting into the hang of talking to this hellion in a wheelchair. All her elocution lessons were just a mask. She was a chiseler from the day she was born.

“I think I'm the one who was swindled, miss. . . . You knew all along the hold you had on me.”

“And what if I did?”

“You sent me howling into the wind. I'm lucky to be all in one piece.”

Her face softened. She didn't have the same hard curl at the edge of her mouth. Her eyes bled the viscous color of tears.

“But you never wrote me once. You had my address. You didn't even send me a postcard from Arkansas. I had to have my revenge.”

“Wait a minute,” Mr. Hugo said. “This is taking a bad turn.”

And now she wheeled her aluminum throne toward her father with a cold fury.

“Stay out of it, Papa.”

They had pears in white wine, with a piece of fruitcake. Mr. Hugo didn't look up from his plate.

“Carl, I've only been with one man in my life, and that's you.”

The slice of fruitcake crumbled in Howell's hand.

“I'm going crazy,” the old man said, banging his temples with his fists.

“Carl,” she sang, “should I tell you a secret? He pays his own daughter to hug him at night. He can't bear to be alone. I wouldn't let him touch me with those claws of his. I wouldn't let him have a single kiss.”

She prepared the cups of demitasse. Meanwhile, her father began to shiver and cry. The little duchess tossed a tiny silver spoon at him and he stopped whimpering, but Howell bit right into the lip of his demitasse cup. He'd learned to chisel from these two. They were his teachers. He'd gone on the road with their sounds and smells inside him. His elocution had come from the little duchess, and his dancing swagger from this Smilin' Jack of the West Bronx. He couldn't stay at the Lorelei, or he would be sucked into this team of chiselers. They would swallow him alive.

He folded his napkin and set it on the table, as a child might do. And then he danced out of that apartment-castle on the balls of his feet. They were so occupied in the business of themselves that they didn't even know he was gone.

Howell left his fire-sale furniture for the super. He'd never even signed a lease. Perhaps nobody signed leases at the Lorelei. He had his passport and his bankbooks in the back pocket of his pants. Howell had never been abroad, and had crossed only once from El Paso to Juárez, just to see what it was like. All he found were wild dogs with dust on them and twelve-year-old whores. But a passport lent him some distinction, made him appear like a world traveler to the widows of Kansas and South Dakota.

He crept into his Town Car with a tiny suitcase and the shirt on his back. He was shivering in July. And he lit out from the Grand Concourse with his toe to the floor. Howell was running for his life.

ADONIS

I
was fifteen when Rosenzweig discovered me at the Frick Collection. We were both standing in front of Rembrandt's
Polish Rider
, and he came up to me like Count Dracula bathed in perfume and said, “Young man, have you ever modeled before?”

Some nabob with a boutonniere was always trying to flirt with me at the Frick. But Rosenzweig was all business.

“I'm a freshman at the High School of Music and Art,” I said.

He handed me his card, said his chauffeur would pick me up after class.

“I wouldn't want a young gentleman such as yourself to miss a day of school, even if it might make him rich.”

And then he was gone with that bloodless look of his, like a man made of whitewash. There was a limo waiting for me after class on Monday. We rode down off St. Nicholas Terrace, away from the gargoyles of Music and Art, and into the heart of Manhattan. Rosenzweig & Co. was the Cadillac of clothing cataloguers at the time, occupying a manufacturer's loft near the tiny synagogue for tailors at the corner of Thirty-sixth. It was like having an assault team on a single floor—with showrooms, a printing press, photography studios, and a rat's maze of little offices where Rosenzweig's proofreaders and editors worked from dawn to dusk to spit out catalogues according to his own brutal clock.

The racket was relentless; I fell right into the deafening roar. I had never seen such a hub of activity, with male and female models prancing about half-undressed. I had a terrible omen the minute after entering Rosenzweig's world of frosted glass. I recognized one of his models—Beth Bacharach, the Bronx bombshell who had dropped out of junior high last year and vanished from our streets. We assumed Beth had either been knocked up or kidnapped, and here she was on Seventh Avenue, modeling brassieres. She couldn't have been much older than sixteen, but she had the dazed look of someone who was mortally wounded. She didn't even glance up when I said hello.

I should have taken Beth with me and run from Rosenzweig, but I walked right into that labyrinth and was photographed wearing a muscle tee-shirt. I blame Marlon Brando. He had worn a muscle tee in
The Men
, playing a paraplegic with biceps bigger than ostrich eggs, and suddenly haberdashers all over town had tee-shirts in their windows instead of bow ties. The photographer, called Gabe, stood behind his tripod with a little black cloth over his head. He couldn't stop muttering to himself.

“The cheekbones, the cheekbones—finally we have our Tartar look.”

I was hired on the spot, before they had the chance to gaze into the developer. Rosenzweig and his accountant told me not to worry about working papers. I would be paid off the books, but I wasn't supposed to utter a word to my teachers at Music and Art. I would never have to skip a class or ride the subway at night; a limo would carry me door to door. Of course I suffered. I was an art student who dreamt of Gauguin's tropical sun and Van Gogh's missing ear. I had no time to paint. I had to read
Hamlet
after midnight, in the limousine, under the glare of a shivering lamp. But I had two hundred dollars in my pocket every week—it was 1953, and we were in the middle of a recession. My father hadn't worked in years. He'd fallen into his own dark time. My kid brother was too young to shine shoes. My mother was blind in one eye and losing her sight in the other. I was our sole support.

BOOK: Bitter Bronx
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