The diner smelled of butter and deep sadness. And I wasn’t quite sure how much of either was in the thin layer of film covering the tabletop. The pies in the display case looked about as appetizing as the plates they were sitting on. I slid into the last booth on the left to wait.
It wasn’t a very nice joint is what I’m getting at, but I figured as long as I was going to ruin a meal I didn’t want it to be a nice one.
I looked up and saw Henry struggling with the front door—the wind kept slamming it shut and catching his trench coat hem. When he tried to jerk himself free his hat got swept off his head. He turned around and went chasing it down the street, swearing loud enough to reach to Newark, and I was left to stew and twist my napkin for a couple minutes more while I waited for him to get back.
“What’ll it be, doll?” The waitress had sidled up next to the table without me noticing, which was surprising given her size. She looked like she’d served in the Great War, as an artillery shell.
I hastily scanned the menu for something that wouldn’t make me queasy and came up empty so I decided to wing it. “Uh…I’ll have a vanilla milkshake with a side of pickles…and a beer for my friend.” I nodded at the empty seat.
“Big Bertha” gave me an inquiring look. “Just what’s on the menu honey, this ain’t no speakeasy.”
I slumped down in my seat and hid behind the menu. “Sorry…he’ll just have coffee, black, please, thank you.” She gave me a disapproving look but she didn’t say anything else.
The waitress rumbled back to the counter and Henry arrived, panting, with his mop of hair, windblown and askew. “Hey, Sal.” He gave me his usual perfunctory peck on the cheek. “Nice joint. You got money invested in it or something?” He gazed down at the cracked vinyl and snorted dismissively. Henry’s always been a bit hoity-toity.
“Actually I’m here for a job, Henry. Some of us still do an honest day’s work now and again.” Henry grimaced a bit at that. He never liked that I still worked at my day job repairing coin-operated machines all over the city. He didn’t think about how we’d never have met if it wasn’t for it and the dexterous fingers and good ears that came with it. He didn’t like that it meant I was out of the apartment all day.
Three years ago Henry had noticed me hanging out on Coney Island after I’d run away. He’d been warming a stool at the clam bar across from the penny arcade where I cracked open my first mechanical music box, before being technically invited to by the proprietor. My dad hadn’t given me much more than an ear for music and a knack for working with machines before I’d split. And that day I’d been bumming cigarettes and small change from the day-trippers for hours next to this machine that was clearly about to split a belt. I could hear it in the way that the music slowed down and then sped up irregularly and it called to me like a lost kitten. The proprietor hadn’t taken kindly to my unsolicited maintenance and had chucked me out on my ear. Henry had been there to pick me up, in both senses of the phrase. We’ve been together ever since, and we’d been business partners too, Henry seeing talents in my that fit nicely into his line of work. Until today, that is, or at least that’s my plan.
The waitress brought Henry his coffee and my milkshake and pickle ensemble. Henry looked puzzled at my order, but after a moment I could see a glimmer of understanding dart across his face.
Sitting there sucking away at my milkshake and munching on a pickle I knew that he could read the bad news all over my face before I’d even said anything.
Henry took a long pull of coffee and slammed the cup back on the saucer as though it had offended some deeply-held sensibility of his. “So Sal, you going to actually tell me what this is about or are we just gonna sit here soaking up grease from this table?”
I avoided eye contact, allowing my gaze to wander over the other people in the establishment, pausing at the dusty Selectophone in a back corner. “You see that old music player in the corner?” It was an older wood-paneled model and even from here you could see that none of the records inside were spinning. They hadn’t bothered to tape an “out of service” note on the thing. Shows you what kind of crooks were running the place.
Henry glanced over at it with a look of supreme boredom and apathy that I knew for a fact he had perfected and manufactured to order to pick up girls with. “Yeah, what about it?”
“You know how many times I, personally, have been called in to fix that thing?”
Henry leaned back in his seat and stared at the ceiling. “I don’t know, Sal, enlighten me.”
I balled up a piece of napkin and flicked it at his face. “It can’t be any less than a half-dozen times, and that’s just for me, they’ve had every grease-monkey in the tri-state area in here trying to coax that thing back to life, and it never works for more than a month straight before it’s busted again.”
Henry eyed the machine in question curiously. “Well that’s a damn fool thing to do, why don’t they just buy a new one if it’s that much trouble to keep it?”
“I don’t know, maybe there’s something they see in that one in particular, maybe they’ve convinced themselves that it’ll all be worth it if they can just fix what’s broke inside it. Or maybe they’ve just spent so much time and energy on it that they can’t let go even if it isn’t doing anything for them.”
Henry just sat there in silence so I retreated back into my gherkin milkshake and kept up my staring contest with the Selectophone.
Eventually Henry spoke up. “So this is you telling me I’m never gonna find out why you called me here, right? Or was that thing about the crummy music box it?”
I pushed my milkshake to a corner of the table where it wouldn’t harm anyone else with its terribleness, grabbed my toolkit, and started towards the Selectophone. “If you’re just gonna be a smart-alec, then I’m gonna go get to work.”
After a while Henry knelt down next to me, shoving my tools out of his way. “You gonna be done soon? I haven’t got all day.”
A month ago I had been kneeling in front of an unopened safe when he had said the exact same thing. “Sal, you gonna be done soon? We haven’t got all day.” Even though then was night, and we did have time since the security guard was sleeping on the job thanks to our co-conspirator, Madge and her magic chloroform hankie.
“Henry, you do know what the point of a safe is right? You haven’t got it mixed up with an “un-safe” or something, right?” I spun the dial so I could start over. Tonight the tumblers weren’t singing to me like they usually did.
“Oh I’m sorry; I was under the impression that you were a safe-cracker not a wise-cracker.”
“Oooh, nice one! Watch out Groucho Marx, your days in show business are numbered.”
“As if they’d let somebody like me in the movies.” Henry was always sensitive about his looks.
“Well, how old is the guy who plays Tonto? You could sub in for him.”
At this point Madge had poked her head around the door. “Would you two quit flirting back here and hurry up? Some of us have a family to get home to.”
I’d finally jimmied the last tumbler into place and looked up at Madge. “How are Corporal Paws and Miss Whiskers anyway?”
“It’s Mrs. Whiskers now actually.”
Henry rolled his eyes. “Great, now even the damn cats are getting hitched.”
I gave Henry a sock in the arm. “Don’t listen to this old sourpuss. I’m glad to hear Paws has made an honest cat of Mrs. Whiskers.” And with a flick of my wrist, and crowbar, the safe popped open.
It was as we were shoveling loot into our bags that I happened to notice the thin bit of wire that ran from inside the safe through the back wall and out to, well, someplace that wasn’t the inside of a locked safe full of bearer bonds. “Uh, I think we may have a problem, gang.”
Madge had paused in the middle of rubbing a wad of untraceable legal tender over her face.”Whatsamatter? You chip a nail on your crowbar again?”
“No, you dummy, I think we tripped an alarm and the fuzz are on their way.” I was surprised at how calm I was and how fast Henry could move. He’d didn’t even glance back to see if Madge and I were behind him.
That was a month ago and the closest call we’d had in three years. While running from the police and especially during the two hours of hiding in a storm drain with Madge’s teeth chattering in my ear, I’d had a lot of time to think about where this criminal partnership was going and whether I wanted to spend my future crouched in puddles of stagnant water wondering about what was running over my feet. And then the rabbit had to go and die, and now I’m here, trying to make good on my promise to myself to quit.
So when it became clear that I wasn’t getting anywhere with the Selectophone repairs, I slammed my tool box closed, and slid back into the booth. The vinyl squeaked like sewer rats and I took that as a sign that it was time to fess up. “I’m going straight, Henry. I moved my stuff out this morning.”
He didn’t say anything for a few moments, just held my hand a little too tightly and stared into the middle distance.
Then he said, “Hope you’re not expecting a gold watch and a pension.” I could tell he was upset. Just like the time he caught me necking with that security guard while we were on a job. Maybe a little bit worse.
“It’s not like we can do this forever.” I’d returned to destroying my paper napkin and I’d rubbed it into tiny paper pills that littered the table between us. “And it’s not like we can’t still see each other.” Even I could tell that my voice was singing one tune while my body was playing another.
“You sure about that?”
“Sure, we’re more than business partners, right?”
“So, whatcha going to do with yourself? Learn stenography?
“I was thinking of going to music school. I’ve got the fingers for it,” I said, wiggling all ten of them in front of his face. I could tell we were both thinking about other uses I’d put my talented digits to in the past. I looked away. “Plus I got a job playing piano at Duffey’s.”
“That shifty mick? I guess you deserve each other.” He slammed his coffee cup down again, chipping the edge of the saucer. “And what about the payroll job? We’ve been casing the joint for weeks. Pay for your first year at Julliard. Maybe I’ll take a trip to Atlantic City after it, check out the long legs on the girls and the one-arm bandits with the score.”
I started to slide out of the booth. “I’m done, Henry. Enjoy the strippers.”
“Showgirls, doll.” He grabbed my forearm and slammed it on the table. The new buzzing in my elbow was matched by the old tingling in my stomach. Like counterpoint, like our whole relationship since he’d talked me into putting my talents to work sweet-talking safes. I couldn’t tell if he inspired fear or sadness in me now. Still, I managed to pull my arm free, sling my tool bag over my shoulder, and remove myself from the conversation. I’d done it, I was going straight, but at that moment I didn’t feel the freedom so much as a strange weightlessness, like I’d just jumped out of an airplane and I wasn’t sure if I’d remembered my parachute.
The next time I saw Henry was when he came into Duffey’s. I was playing “Bye Bye Blackbird” on the upright at the end of the bar that Duffey himself was tending that night. He gave Henry the stink-eye when he saw him sit down next to me on the bench and I saw him cue the bouncer to watch for trouble. The guy straightened his vest and took a couple steps closer to the bar. I thought they were overreacting and tried to wave him off.
After that, Duffey slid a half-empty bottle of his cheapest gin down the bar to Henry. Didn’t bother with a glass. I guess he was telling me I was on my own.
“Hey, doll, you sure you’re fancy enough for this joint now that they lifted those chandeliers.” Henry pointed to the lights with his chin. It was true, Duffey had scored the sparklers from a turf war with the lower east side and my waistline was limiting my clothing choices to the loose and frumpy. Still, I didn’t appreciate him pointing it out.
“What do you want, Henry.” I ran my fingers over some scales. “I’ve got an ambience to maintain here.”
“I need you for the payroll job, Sal.” He took a slug of the liquor, and grimaced, more from asking a favor of me than from the bite of the bathtub in the gin.
“I’m touched that you need me, but no. I told you I’m done.”
“It’s not me who needs you, doll. It’s Madge. Her cats won’t eat nothing but fresh tuna and she needs a substantial bankroll to make that happen.”
“Tell Madge we’ve all got to make sacrifices these days, even Mr. and Mrs. Whiskers.” I started in on “Bye Bye Blackbird” again, hoping he’d take the hint.
He continued to sit next to me on the bench, slumped over his gin. It reminded me of our early days together, when I’d come home to him sitting on the stoop, half-sloshed but missing me from a day apart. He’d taught me how to make his mom’s meatloaf and we’d eat it on a blanket on the roof, watching the stars. He knew the names of the constellations and I knew the stories. I was about to scoot closer to him on the bench when I noticed his face had shifted from hangdog to mad dog.
He slammed the keyboard lid. My fingers instinctively withdrew from the keys before the lid could bruise them. All the notes jangled together, booming out their discord to the bar. My heart was beating against my chest like the landlord pounding on my Dad’s front door.
“Damn it, Sally,” he said, “You owe me this.” He leapt up, like an earthquake centered on our shared bench. “You’re going to be there Tuesday, or I’ll be looking for you Wednesday morning.” He had me by the wrist, twisting the skin in an Indian burn.
“Sure, Henry. I’m willing to pull one last job. I just want you to know it’s my last.” He let me go then. “See you Tuesday, midnight, right?”
It was lucky that the job was at night because I still spent my mornings retching into the sink these days. By noon I was pale and shaky, but by midnight I’d be golden. I had pride in my skill, even though it wasn’t something I’d be putting on a resume, and I didn’t want to leave a trail of saltine cracker crumbs from the safe to the safe house, besides. Madge patted me on the back and said, “You’re doing the right thing, kid” as we climbed through the window. I could always count on Madge for support.
The safe had its own room, like a studio apartment complete with art on the walls. I guess the owners thought the accountant and his clerks wouldn’t be tempted by a safe they rarely saw. And maybe they thought the flimsy lock was a deterrent as well. I popped the door open with a bobby pin. The safe would take a bit more finesse.
Henry seemed nervous, pacing like a race horse before the Derby. Madge sat on top of the safe and swung her legs like a little girl.
“Madge, I believe your title in this operation is “look out.” Get out of here and go do some looking out, you nimrod.” Henry usually lost it about this point in every job. I saw him pop a couple of antacids as Madge sauntered from the room. We could hear her whistling “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” all the way down the hall.
The safe clicked open like an oyster. “It’s always a beautiful moment when the safe accepts the inevitable,” I said. “I’m going to miss it.”
Henry pulled me in for a kiss. “Our little threesome,” he said. “I’m going to miss it, too.” Our eyes met and for the first time I saw a flash of something in there, something sad and lost. It could have been the glint off the steel safe door, it could have been real emotion, I wasn’t sure. I could hear the wind driving the rain against the store front windows. And Madge opening the file drawers in the next room. Madge always thought she’d find something incriminating rummaging around in a stranger’s paperwork. Then Henry started unburdening the safe of its bills. I held the bag. Each bundle thudded into the bag and strained my forearms. Each bundle was a payment on my future life. “You should get out while you can, Henry. Buy a bar or a fancy restaurant. I know, a haberdashery!” I leaned against him, breathing in his mint and wet wool.
“Shit,” he said, fumbling a bundle. The rubber band burst and they spread across the floor of the safe. “Help me get these into the bag, Sal. That’s a grand piano’s worth for sure.”
I bent to sweep them up with my hand. Greed is a necessary personality trait in this line of work. In the back I saw a small jewelry box we’d missed and I had to practically climb into the safe to retrieve it. Inside were half a dozen diamond rings, someone else’s happy ending, someone else’s segue into marital bliss. I slipped them on.
“What do you think, Henry? Which one should I pick?” I splayed my fingers against the dark metal floor of the safe.
“I’m sorry, Sally.”
I laughed. “Sorry about what?” I looked up, saw rage dance with sadness across his face. I guess I learned to read him just a moment too late, I thought, as he swung the safe door closed on my fingers.