Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Flash Fiction Challenge: Reginald Marsh's New York

If any more are out there, please let me know.

Incidentally anyone who would like to make a contribution to Union Settlement in lieu of writing a story, here is their address. Union Settlement is one of the oldest organizations to provide social services to its neighborhood in the country, beginning their mission in 1895.

Union Settlement
237 East 104th Street
New York, NY 10029-5499


Daniel Moses Luft

Robin Hood had started half an hour earlier and the last of the stragglers had come in and paid their tickets. I saw Betty leave the ticket booth with Charlie as he cradled the cash drawer in his arm. They were talking quietly to each other and she was laughing. I liked Betty.

I knew they would be upstairs together for a few minutes while he rolled the quarters and bundled the ones and smoked a slow cigarette. Then Betty would leave and it would just be Charlie and me until the last show let out. Maybe we would go to his house or maybe back to my place.

I was staring as Errol Flynn made eyes at Olivia de Havilland when I saw the three police uniforms walk out of the darkness and up the aisle. They must have come in the exit from the alley. The front doors were all locked. They brushed by me without a word and headed for the stairs straight up to Charlie’s office.

I knew he would still be up there with Betty and I wondered if this was for Charlie. If the police had finally caught up with him. For the five years I’d worked for Charlie he’d been reporting half-full houses as the money from big movies had rolled into the safe upstairs and another one in his house.

It had been great, it was money to pay off his house and car and money for my apartment. Money that took us to dinner on the east side while Hal, Charlie’s assistant had covered the slower, Monday closing shifts. It was money that added up daily from rolls of quarters and dollar bills that had made me feel safe for the first time since my Johnny had died on the construction site in Queens.

I really hated the stupid yellow and blue uniform and the flashlight but I loved the movies. And it didn’t take long before I loved Charlie and his house and his car and his steaks and his cocktails. I loved falling asleep in his big bed and I loved waking up and strolling downstairs to his refrigerator full of food.

I got scared for him up there with those officers. And what about Betty? She was just a kid in school. What would those cops do to her with her hands momentarily on the money too. Charlie had only hired her a month ago and she was lousy with the money. Charlie said her cash was never even. She was honest and didn’t know a thing about money. Charlie liked that.

I ran upstairs and opened the office door without knocking. Charlie was tied up to his chair with a bloody nose while Betty was in the corner wearing only a slip, shear and short. Her uniform was lying in a pile in the middle of the room along with her stockings. The men in the uniforms looked at me and I saw their unshaven faces. They didn’t look much like the police at all. These were a couple of Paul Munis and and Edward G. Their guns looked real though.

“What’s going on?” I nearly whispered I was so scared.

Edward G. grabbed me by the arms and shoved me into Betty. She was crying.

“What have you done to her?”

“Done to her?” the bigger Muni said. “Hell lady we been making her put her clothes back on. They were both bare naked when we come in.”

I looked at Betty again as her little body got even smaller as she cringed in the corner. I looked back at Charlie and saw how messy his pants and shirt were, like he got dressed really fast.

The three men ignored me as they turned to Charlie in the chair.

“Last time Charlie,” the little Muni said.”Give us the combination.”

Then I knew.

“Go to hell,” Charlie said before the little guy hit him in the stomach.

Edward G. turned to me. “Hey lady you spend a lot of nights with Charlie and he won’t give us the number to the safe. Do you know it?”

I could open that safe with my eyes closed I’d done it so much, and I knew that it had more money in it than they’d ever expect.

Then I saw the look in Charlie’s eyes, he was never going to give them the money. Thousands, at least five and maybe ten thousand were in that steel box. I knew that Charlie would never give up the combination. I looked at his face, his bloody broken face and I thought of little Betty with her uniform in her hands.

I pulled out my best Jean Harlow innocent girly voice: “I don’t know the combination. Only Mr Walters knows it.” They all sighed. Big Muni said: “We’ll find out.”

Little Muni continued. “We been watching you for weeks and you’ve only gone to the bank once. Now there must be around a thousand or fifteen hundred in that box and it’s ours now. I don’t care how long you last, it’s ours.”

The big guy snapped open a knife. “This is gonna hurt you Charlie.”

Edward G. walked over to us and nearly picked us up off the floor. He dragged us to a closet down the hall. At least it had a light in it.

I looked at Betty and was pretty sure she didn’t know the combination. Charlie loved a lot of women in his life but he’d never trust a girl as young as Betty. Could he? I figured that when they were done with Charlie they’d come for me next. I’d give them the combination and head straight to Charlie’s house and empty the safe there. If they came for Betty first, well I wasn’t sure how long I’d go before I give it to them.

But then something strange happened. When Betty was finished dressing she looked very calm, tough, almost smug. Like Barbara Stanwyck.

The Ohrbach Girl

by Patricia Abbott

I was eating creamed spinach at the Horn and Hardart’s on 8th when Dave Lombardi walked in looking snazzy in a gray drape-cut suit topped by a soft fedora. His shoes looked new too. I pushed my scuffed tee-straps farther under the table.

”Maria Batista, you gotta be kiddin.’ All the chow in those slots and that’s what you gave up your dime for. Who are you—Popeye? ”

I didn’t even look up. Dave Lombardi and my pop had been partners once—buddies in small-time schemes. Pop was always lookin’ for a soft mat to land on, and Dave kept one ready. My trouble was I was outta work and Dave—well— maybe he could help me. Ma had gotten herself on relief but not enough to buy the kind of rags I liked. At 23, I was getting too old to live off her anyway.

“Still outta work?” Dave asked.

Ma must’ve been flappin’ her jaws about me losing my millinery job. I shook my head and shoveled more spinach into my mouth.

“Listen, kiddo, I might have a lead.”

I rolled my eyes. “Hard to warm up to goin’ to jail, Dave.” I pushed the empty plate away, my stomach protesting at the disappearing dish.

In a few slick moves, Dave tossed the plate in the bin, fed the slot, opened the window and presented me with a lemon meringue.

“Piece of pie’s not gonna buy many favors,” I said. We had some history—him and me.

“Can’t I be a nice guy?”

I licked the meringue. “Sure. Whenever you get the urge.”

“Got your Dad’s smart mouth.”

“Pop wanted to leave me somethin’ more than his bills.”

Dave sighed. “Okay, quit the patter and I’ll tell you about the job.”

Putting a small piece of pie in my mouth and savoring it, I waited.

“Guy down at Orhrbach’s wants a reliable girl to make hats. Girl that won’t talk union. Chatter is, there’s gonna be a strike. Heard about it?”

I hadn’t. And a job at Orhrback’s sounded pretty okay to me. I couldn’t afford to be sweet on unions.

“You’ll really be workin’ for me. Figure the crowd watchin’ the picket line is a good place to pick some pockets. We could just tumble onto the subway things get outta hand. There’s gotta be an opportunity for mischief with all the bedlam.”

“It’s not a pick it line,” I said. I shoulda known no job from Dave would be legit.

“Enough with the smart aleck routine. Wanna job or not?” His voice had a curl in it.

“So how do I fit in?” I put down my fork to concentrate.

“Get to know the dames that shop there. Which ones carry a lotta dough Maybe we’ll need you to create a ruckus. Have to see how to play it.” He paused. “I like havin’ a man, or in your case a girl, on the scene. May take a week or two to find the best hand to play.”

Ohrbach’s sat on Union Square and every Saturday there was some kinda strike or protest. Place was Red Central with the subway lines and buses spewing out jobless people with time on their hands. I usually took my sandwich outside to see what was goin’ on. Sometimes people from up on Broadway put on a play. Other days writers shouted their angry poems. Meanwhile, the clerks from Ohrbach’s marched around holdin’ their signs. Even when Orhrbach got himself an injunction from some judge on his payroll, the workers found ways around it.

The job was A-OK s'long as you didn’t mind back-breakin’, poor-payin’ work. Guy I worked for was nice enough, but jeez, that Ohrbach was a cheap bastard. Livin’ with Ma, I could make out, but some of ‘em supported a family on eight bucks a week. Fifty-seven hours for chicken feed. And Ohrbachs wasn’t no Bonwit Teller’s. It was a crummy crowded store—damp and stuffy. After a while, I wanted to carry a sign myself. Dave and his scheme began to eat at me.

“This is the set-up,” Dave told me, on the phone in the building's vestibule one night. “Create a disturbance on the square. Somethin’ that'll pull security out of the store. Maybe accuse someone of being a Red. Or a thief. Get into a brawl.”

“I weigh 100 pounds. Think I can take on some of them bruisers millin’ around?”

“Just cause trouble. Monkey Business—that’s what the newspapers call it when the Commies do it. Guards are waitin’ for it since some noodle head opened a crate of mice in Notions last week. Ohrbach beefed up the force and I got two guys inside now who are just waitin’ to empty the tills and jewelry cases.”

“What if I say no?”

“Milliners are a dime a dozen.”

Saturday was a nice day and the crowd was the biggest yet. Someone gave kids balloons that read, “Don’t Buy at Ohrbach’s” and the cops were wrestlin’ them away. Kids were crying like Santa had forgotten to stop at their house. One kid had a bloody nose, another broken glasses. Oh, that Ohrbach. He had every crooked pol in his pocket.

As I puffed up with rage, it suddenly came to me how to make a disturbance—though probably not the one Lombardi had in mind. I grabbed a picket sign from the nearest girl and dashed into the center of the square where a statue of George Washington riding a horse sat. Putting the sign in my mouth, I mounted that statue and stuck the sign under George's arm.

A cheer went up, and a thousand people rushed the statue, stickin’ their signs around the base forming a barrier from the cops. We got our picture in the Daily Worker though none of the other newspapers touched it—chicken shits.

Things worked out okay for Dave too. His guys cleared all the first floor tills and the jewelry counter before the cops came. My take was enough to buy Ma a new radio.

‘Course Orhbach fired me and dozens more the next day. You never can win with those guys.


Please visit the following blogs for more stories based on Reginald Marsh paintings. And thanks to all.

Kieran Shea

Loren Eaton

Thomas Pluck

Peter Rozovsky

Dana King

Chad Eagleton

Gerald So

Sandra Seamans

Katherine Tomlinson

Rosemarie Keenan

Ron Scheer

Yvette Banek

Caftan Woman

John Norris

Rob Kitchin

Gill Hoffs

Todd Mason

Todd Mason 2

Marylinn Kelly

William Morgan



Marylinn Kelly said...

Patti - Again, thank you for the opportunity to participate.

Your voices felt so true to the time and the characters. The story really did expand on the painting, details of ordinary life brought into clearer focus. A good read.

Dana King said...

Thanks again for another unusual, thought-provoking challenge, into which your story played perfectly. It captured the tone of the Marsh painting, as well as having overtones for a lot of what is going on today.

Dana King said...

Well done. You did a nice job of characterizing all three main characters in a minimum of time, while still throwing a twist into what we expected.

Yvette said...

Daniel: What a surprise ending. Terrific story based on a very evocative painting. Good job.

Yvette said...

Patti: Boy did you bring back memories for me with your story. I used to pass Ohrbach's all the time on the way to work or just to shop. That street was full of stores in the 50's and 60's.

Also ate all the time at the Automat (Horn and Hardart), teared up when they closed them all down.

Great story, kiddo.

pattinase (abbott) said...

For my tenth birthday, I asked to go to Horn and Hardart's in Philly. Just loved those slots.

Thomas Pluck said...

Great stories! Patti, a very timely tale and told true to the era. We've come to accept the unfair practices we once fought to end.

and Daniel, what a kicker... as a movie buff the final line tells it all!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Tom. I moved your link to the top since I guess you didn't see it at the bottom.

Charles Gramlich said...

Fun stuff. Wish I could have joined in.

Rob Kitchin said...

Both these stories are great. Both have a feel for the time and place of Marsh's art. Nicely done. Looking forward to reading the others.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Daniel, nice twists, and not just at the end, either.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter Rozovsky said...

“Place was Red Central with the subway lines and buses spewing out jobless people with time on their hands.”

Nice line!
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Kieran Shea said...

ahhhhh! it's up, it's up! I swear! http://kieranjamesshea.blogspot.com/2011/10/flash-fiction-challenge-reginald-marsh.html

Dan_Luft said...

Finally got back to my computer. Thanks for posting my story Patti and thanks everyone for the really encouraging words.

Now I'm going to start working my way through the links to the stories.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking my story, Patty, and the visit to my blog. I would have posted the link to you, but was asleep when it posted on schedule!

Will visit all the stories. Thank you for this lovely challenge. I enjoyed responding to it.

Anonymous said...

Just read both the stories. Awesome. I love the voice in both, and the scene at Ohrbach's was so vivid.

sandra seamans said...

Wow, Daniel, I just loved how you mixed all the actors into the story. And Barbara Stanwyck at the end made the final twist perfect.

Just beautiful, Patti! You drew me into the past so easily. Excellent as always.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, everyone. You're the best.

Al Tucher said...

My new ambition is to get somebody to tell me, "Quite the patter."

Good read.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Love the way they spoke. Or the way movies made us think they spoke.

kathy d. said...

That is a terrific story and the dialogue is wonderful.

One realizes how much can be said in a short short story.

And I miss Ohrbach's. Used to go there in high school days and in a few years after that. Bought everything there including red leather sneakers for $10 in the late 1970s.

And I also miss Horn & Hardart. Liked the one near Ohrbach's, and there was one near my house in Chelsea.

My friends and I would hang out there, could buy a small meal and sit for hours and chat.

One friend was there so often, and using their pay phone, that the manager thought he was a bookie (so NOT!) that he was banned from eating there.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Aside from my own experiences, I remember Marlo Thomas in her sit com, playing Ann Marie, who made soup at H & H with hot water and ketchup. I wonder if HULU carries that show. Thanks so much.

Todd Mason said...

Patti--for yours you went a bit Runyon, while for my second one I went a bit more Saroyan. (My first was more Jack Finney and a dash of Wharton, ending up in the neighborhood of de la Mare.) There's a certain joy in it, even when it's just OK, and yours is better than that.

Some sharp, even jagged bits in the Luft.

pattinase (abbott) said...

That era tends to bring out certain tendencies. Yes, it was fun and I thought all of them were great fun to read. Wharton/Finney mix is intriguing.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, a fascinating by-product of the challenge for me was the insight into the sort of art Marsh must have used as models in his training. The guy must have sketched a million 1st-3rd century Roman sarcophagi and 15th-century Italian paintings (which revived classical art in a big way). I may even prepare a little presentation, with side-by-side illustrations of Marsh’s works and some of the earlier works that appear to be direct or indirect models.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

pattinase (abbott) said...

Fascinating, isn't it? I have a book of some of his paintings, but there was very little at my university library. The DIA here has a painting of his SAVOY BALLROOM across from the photography room which has always grabbed my attention. Again, the masses of people pressed together. He certainly populated his art.