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Authors: David O. Stewart

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BOOK: The Babe Ruth Deception
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Chapter 11
E
liza disliked the Marlowe, a theater that had decayed too quickly. The lobby carpet was frayed at the edges. Paint had flaked off the flowers carved into the ceiling molding. The air was weighted with stale cologne and dust long undisturbed, plus a hint of mice concealed in unexpected numbers. Eliza felt the implied judgment of such neglect, that the objects neglected—the building and the lives lived inside it—didn't matter. Nothing survived that judgment.
This theater could have been much more. Barton Marlowe was a canny old pirate. He made his pile in the two-fisted business of shipping fruit from Central America. Once rich, he set out to buy respectability and glamour by building this theater within a block of Times Square. He might have pulled it off if he hadn't choked on a fish bone at a downtown restaurant. Young Bart, his son and a man destined always to be called Young Bart, lacked his father's nerve, his drive, and his charm. When the loans on the theater came due, Young Bart didn't have the gizzard to face down a roomful of bankers that his father would have laughed at. Young Bart inherited the Marlowe name and the Marlowe Theater. Neither would outlive him.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in!” Eliza smiled at the sight of her cousin Wilfred. His silver hair slicked back, Wilfred was dapper in cutaway evening clothes, preening next to a handsome young man. Eliza never could recall their names. Not that it mattered. There would be another soon.
After greetings, Wilfred asked what brought Eliza to the plebian rural melodrama that was premiering that evening. “Personally,” he added, bouncing on his toes, “I'm expecting to nap
outrageously
during each act! I've asked Herbert to disturb me only in the event of
loud
snoring. Anything less can only enhance the performance.”
“Oh, the director's an old friend. I promised I'd come. I'm hoping to slip off after intermission, after gushing over the brilliance of the show.”
“Dear Eliza.” Wilfred dropped his voice to a conspiratorial level. “Wouldn't it be ever so much easier if we could simply offer our praise now and skedaddle, thereby salvaging our entire evening to our preferred pleasures?” Wilfred chuckled and raised a meaningful eyebrow toward the smiling Herbert. In anything more than the smallest doses, Wilfred made Eliza's teeth ache. He was, however, family.
Abruptly, Wilfred suggested that Herbert find their seats, then guided Eliza toward a quiet corner. As other theatergoers swept past, Wilfred returned to his confidential tone.
“Dear Eliza, I've been absolutely wracked with the most exquisite indecision over whether to tell you this.”
Eliza waved at a friend and began to pull her gloves off, finger by finger. Confidences from Wilfred usually carried the whiff of scandal. The old reprobate gloried in his own scandals, flaunting his boyfriends with no restraint. Eliza resolved to propel her cousin's story as quickly as possible. “Wilfred, I do need to get on.”
“Oh, you want to hear this.” Eliza experienced a small flip in her stomach. Their family had secrets. Big ones. Stepping between Eliza and a group walking by, Wilfred began to describe a recent late-night outing to a black-and-tan club in Harlem. “The kind,” he said with sparkling eyes, “where all the handsomest darkies dress up in their Sunday best and dance to that evil jazz music that corrupts us innocent white folk.”
“Wilfred.” Eliza's tone signaled diminishing patience.
“I'm getting there, my dear.”
A tall couple stopped to congratulate Wilfred on a new role he had landed in a comedy that would open that summer. When they left, Eliza asked why he took the part. “You know that Jesperson hasn't written an amusing line in ten years. He'll throw in some smutty references, have the actresses smoke cigarettes and cross their legs, and hope that the sensation of it all will sell tickets.”
“Dear Eliza,” Wilfred said reproachfully. “We gentlemen of a certain age can't afford to be too fussy about our roles.”
Duly chastised, Eliza offered her own congratulations and turned to go. Wilfred put a restraining hand on her forearm. “That night at the black-and-tan? I ran into Violet, with a very handsome young Negro.”
Eliza froze. “What do you mean?”
“My words were quite clear, Eliza. Don't play the ingenue with me.”
“Did you know him? Tell me.”
“I didn't know him, but she introduced us, didn't bat an eyelash. They seemed to be having the gayest sort of evening. Though not actually dancing, of course. Poor dear.”
“Stop it, Wilfred. Who was it?”
“His name was . . . I think it was Joshua. Is that the lad that Jamie helped save from catastrophe last year in France?”
Eliza lost the power of speech for a moment, then recovered. “You're sure you got the name right?”
Wilfred didn't dignify the question with a response. “You know, my dear, he was spreading a lot of money around, and my, was he dressed beautifully. Of course, he has the figure for it.”
“When was this?”
“Perhaps three weeks ago. Perhaps a month.”
“And you didn't tell me?”
“Later in the evening, Violet stopped by my table and swore me to secrecy. That's why I have dwelt in such exquisite indecision. When I saw you here tonight, it was a great relief, the prospect of banishing that agony from my thoughts.”
Through the melodrama's first act, Eliza paid no attention to it at all. The actors might have been speaking Danish for all she cared. When the house lights came up for intermission, she found the director at the lobby bar, flashed her best smile and raved about the script, the sets, the divine experience. Two minutes later, she was hailing a cab.
* * *
Eliza arrived in the apartment like a brisk wind. She covered the distance from the front door to the sitting room in the time it took Fraser to look up from his newspaper. His bourbon glass sat empty. The sight of her determined face made him grateful that he had delayed the decision to refill it. Whiskey-delayed responses would only trigger waspish comments. He sat up and pulled his feet off the hassock.
“Where is that girl?” Eliza demanded.
“Violet? She went out.”
“Out where? With who?”
“She went to a show with that nurse from the clinic. Joan, that's her name. You know how they've become thick as thieves.”
“Hmmph.” Eliza sat on the couch facing him. The storm clouds plainly were about to burst.
Fraser sought shelter in remembered details. “They went to that musical, the one you said was overrated.”
“Like hell they did.” Eliza took a cigarette from the metal box on the coffee table and lifted the heavy lighter next to it. Fraser placed his paper on the hassock and waited. The lighter required four tries to ignite. Eliza took a deep drag and sat back. “I ran into Wilfred at the theater tonight, before the show.”
“How is the old dear?”
With a quick roll of her eyes, Eliza made it clear that Wilfred had not stopped being garrulous, well-meaning, and tiresome. She took a contemplative pull on her cigarette. Fraser imagined the glow of its tip as a third eye at the bottom of her face. He blinked to clear the image.
“He was brimming over with news.” She stubbed out the cigarette and pointed at his empty glass with her other hand. “Give me one of those.”
Oh my, Fraser thought. Not some charming story about dotty, exasperating Uncle Wilfred. Fraser might as well freshen his own drink. When he delivered hers, Eliza took a healthy swallow.
“Violet is involved,” she said, “romantically involved, that is, with that Joshua Cook. Your friend's son.”
Fraser set his drink down, far more violently than he had intended. He breathed a curse he rarely used. “What are you saying?”
“What do you think I'm saying?” Eliza's eyes were bright and her cheeks flushed. “They're seeing each other. They're sweethearts, lovers, flames, valentines, whatever cloying, nauseating term you wish to use. And it's disgusting, and it's been going on right under our noses.”
“And you had no idea?”
“For Christ's sake, Jamie. Don't you think I would've mentioned it? And what about you? Did you have any idea? Of course you didn't.”
“You're her mother.”
“You're her father.” She had stood. Her face was inches from his, heat coming off it in waves. “Just—just—just look what you've done, you and that Speed Cook of yours. You brought those people into our lives and now they've ruined everything. Ruined.”
“You're blaming me for this?” He stepped away.
“Jamie, there are lines in the world for reasons, thick bright lines. People need lines. You can't just act like they're not there. Like they don't matter.”
The words in his head fell over each other. What she was saying was wrong, but what did that matter? What mattered was Violet. He walked to an open window that looked out over Broadway. He had to make sense of this, not just give in to anger. He drew several deep breaths. He couldn't believe this. Two delivery wagons wobbled down the street, the hollow clop of hooves on pavement carrying up to the window. A few voices reached him. A limousine roared uptown, noisily shifting gears as it gained speed. Fraser wondered if it was going to Harlem.
When he turned back, Eliza was seated again, one hand shading her eyes. “So,” he said, clipping his words. “Wilfred knows this? He actually
knows
it? It's not some inference based on gossip picked up from one of his boyfriends?”
“Jamie,” Eliza scolded. “That's beneath you.”
“Give me the whole story, what Wilfred said.”
After she was through, Fraser asked, “He's sure it was Violet?”
“He's known her all her life, Jamie. Anyway, there aren't that many beautiful blond cripples. Not even in New York City.”
“She's not a cripple, she limps.” Fraser hadn't meant to shout.
Eliza looked away. Since September, he was always the one to say that Violet would be fine. She'd walk again. She'd dance at her wedding. Time and hard work, that was the ticket. Eliza couldn't do that. She had to brace for the worst, to say the worst out loud so maybe it would lose its power. The more harshly she said it, the less power it would have. She hated how it sounded but she kept doing it; she needed to do it to keep her expectations from outrunning what her daughter could manage. She knew it hurt him, but she couldn't help that. “Have it your way,” she said.
“How long?”
“How am I supposed to know? Really, Jamie. I had no idea this was going on, and you—you wouldn't ever notice anything outside your sacred laboratory, where you're curing the sick and the halt and the lame.”
Fraser let it pass.
“Jamie, this is serious. She's not a child.”
“Yes. Yes, I know. When was this, when Wilfred saw them?”
“Weeks ago. Violet swore him to secrecy and the damned fool felt honor-bound to respect his pledge. What a time to discover his honor. When he saw me tonight he decided he couldn't keep the secret any longer.”
Fraser was pacing behind the chairs that faced the couch. “Please stop,” she said. “I'm on edge enough without having you on sentry duty.”
Fraser sat. He crossed his legs. His top foot began to jiggle. The newspaper on the hassock mocked him, a meaningless artifact of how simple his world had been twenty minutes before, when he had read quietly about other people's problems. He drank off the second bourbon.
“How could she?” he said. “And not say anything to us?”
Eliza looked sad. “Not telling us is the easy part to understand. Look at us, how we're acting. Would you tell us?”
“I don't know. I don't know what to say.”
“I don't even know how she could feel that way about him.”
“I don't know that, either.” He stood and started to pace again, jamming his hands in his pockets. “What do we do? How do we keep her from throwing her life away on this infatuation? He's a fine fellow in some ways, I know that. But really—they've got nothing in common, and what could her life be like with him? The world isn't ready for this sort of thing. It can only end terribly.”
“Wilfred said he made a big show of spending a lot of money.”
“Really? The last time I saw Speed, he said Joshua couldn't find decent work.” He made a face. “I wonder if he's a bootlegger. It's the only way to go from unemployed to rich in a few months. He couldn't make that kind of money working with his father. Christ, that would be perfect. A criminal, to boot.” Fraser rubbed his hands together. They were cold. “So, did Wilfred at least try to talk her out of it?”
“He probably thinks that's the responsibility of Violet's parents.”
“A responsibility that can't be discharged when Wilfred ensures that we sit here for weeks in ignorance.”
He saw that Eliza wasn't listening. She had a faraway look and spoke in a quiet voice. “She simply has no idea what she's doing. She can't.” Eliza looked over at Fraser.
“It's that terrible bombing, her leg,” he said, standing still for a moment. “It's made her desperate. She thinks she's damaged goods and will never be worthy. I saw it overseas. The wounded soldiers, the worst of them, they just felt like they were . . . less. It was so hard for them to get any kind of confidence back.”
Eliza said nothing. He began to pace again. He stopped and ran a hand down his jaw. “Maybe you and she could take a trip to Europe, get away from all this. Let time do its work. She's got to get over this.”
BOOK: The Babe Ruth Deception
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