Authors: Harold Robbins
Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure
He stopped and looked through the glass at her. Her head was covered with a white shawl from which dangled peculiarly shaped coins and symbols. In the dark she seemed almost alive, her painted eyes staring out at him.
He fished in his pocket for a coin. Finding one, he placed it in the slot and pushed the lever. “Let’s hear what you got to say about it, old girl,” he said.
There was a whir of machinery, then her arm lifted and her thin iron fingers went skimming over the rows of neatly stacked white cards in front of her. The noise of the machine grew louder as she selected a card and laboriously turned her body and dropped it into the chute. The noise stopped as she turned back to face him. The card came out of the chute in front of him. He picked it up. At the same moment he heard a train whistle in the darkness.
“Golly,” he said to himself, “I gotta run.” Frantically he shoved the card in his jacket pocket, picked up his valise, and went out into the street.
For a second he looked up at Peter’s windows. All the lights were out. The family had gone to sleep. A chill had come into the night air. He put his coat on, turned the collar up, and started walking rapidly to the station.
Upstairs in her bed Doris suddenly woke up. Her eyes opened; the room was dark. Uneasily she turned on her side toward the window. In the light of the street lamp she could see a man walking up the street. He was carrying a valise. “Uncle Johnny,” she murmured vaguely as she drifted back to sleep. By morning she had forgotten all about it, but her pillow was damp as if she had wept in her sleep.
Johnny stood on the platform as the train rolled in. He reached in his pocket for a cigarette and found the card. He took it out and read it.
You are going on a journey from which you think you will never return, but you will come back. Sooner than you think. The Gypsy Grandma Knows All.
Johnny laughed aloud as he climbed up the steps of the train. “You came pretty close to it that time, old girl. But you’re wrong about my coming back.” He threw the card into the night.
But it was Johnny who was wrong. Grandma was right.
Peter opened his eyes. He lay still on the great double bed, the mists of slumber sluggishly clearing from his mind. He stretched out his hands. His right hand hit the dent of the pillow where Esther had lain beside him. It was still warm from her. The sound of her voice in the kitchen telling Doris to hurry up and eat or she’d be late to school completed his awakening. He got out of bed, his long nightshirt trailing the floor, and made his way to the chair over which his clothes were thrown.
He took the nightshirt off and got into his union suit, then into his trousers. Sitting down in the chair he pulled on his stockings and his shoes, and then proceeded to the bathroom. He turned the water on in the tap, took down his shaving-mug, and began to mix up a lather. He began to hum. It was an old German song he remembered from his youth.
Mark came toddling into the bathroom. “Daddy, I gotta make pee,” he said.
His father looked down at him. “Well, go ahead, you’re a big boy now.”
Mark finished his business, then looked up at his father, who was stropping his razor. “Can I get a shave today?” he asked.
Peter looked at him seriously. “When did you shave last?”
Mark rubbed his fingers over his face as he had seen his father do many times. “Day before yesterday,” he said, “but my beard grows fast.”
“All right,” Peter said as he finished stropping the razor. He handed Mark the shaving-cup and brush. “Put on the lather while I finish.” He began to shave.
Mark covered his face with lather and then waited patiently for his father to finish. He didn’t speak while his father was shaving, for he knew that shaving was a very important and delicate act and if you were interrupted you might cut yourself.
At last his father was through and he turned to Mark. “Ready?” he asked.
Mark nodded. He didn’t dare open his mouth to speak because he had covered it with lather and if he did he would swallow some.
Peter knelt down near him. “Turn your head,” he told Mark.
Mark turned his head and shut his eyes. “Don’t cut me,” he said.
“I’ll be careful,” his father promised. Peter turned the razor so that the back of it was against Mark’s face and began to wipe off the lather.
A few seconds and he was through. He stood up. “You’re all finished now,” he said.
Mark opened his eyes and rubbed his face with his hand. “Smooth now,” he said happily.
Peter smiled down at him while he rinsed the razor and dried it. Then he carefully laid it away in its case and rinsed out the mug and brush. He finished washing the spots of lather off his face, and after drying himself he picked Mark up and swung him to his shoulders. “Let’s go in to eat now,” he said.
They paraded into the kitchen and he swung Mark into his chair. He sat down in his own chair.
Doris came over and kissed him. “Good morning, Daddy,” she said in her high clear voice.
He squeezed her. “
Gut’ morgen, liebe kind, zeese kind.
” That was the way he always spoke to her. Especially since Mark was born. Mark was his favorite and he had a guilty feeling about it, and so he made more of a fuss over Doris than he had before Mark was born.
She went back to her chair and sat down. Peter looked at her. She was a pretty little girl. Her golden hair was tied in braids up around her head, and her blue eyes were soft and warm. Her cheeks were fair and rosy in color. Peter felt good. She had been a sick little child and because of her they had moved to Rochester from the crowded lower East Side of New York.
Esther came over to the table carrying a plate. Heaped high on it and giving off deliciously tantalizing odors were scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, and onions, all fried together in butter.
Peter sniffed. “Lox and eggs!” he exclaimed. “How did you manage it, Esther?”
She smiled proudly. Lox was something you couldn’t get in Rochester, but she had had some sent from New York. “My cousin, Roochel, sent it from New York,” she told him.
He looked at her as he filled his plate. She was a year younger than he, still slim, still good-looking, with the same quiet dark beauty that had first attracted him when he came to work in her father’s hardware store right after he had come to America. She wore her thick black hair tied up in the back in the style of the times, her brown eyes gazed levelly and serenely from out of a round smooth face. She began to fill Mark’s plate.
“I got a shave,” Mark told her.
“I can see,” she answered, giving the side of his face a rub with the back of her hand. “Very nice.”
“When can I start shaving myself?” he asked.
Doris laughed. “You’re too young yet,” she said. “You don’t even have to shave now.”
“I do too,” he protested.
“Be quiet and eat,” Esther told them.
By the time she sat down Peter was almost finished. Taking out his watch, he looked at it; then, gulping down his coffee, he ran down the stairs to open his shop. He didn’t say anything as he left the table. No one seemed to mind it. Papa was always late in opening the store and it was a few minutes after eight o’clock now.
The morning passed by slowly. There wasn’t any business; it was too warm for the time of year, and the heat kept people from becoming ambitious enough to attempt any extra work.
About eleven o’clock a drayman came into the store. He walked over to Peter. “What time does the guy next door open up?” he asked, jerking a thumb in the direction of Johnny’s place.
“About twelve,” Peter answered. “Why?”
“I got a machine to deliver, but I find the place shut up and I can’t come back.”
“Knock on the door,” Peter told him. “He sleeps in back of the place and you can get him out.”
“I have,” the drayman replied, “but there’s no answer.”
“Wait a minute,” said Peter, reaching under his counter for a key; “I’ll let you in.”
The drayman followed him into the street. Peter knocked at the door. There was no answer. He looked through the window, but couldn’t see anything. He put the key in the lock and turned it. The door opened and they stepped in. Peter went directly to the back room. The door was closed. Peter knocked at it softly. No reply. He opened the door and looked in. Johnny wasn’t there. He turned to the drayman.
“I guess you might as well bring it in,” he said; “Johnny’s probably gone out for a while.”
Peter went out into the street while the drayman unloaded the machine. Curiously he looked at it; it was something he had never seen before. “What is it?” he asked.
“A moving-picture machine,” the drayman answered. “It throws pictures on a screen and they move.”
Peter shook his head. “What will they think of next?” he wondered aloud. “Do you think it really works?”
The drayman grunted. “Yeah, I seen ’em in New York.”
When the machine was in the shop, Peter signed the receipt for it, locked the door, and promptly forgot about it until half past three, when Doris came home from school.
“Daddy, why isn’t Uncle Johnny open yet?”
He looked down at her, puzzled. He had already forgotten about the morning. “I don’t know,” he said slowly. Together they walked out into the street and looked at the penny arcade.
He peered in the window. There was no sign of movement inside. The crate delivered that morning still lay where the drayman had placed it. He turned to Doris. “Run upstairs and get Mamma to come down and stay in the store for a minute.”
He stood there in the street waiting until Esther came down. “Johnny hasn’t opened up yet,” he told her. “Stay in the store while I look in his place.”
After he had opened the door he walked slowly to the back room. This time he entered the room and found the note on the floor. He picked it up and read it. Slowly he went back into his own store and handed the note to Esther.
She read it and looked at him questioningly. “He’s gone?”
There was a hurt sort of look in his eyes. He didn’t seem to hear her question. “I feel like it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have let him take the place.”
She looked at him understandingly. She, too, had grown fond of Johnny. “You couldn’t help it, Peter. You tried to stop him.”
He took the note back from her and read it again. “The kid didn’t have to run off like that,” he said. “He could have told me.”
“I guess he was a little ashamed,” Esther said.
Peter shook his head. “I still can’t understand it. We were his friends.”
Suddenly Doris, who was standing near them listening solemnly to what they were saying, began to cry. Her parents turned to look at her.
“Isn’t Uncle Johnny ever coming back?” she wailed.
Peter picked her up. “Sure he is,” he told her. “He says in the note he’s coming back to take you on all the carnival rides.”
Doris stopped crying and looked at her father. Her eyes grew big and round. “Honest?”
“Honest,” Peter answered, looking at his wife over the child’s head.
The stranger waited quietly until Peter had finished waiting on the customer before he went over to him. “Is Johnny Edge around?” he asked.
Peter looked at him curiously. He didn’t look like one of the creditors Johnny had mentioned in his note; Peter knew most of them. “Not at the moment,” he replied. “Maybe I can help. I’m Peter Kessler. I own the building.”
The stranger held out his hand and smiled. “I’m Joe Turner of Graphic Pictures Company. I came up to show Johnny how to operate the moving-picture machine that was delivered yesterday.”
Peter took his hand and shook it. “Glad to know you,” he said. “But I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment. Johnny left here the day before yesterday.”
Turner looked disappointed. “He couldn’t hold out?”
Peter shook his head. “Things were pretty bad. He went back to his old job.”
“With Santos?” Turner asked.
“Yes,” Peter answered. “You knew Johnny?”
“We worked for Santos together. He’s a good kid. Too bad he couldn’t have held on for a few more days. Moving pictures would have pulled him out of the hole.”
“In Rochester?” Peter laughed.
Turner looked at him. “Why not? Rochester isn’t any different than any place else and moving pictures are the biggest thing in the entertainment field and getting bigger every day. Ever see them?”
“No,” said Peter. “Never even heard about them until your man delivered the machine here yesterday.”
Turner took a cigar out of his pocket, bit the end off it, and lighted it. He blew out a cloud of smoke and looked at Peter a moment before he spoke. “You look like a fair man to me, Mr. Kessler, so I’m going to make you a proposition. I guaranteed Johnny’s machine to my office. If I have to pull it back, I’m hooked for the freight and installation charges even if the machine is never used. That’s over a hundred dollars. You let me run a show for you tonight, and if you like it you open up and give it a try.”
Peter shook his head. “Not me. I’m a hardware man. I don’t know nothing about moving pictures.”
Turner persisted. “It doesn’t make any difference. It’s a new business. Just two years ago a man by the name of Fox opened a picture show without any experience and he’s doing all right. So did another man by the name of Laemmle. All you have to do is run the machine. People will pay to see the pictures. There’s good money in it. It’s the coming thing.”
“Not for me,” Peter told him. “I got a good business. I don’t need any headaches.”
“Look, Mr. Kessler,” Turner said, “it won’t cost you anything to see it. The projector’s here already. I got some cans of film outside and nothing better to do with my time. Let me run a show for you, and you can see for yourself what it’s like. And then if you don’t like it, I’ll pull the machine out.”
Peter thought for a moment. He wanted to see the moving pictures. The few words the drayman had said to him the other day had excited his imagination. “All right,” he said, “I’ll look. But I’m not promising anything.”
Turner smiled. He held his hand out to Peter again. “That’s what they all say until they see it. I’m telling you, Mr. Kessler, you may not know it but you’re in the picture business already.”