by Brian Phillips · May 20, 2010
In the car Cora talked and didn’t look at the road and Sam, in the passenger seat, kept quiet and looked at it. There was trouble getting out of Chinatown because the elevated train was out over Allen and some policemen were blocking the road and letting the prostitutes sit in their squad cars. A big plume of smoke came down from the tracks and listed over the traffic, and a trio of sailors were cracking each other up by putting their lips to it and sucking, as if from an opium pipe. Then Cora got them free and cut across Delancey, and the city roared past them with its lights.
Sam took a long tilt from the flask of coffee the Pharaoh had sent him off with and thought about what to say at the meeting. The smart move was keeping his mouth shut, probably. He was foggy enough not to trust himself, and he wouldn’t have an interview at this hour, or at the Faircliff Hotel, if he wasn’t as good as in the job already. But he could use a line, in case. Couldn’t hurt to find out what happened to Wilcox, either. No, scratch that. It didn’t matter what had happened to Wilcox. They could have put sand in his pockets and sent him on a stroll off the top of the Woolworth Building; Sam still needed a job.
The cars on the road around them shone like mirrors that nothing ever looked in but black.
“Say, over there,” Cora said. “Is it nice where you are? Is the sun out?”
“What’s that?” Sam rubbed his eyes.
“Well, you’re not in here, are you? I was hoping you’d found someplace better. Thought maybe I could save up for a ticket.”
“You’re better off where you are,” Sam said dryly. “Trust me.”
“Ah, well. Xanadu can wait.”
“Can’t it always.”
“So tell me, seeing’s how I’m your chauffeur for the evening. This job of yours we’re going to interview for. What’s the line of work?”
“Wouldn’t interest you,” Sam said. “It’s something I picked up in France.”
“In France, eh?” Cora sized him up, in the process nearly turning his kidneys inside out as she swerved, apparently by instinct, between two trucks. “But it pays the rent?”
“It does, sometimes.”
“Then it must be the wholesomest thing anybody ever picked up in France. Wait a minute, though. I thought up a game. I’m rotten for games, I like them something awful. I’ll guess what it is. That’ll be a good joke, don’t you think?”
“I’d like it better if you had something I could put in this coffee.”
“Well, of all the shocking accusations,” Cora said, pursing her lips. “Haven’t you heard there’s a Prohibition on? What makes you think I’m a gangster?”
Sam opened the glove box and took out a bottle of whiskey.
“Oh,” she said. “Well, sure. Help yourself, then, officer.”
Sam filled up the flask, spilling some, and took a drink.
“Boy, you’ve got a funny way to get ready for a job interview. You’d better take me in with you, I’m miles more presentable. Look at me, I don’t even need a shave.”
“How can I tell, in this light.”
“You’re funny,” Cora said. “I despise you.”
“No, you don’t,” Sam said, settling himself in the seat.
They were going through the Bowery, past a jumble of brick tenements, cheap restaurants, and boarded-up saloons crowded in under the el tracks. Sam leaned his head back and felt the rumble of the engine in his spine. If they asked why he was late he wouldn’t tell them anything. Might as well start them off thinking he was the one holding the cards. Could be a dangerous bluff, but that they’d fingered him at all said they were desperate. Outside his window there was an advertisement, painted on the brick front of an otherwise nondescript building, reading, “J.Q. Masterson & Son, We Sell Plate & Chain Rails.” The upper ampersand was stuttered over a shutter.
“Let’s see,” Cora said. “I’ve got you figured for one of these real depressive types. Kind of guy who knows how to sleep on a bar stool. Probably got a lot of swell ideas about yourself and can’t get along with anybody who thinks otherwise. Makes you turn into a mope. Don’t look at me funny, I told you I’m crazy for games. Not my fault you’re a home introduction to tea leaves.”
“Who’s looking at you funny? I’m a Presbyterian minister, sweetheart.”
“No, you’re too nice for it. Too deep-down nice, I mean. You’d be a college boy for anything you cared about, but if it was strictly for groceries you’d drift around getting fired a lot. So first question—you have to answer my questions, that’s the rule. How come you’re out of job?”
“Well, take this for evidence of your theory if you want, but I know what I’m doing. Not everybody likes that in a person.”
“Sure, you’re so good at your job you can’t even remember the interview. But I’ll take that as you being committed to the cause. Hold on, I’m thinking, I’m thinking. Well, you’re a bootlegger, obviously, but only in a personal-storage capacity. Plus I happen to know they don’t interview for that at the Faircliff.”
“You miss.” Sam managed a smirk. “Is there a time limit on this game, or do we play till you win?”
“Say, I bet you’re a writer,” Cora exclaimed. “Or a painter, maybe. You look too beat to be a painter, but looks are deceiving. That’s terrific, you could be my big break. Am I a detective, or am I a detective? You with your ‘picked it up in France.’”
“No, you’ve got me all wrong. And as it happens, I consulted the rules while you were making that very perceptive speech, and the penalty for losing is that you have to tell me who you are. Do you always go into illegal drinking establishments in search of forlorn strangers to help, or am I a special case?”
Cora slumped a little behind the big steering wheel. Then she turned her dark-rimmed eyes on him. “Honey, don’t ask me that,” she said. “Ask me tomorrow. For tonight, I’m just the girl who walked in from the street.”
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