I swallowed and leaned on the door. “What was it like?”
“Let me think and tell. Henry’s going to bed now. I’m sure glad I’m blind. Hate to have seen myself going down stairs like a bag of laundry. Night.”
“Goodnight, Henry,” I said.
And turned just as the big steamboat of a tenement house rounded a bend of river wind in the dark. I felt I was back at the surf in Mr. Shapeshade’s movie house at one in the morning, with the tide glutting and shaking the timbers under the seats, and the big silver-and-black images gliding on the screen. The whole tenement shivered. The cinema was one thing. The trouble with this big old twilight place was the shadows had come off the screen and waited by stairwells and hid in bathrooms and unscrewed lightbulbs some nights so everyone groped, blind as Henry, to find their way out.
I did just that. At the top of the stairs, I froze. I heard breath churning the air ahead of me. But it was only the echo of my own sucks and swallows hitting the wall and bouncing back to feel at my face.
For Christ’s sake, I thought, don’t trip yourself, going down.
The chauffeur-driven 1928 Duesenberg limousine was waiting for me when I came out of Fannie’s. When the door slammed, we were off and halfway to Venice when the chauffeur up front took off his cap and let his hair down and became . . .
Rattigan the Interrogator.
“Well?” she said coldly. “Is she or isn’t she upset?”
“She is damn well upset but I didn’t upset her.”
“No, damn it, now just pull up at the next corner and let me the damn hell out!”
“For a bashful boy from northern Illinois, you got some language, Mr. Hemingway.”
“Well, hell, Miss Rattigan!”
That did it. I saw her shoulders slump a little. She was losing me, if she wasn’t careful, and knew it.
“Constance,” she suggested, quieter.
“Constance,” I said. “It’s not my fault people drown in bathtubs and drink too much or fall downstairs or get taken away by the police. Why didn’t you come inside just now? You’re Fannie’s old, old friend.”
“I was afraid that seeing you and me together would overload and the top of her head fly off and we would never be able to get it back on.”
She let the limousine go from a rather hysterical seventy down to a nervous sixty or sixty-two. But she had her claws on the wheel as if it were my shoulders and she was shaking me. I said, “You’d better get her out of there, once and for all. She won’t sleep for a week now and that might kill her, just exhaustion. You can’t feed a soul on mayonnaise forever.”
Constance slowed the limo to fifty-five.
“She give you a rough time?”
“Only called me Death’s Friend, like you. I seem to be everyone’s goat, handing out bubonic fleas. Whatever is in the tenement is there all right, but I’m not the carrier. On top of which, Fannie has done something stupid.”
“I don’t know, she won’t tell me. She’s put out with herself. Maybe you can worm it out of her. I got a terrible feeling Fannie brought all this on herself.”
The limousine slowed to forty. Constance was watching me in the rearview mirror. I licked my lips.
“I can only guess. Something in her icebox, she said. If anything happened to her, she said, look in the icebox. God, how stupid! Maybe you can go back, later tonight on your own and look in the damn icebox and figure out how and why and what it is that Fannie has invited into the tenement that is scaring the hell out of her.”
“Jesus at midnight,” murmured Constance, shutting her eyes. “Mary at dawn.”
“Constance!” I yelled.
For we had just gone through a red light, blind.
Luckily, God was there, and paved the way.
She parked in front of my apartment and she got out while I unlocked the door and she stuck her head in.
“So this is where all the genius happens, huh?”
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