Read The Dream Merchants Online

Authors: Harold Robbins

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BOOK: The Dream Merchants
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The statue was very flattering. It gave him more hair than I had ever remembered him having, a squarer chin than he ever had, a more aquiline nose than he had been born with, and an air of quiet determination that belonged no more to him than to the man in the moon. And underneath it, on the base of the bust, were the words: “Nothing is impossible to the man who is willing to work—Peter Kessler.”

I got up again and, holding the bust in my hands, walked over to the bathroom and pressed the button. While the door rolled back I kept turning it over and over in my hand. When the door was open, I stepped through it. On the right-hand wall were a few little shelves for bottles and things. Carefully I placed Peter’s statue in the center of the top shelf and stepped back to look at it.

The not true face that looked so real stared back at me. I turned and went back into my office and shut the door behind me. I picked up some of the mail and looked through it, but it didn’t do any good. I couldn’t concentrate. I kept thinking of Peter and the way he had looked at me when I had put him on the bathroom shelf. It wasn’t any use.

Angry with myself, I got up and went back into the bathroom and took the bust out. I looked around my office for a place to put it where it wouldn’t disturb me. I settled for the top of the fireplace. It looked better there. It almost seemed to smile at me. I could almost hear his voice in the room saying: “That’s better, boy, that’s better.”

“Is it, you old bastard?” I said aloud. Then I grinned and went back to my desk. Now I was able to concentrate on the mail.

At three o’clock Ronsen came into my office. His round, well-fed face grinned at me. His eyes looked deep and self-satisfied behind their square-cut frameless glasses. “All settled, Johnny?” he asked in his surprisingly strong voice. When you first heard him speak you wondered how such a strong, commanding voice could come from such a round, comfortable body. Then you remembered this was Laurence G. Ronsen. In his class of society you were born with a deep commanding voice. I bet when he was a baby he didn’t cry for his mother’s tit, he commanded her to give it to him. Or maybe I was wrong, maybe mothers didn’t have tits in that class of society.

“Yes, Larry,” I answered. That was another thing about him that I did not like. When I was around him I was subconsciously compelled to try to speak an almost perfect English, which was something I was constitutionally unable to do.

“How did you make out with Pappas?” he asked.

He must have his spies working overtime, I thought. Aloud I answered: “Pretty good. I sold him the terrible ten for a flat quarter of a million bucks.”

His face lit up at the sound of that. I made my moment of triumph a little more complete. “In advance,” I added; “we’ll get the money tomorrow.”

He rubbed his hands together and came over to the desk and slapped me on the shoulder. His hand was surprisingly heavy and I remembered he had also been an all-American fullback at college. “I knew you were the boy that could do it, Johnny. I knew it.”

As quickly as his pleasure broke through his reserve it slipped back into its sheath. “We’re on the right track now, boy,” he said. “We can’t miss. Let’s play off that old product and tighten up our organization and pretty soon we’ll be in the black.”

Then I told him about the meeting of the morning and what I had asked them to do. He listened attentively, nodding his head from time to time as I stressed the various things we had to do.

When I had finished he said: “I can see you’re going to have plenty to do around here.”

“Christ, yes,” I answered. “I’ll probably stay in New York the next three months to keep on top of things.”

“Well, it’s important enough,” he agreed. “If you don’t control things here, we might as well close up shop.”

Just then my phone rang. Jane’s voice came through: “Doris Kessler calling from California.”

I hesitated a second. “Put her on.”

I heard the click-click, then Doris’s voice: “Hello, Johnny.”

“Hello, Doris,” I said. I wondered why she had called; her voice sounded strange.

“Papa had a stroke, Johnny. He’s calling for you.”

Automatically I looked over at the statue on the fireplace. Ronsen followed my glance and saw it there. “When did it happen, Doris?”

“About two hours ago. It’s awful. First we got a telegram that Junior was killed in a battle in Spain. Papa took it awful hard. He fainted. We hurried him to bed and called the doctor. He said it was a stroke and he didn’t know how long Papa would last. Maybe one day, maybe two. Then Papa opened his eyes and said: ‘Get me Johnny, I got to talk to him. Get me Johnny!’” She began to cry.

It only took a moment, then I heard myself saying: “Don’t cry, Doris. I’ll be out there tonight. Wait for me.”

“I’ll be waiting, Johnny,” she said, and I hung up the phone.

I clicked my receiver up and down a few seconds until Jane came back on. “Get me a ticket to California on the next plane out. Call me as soon as it’s confirmed, I’ll leave from here.” I hung up the phone without waiting for her answer.

Ronsen stood up. “What’s wrong, Johnny?”

I lit a cigarette; my hands were shaking a little. “Peter just had a stroke,” I said. “I’m going out there.”

“What about the plans here?” he asked.

“They’ll have to keep for a few days,” I answered.

“Now, Johnny”—he held up a quieting hand—“I know just how you feel, but the board won’t like it. Besides, what can you do out there?”

I looked at him and stood up behind my desk. I didn’t pay any attention to his question, didn’t bother to answer it. “Frig the board,” I said.

He was the board and he knew that I knew it. His mouth tightened. He turned and angrily left the office.

I watched him go. For the first time since I had decided to take the job that night Ronsen had offered it to me, my mind was at peace.

“Frig you too,” I said to the closed door. What did that son of a bitch know about the last thirty years?

THIRTY YEARS

1908

1

Johnny held the shirt in his hand as he listened to the church bell toll. Eleven o’clock. “Only forty minutes more to make the train,” he thought as he savagely resumed packing. Angrily he threw his remaining clothing into the valise and snapped it shut. Placing one knee on its corner, he put his weight on it and cinched the strap around it. Finished, he straightened up and picked the valise from the bed and carried it out of the room through the store and placed it on the floor near the door.

He stood there a moment looking around him. In the dark the machines seemed to be mocking at him, jeering at his failure. His lips tightened as he walked back past them and into the little room. There was one thing more he had to do. The most unpleasant part of this whole nasty business. Leave a note for Peter telling him why he was running off in the middle of the night.

It would have been easier if Peter hadn’t been so good to him. For that matter, if the whole family hadn’t been so damned nice. Esther having him up for dinner almost every night, the kids calling him “Uncle Johnny.” He could feel his throat tighten up a little as he sat down at the table. Somehow this was the kind of family he had always dreamed about in those long, lonesome years he had worked on the carnival.

He took out a sheet of paper and a pencil and wrote the words: “Dear Peter,” across the top of it and then stared at the paper. How do you say good-by and thanks to people who have been so kind to you? Do you just casually write the words: “So long, it’s been nice knowing you, thanks for everything,” and forget them?

He put the end of the pencil in his mouth and chewed on it reflectively. He put the pencil down on the table and lit a cigarette. After a few minutes he picked up the pencil again and began to write.

“You were right in the first place. I should never have opened this God-damn place.”

He remembered the first day he had walked into the store. He had five hundred dollars in his pocket, was nineteen years old and cocky with wisdom. He had worked in a carnival all his life and now, at last, he was going to settle down and get somewhere. A fellow he knew had tipped him off that there was a completely equipped penny arcade up in Rochester just waiting for him to take it over.

The day he met Peter Kessler. Peter owned the building and the hardware store that was the only other store in it besides the arcade. Peter had liked Johnny from the moment he saw him. Johnny was an easy person to like. He was tall, almost six feet of him; his thick black hair, blue eyes, and ready smile with white even teeth made a quick pleasant impression. Peter had begun to feel sorry for the kid even before he rented him the store. There was something so eager, so intense about him.

Peter had watched Johnny walk about the store, touching the machines, testing them. At last he spoke. “Mr. Edge.”

Johnny turned to him. “Yes?”

“Mr. Edge, maybe it’s none of my business, but do you think this is such a good location for a penny arcade?” Peter hesitated a little. He was thinking that he was a little foolish. After all, he was the landlord, his only interest in this boy was that he should pay the rent but—

Johnny’s eyes grew hard. At nineteen it’s hard to admit you might be wrong. “Why do you ask Mr. Kessler?” His voice was cold.

Peter stammered slightly. “Well, the last two fellers here, they didn’t do so good.”

“Maybe they didn’t have the right idea for this kind of a business,” Johnny answered. “Besides, you’re right. I don’t think it’s any of your business.”

Peter’s face froze. He was a sensitive person though he tried hard not to show it. His voice became brusque and businesslike, just as it was when Johnny had first stepped into his store and introduced himself. “I apologize, Mr. Edge, I meant no offense.”

Johnny nodded his head.

Peter continued in the same tone: “However, in view of my past experience with the former owners of this place, I find it necessary to insist on three months’ rent as security.” That should stop him, he thought.

Johnny calculated swiftly. One hundred and twenty dollars from five hundred left three eighty. Enough for him to do what he wanted. He took his money from his pocket, counted off the bills, and placed them in Peter’s hand.

Peter leaned against one of the machines and wrote out a receipt. Turning, he gave it to Johnny and held out his hand. “I’m sorry to seem so rude,” he said, “but I only meant good.” He smiled hesitantly.

Johnny looked at him intently. Seeing no sign of mockery on Peter’s face, he took his hand. They shook hands quickly and then Peter walked toward the door.

At the door Peter looked back. “If you need me for anything, Mr. Edge, don’t hesitate to call. I’m right next door.”

“I won’t, Mr. Kessler. Thanks.”

“Good luck,” Peter called back to him as he stepped out. Johnny waved to him. Peter’s face was unusually thoughtful as he walked into his own shop.

His wife, Esther, who had been staying in his store while he had shown Johnny the arcade, came up to him. “Did he take it?” she asked.

Peter nodded his head slowly. “Yes,” he answered, “he took it, the poor kid. I hope he makes out.”

***

Johnny lit another cigarette and began to write again.

“Believe me, I’m not sorry about the dough I’ve lost, only the dough I’ve cost you. My old boss, Al Santos, is giving me back my job at the carnival and as soon as I get paid I will send you some money on account of the rent I owe you.”

He didn’t want to go back to the carnival. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the work, but he would miss the Kesslers. He didn’t remember much about his own parents. They had been killed in an accident at the carnival when he was about ten years old. Al Santos had taken him under his wing then, but Al was a very busy man and Johnny had to shift pretty much for himself.

He had been a lonely child, for there weren’t many children his own age around the carny, and the Kesslers seemed to fill a niche in his life that had been empty until now.

He remembered the Friday-night dinners with Peter and his family. He could almost smell the chicken cooking in its own soup and the taste of those matzoh balls or “
knedloch
,” as Esther called them. He thought of last Sunday, when he had taken the children to the park. How they laughed and how proud he felt when they had called him “Uncle Johnny.” They were nice kids. Doris was about nine and Mark was three years old.

He didn’t want to go back to the carnival, but he couldn’t sponge on Peter forever. He owed him three months’ rent now, and if it weren’t for the fact that Esther had him up to eat so often he would have spent many a hungry night.

Again the pencil scrawled its way across the paper.

“I’m sorry I got to go off like this but some creditors are coming tomorrow with a judgment against me so I figure this is the best way to do it.”

He signed his name at the bottom of the note and looked at it. There was something empty about it. It was no way to say good-by to friends. Impulsively he began to write again just below his name.

“P.S. Tell Doris and Mark if the carny ever gets to town they get all the rides for free. Thanks again for everything. Uncle Johnny.”

Now he felt better. He stood up and tilted the note against an empty tumbler on the table. He looked around the room carefully. He didn’t want to forget anything; he couldn’t afford to, there wasn’t enough money left for him to replace what he might forget. No. Everything was all right, he hadn’t forgotten anything.

He looked at the note lying on the table again, then reached up and turned off the light and walked out of the room and shut the door behind him. He didn’t see the note flutter off the table and fall to the floor, sent there by the draft from the closing door. Slowly he walked through the store, his eyes wandering from side to side.

On his right he could see the one-armed bandits, the slot machines, and next to them the French-postcard moving pictures. A few steps farther on were the games of skill, the baseball machine with its batter and nine men facing him, the prize fighters with the long metal buttons on their jaws. On his left was the row of benches he had put in for the flicker projector he had ordered, which hadn’t come yet, and at the door stood Grandma, the fortune-telling machine.

BOOK: The Dream Merchants
7.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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