Monday, September 16, 2019

Grand, fiction by Preston Lang

The stranger asked if he could do a little work in the field for something to eat and a place to stay. Dinner wasn’t much—thin soup and the last of the bread. But the stranger ate hungrily, and when Ida showed him a clean blanket and his spot near the stove, he closed his eyes and said a quiet prayer.

Ed and Ida woke up before dawn, but the stranger was already gone. The blanket was rolled up neatly, and there was a little something sticking out of the end.

“Ida, this is a thousand-dollar bill.”

“What do we do with it?”

Ed knew what they weren’t going to do. Everyone had heard about that farmer in Indiana. The bank robber, Honeyman James, had pulled the same routine on him. That poor sap took the 1000 to town and tried to deposit it in the very bank that held the lien on his land. They confiscated the stolen bill and had him arrested. While he was inside, they took his farm. Then they let him go with a fine and time served. Not long after, he hung himself from a bridge.

Ed’s farm was just as bad off, but he was a little smarter than that fool from Indiana.

“I’ll take it to Liza in New York,” he said.

“You’ll lose it before you get there.”

“I won’t.”

“Then you’ll lose it in New York.”

“Liza will know what to do.”

“Then she’ll take it from you.”

“She’s my sister.”

“What do I do if the men from the bank come while you’re east?”

“Tell them they have to carry you off the land.”

“If they come, I’m asking them to drive me to my mama’s. I hear they do that if you promise to leave quiet.”

“I’m not going to fail.”

“If you get the farm back, you know where I’ll be.”

The bill was crisp and new. President Cleveland looked heroically to his right—For All Debts Public And Private. Ed walked seventeen miles, away from town, past the dry stubble of winter cornfields to the bend before the Mosopawn Bridge. As the freight train approached, he ran alongside a boxcar that was cracked open just a bit. As it came close enough to touch, it flew open wider so Ed could jump in. Two small, dirty men sat in the car. One of them held a knife.

“Thanks for the help,” Ed said.

“That costs.”

“I’m busted. Why do you think I’m riding this way?”

“I don’t think you understand. Whatever you got hidden away, it needs to come out.”

Ed wouldn’t have any problem with these two in a fair fight, but he knew a quick man with a blade could be trouble.

“There’s nothing hidden away.”

“Give us the coat.”

Ed’s coat was long and tattered. Neither of these men could wear it, but they could probably sleep in it.

“I thank you again for the help, but I’m keeping everything that’s mine.”

The men looked at each other for a second before the one with the knife spoke.

“Watch yourself when it gets dark, big man.”

“He means it.”

Ed believed them.

“All right, look,” he said. “I got a nickel.”

He jangled the change in his pocket—seventeen cents—as he closed the distance quickly between himself and the unarmed man. Ed grabbed the little guy and pitched him off the train. The other man didn’t move. The train hadn’t hit the bridge yet. It was still at a trotting pace.

“You want me to help you off, too?”

The man tucked away his knife and jumped.

It was just after 10 PM the next day when Ed got to New York. He’d been there one time, before he’d been married or owned a farm. The city hadn’t lost any of its blaze or its pace. In fact, it seemed faster but angrier. He had Liza’s address on the back of an envelope. She always wrote at Christmas and said she was doing well, giving violin lessons, playing small concerts and private functions, but her block in the west 20s was dark and smoky. It smelled even more poisonous than the main avenues, and two of the upstairs windows in her building were broken. He knocked on the door. It didn’t open, but a sharp woman’s voice came right away.

“Who are you?”

“I’m here to see Liza Brown. I’m her brother.”

“No visitors after ten. Not even brothers.”

“Please. Does she live here?”

“Go away.”

“Ma’am, it’s important family business.”

“We get too much important family business. Too many brothers in here.”

“I’m not leaving.”

“You want me to call the cops?”

“Ma’am, just tell her I’m here.”

“Listen, Mac.” The woman opened the door wide enough to get a look at Ed. “Oh, you’re Liza’s brother.”

“That’s what I was trying to tell you.”

“All right, come in. I’ll see if she’s up there.”

He stood in the main room. There was a small kitchen with no stove and a scratched-up table that could probably seat eight if they crowded in. A minute later, Liza came down the stairs.

“Say, you really are my brother.”

She was only a few inches shorter than Ed but not nearly as thick. Two years younger, she had the same sharp features and deep blue eyes. But his were still and cautious, hers were quick, amused, unflappable. She hugged him and they went up to her tiny room. They could hear Crosby singing Dinah from down the hall.

“What brings you to town?”

He told her everything—Honeyboy and the cash, the lien on his land, and the farmer from Indiana. Then he showed her the bill. She smoothed it out on a small crate by her bed.

“Hiya, Grover,” she said. “What have you been up to, sugar pie?”

“Can we deposit it somewhere?”

“You really trust me.”

“You’re blood.”

“Not going to work.”

“Why not?”

“Look where I live. Look what I own. I’m not going to do much better than that hayseed out in Indiana.”

“So what do we do?”

“I’ve got a few ideas. Let’s go see a man I know.”

“Right now?”

She threw on an old coat, and they walked downtown.

“Say, how’s Ida?”

“Ida is fine.”

“Uh oh.”

“I said she was fine.”

“All right. She’s fine.”

“She’s had to put up with a lot,” Ed said. “We’ll see.”

“If you go home with money, you think everything will be all right?”

He didn’t have an answer for that, but they kept walking down Seventh Avenue. Building after building, people walking straight at them then darting past at the last second, men who seemed to be standing heedless out in the middle of the street, just barely avoiding the cabs and streetcars.

Soon they came to a five-story building on a curved street.

“Who are we going to see?”

“Just some artistics.”

The front door was open, and they walked to the top floor where about forty people were packed inside two small rooms, mostly laughing and drinking clear liquid out of blue tea cups. Two men near the window were arguing—one pounded furiously on the cover of a book. On the phonograph, some foreign man was singing in English about his Mimi.

“Liza, Liza.” A woman ran over to them. “You brought your brother. Liza says that you own half the hogs in Illinois. You’re very rich but too stingy. Why so stingy, Edward?”

“I made all that up,” Liza said. “Where’s Weaver?”

“Who?”

“The man who lives here?”

“Oh, we told him to leave because he was such a gloomy pill. I think he went out to eat. You want a cup?”

Liza took a drink, but Ed couldn’t imagine having a belt in a place like this. One of the men by the window threw a book across the room.

“You should have been here earlier,” the woman said. “Buddy put a whole pigeon in his trousers.”

“Buddy is a dangerous intellectual.”

Liza had one more drink then they left and checked the open restaurants until Liza spotted their man through the window of a coffee shop about five blocks away. A little guy with glasses and wild hair.

“I have to talk to him alone,” she said. “Let me have the bill.”

“No.”

“But I’m blood. You trust me.”

“I don’t trust him.”

“Okay, you go in first, sit near him but don’t look at him. Then I’ll come in.”

“With the money?”

“Yeah.”

Ed went into the coffee shop and took a seat two tables from the man with the wild hair. People were drinking tea and reading, marking up their books as they went, and Ed was worried that he’d have to buy something. He’d been at the table almost a minute before the woman at the front called to him.

“You need something, honey?”

He didn’t answer. He couldn’t think of what to say.

“This place isn’t just for sitting. Are you waiting for someone?”

“Yes,” he managed.

“You want a cup of coffee in the meantime?”

What was a cup of coffee? A nickel, a dime? The idea of spending that much on something he didn’t even want was terrifying. The man with the wild hair looked up from his book.

“Maybe he doesn’t speak English,” he said. “Du Pratar Svenska?”

“I am waiting for someone,” Ed said finally.

“All right, then. But you need to order when your friend shows up,” the lady said.

Finally Liza walked in.

“Weaver, dear. Got something to ask you.”

She motioned him to the back of the shop. Ed couldn’t see them anymore, but he could still hear. She told him how she’d come into some money and needed him to change it.

“You have it with you?” he asked.

“Can you change it?”

“Of course I can. I have a lot of cash back at my uptown place.”

“Let’s go.”

“Let me see the thousand.”

Ed heard the sound of money changing hands.

“You are the answer to my prayers,” Weaver said.

“Why is that?”

“You know I had to give up the place uptown? And the car. I sold my class ring to some Jew.”

“I’m sorry, dear.”

“So I’m going to take this money.”

“Right. And you’re going to give me smaller bills. Tens, twenties, even hundreds are all right.”

“No. I’m going to take it and keep it and give you nothing.”

“Don’t play around.”

“You can go to the police. See how that works for you. Or you can go back to my place and tell your friends who sit around drinking my booze that I’m a crook. Maybe they’ll worry their free ride is coming to an end, but they won’t lift a finger to help you.”

He stood and walked out of the shop. Ed was too shocked to move. Liza tapped him on her way by and pulled him out to the street, but it was too busy for fighting. Weaver was moving quickly uptown.

“I’ll stay on his back.” She pointed down a connecting street. “You run around that way. Past one intersection, then the next. You turn left on Charles. Go straight until you see Weaver’s building. He’ll show up, you sock him one.”

Ed took off down the cobbled streets, past one intersection, up to another. He didn’t see the word Charles anywhere. Should he turn back? Continue? He kept going, and at the next intersection—there it was. Charles Street. He turned left. A minute later he saw Weaver’s building. It was dark and empty out in front of it. Just as Ed caught his breath again, Weaver came around the corner from the opposite direction. He stopped when he saw a huge and stupid man in the middle of the sidewalk. But then Liza came up from behind and kicked him hard in the back of his legs. He fell to his knees.

“Get his arms, Ed.”

Ed rushed forward and pinned Weaver’s chest and shoulders to the ground. He struggled, but he wasn’t a strong man.

“Help! Help me!”

Liza went through his pockets until she found his wallet. She checked to make sure the 1000 was in there. She also dumped a few coins into her hand then threw the wallet on top of the man.

“You throw a good party, Weaver.”

Ed followed his sister as she ran around the corner. When they slowed to a quick walk, he saw the river to the west.

“Sorry about that rat. At least we made eleven cents on the deal.”

She put the change in her handbag.

“Let me have the money, my money.”

“Hey, all right. You don’t have to snarl.”

She handed him the thousand back.

“You know, one time President Cleveland got a woman in trouble. So he put her in the nut house and gave the baby to this really nice couple in Buffalo.”

“What are we going to do now?”

“I’ve got another idea.”

“What time is it?”

“Why, you have to be up early?”

“No.”

“I do. Violin lesson. I give Bess Flynn 45 minutes before school.”

“How much do they pay you?”

“I can eat there whenever I want. That’s something.”

They walked back uptown. In the 30s, they passed a row of shacks, some built with loose boards and ripped pieces of tar paper. Others were neater and looked almost professionally constructed. Ed could see candlelight inside some of the houses, but it was quiet out in front. Then they turned east toward the brightest, busiest part of the city, past all the neon and streetcars and men in expensive suits, right to a restaurant and nightclub called The Tuxedo—but they were stopped at the door.

“We have to talk to Lottie at coat check,” Liza said. “Then we’ll be on our way.”

“I’m sorry, Miss, but Lottie will have to conduct her personal business on her own time. Now you need to move on.”

“You’re Ken, right? Lottie’s told me all about you.”

“Would you please move along.”

“I’ll bet your wife in Bay Ridge would be awfully interested in what you get up to after work.”

“You can’t threaten me. I am a decent man.”

“Maybe, you are, but you wouldn’t believe the things I’d be willing to say. I’ve read some of those French novels.”

“Miss, I’m going to ask you—"

“Give me two minutes with my friend. Is it really any skin off your nose?”

Lottie was a tiny woman with a husky voice. She stood behind a counter in front of furs, hats, and canes. She was happy to see Liza.

“Your brother is plenty rugged,” she said.

“Yeah, we run tall in our family.”

“You’re not eating here, are you?”

“No, I had a question for you. Can I come back there?”

Lottie opened up the half door and let Liza in the room. Liza whispered something in her ear. Lottie hugged her, and Liza turned her just a bit while they embraced and found pen and paper. While Lottie was writing, Liza quickly unhooked a nice dark coat and tossed it to Ed. He wrapped it in his own coarse one. He looked around, but no one was paying them the least attention.

When Lottie was done writing, she folded the paper and handed it to Liza. By then, a fashionable couple was approaching coat check.

Lottie looked at Ed.

“If you catch him, you give him one for me.”

Liza pulled Ed away from coat check, past Ken, and out into the streets.

“What’d you tell her?”

“She once needed a special kind of doctor. I got you a hat, too. Try on your new rags.”

The coat was a little small, but it looked good. He thought the top hat was ridiculous, but Liza shook her head.

“It’s great: you’re a butter and egg man. No sharp room would turn away your business. Now we’re going down to Bedford. There’s a spot where we can roll dice.”

“What? No, we don’t need to gamble.”

“We’ll swap Grover for chips, play an hour, then cash out—probably a little lighter.”

“We’re going to lose some of the money?”

“Or maybe we’ll win a little. You came 8000 miles on roller skates, you might have to drop a little lettuce.”

She filled him in on what to expect as they walked. It felt like they’d been on their feet all night, past shops and elevated train lines that were all starting to look the same. Bedford was mostly a residential street, not too far from the party at Weaver’s.

For the first time, Ed noticed his sister’s ratty old jacket.

“Don’t you need a better coat?”

“Nope.” She took off the jacket and folded it over a metal railing that ran horizontally in front of a building. “If I lose it, you’ll buy me a new one, right?”

She had on a simple black dress. It didn’t look formal, but on a girl as tall and striking as Liza, it didn’t look cheap. She nudged him ahead then down a set of stairs.

“Yeah?”

A deep man’s voice came through the door even before they knocked.

“Just in from Chicago. Looking for something to do,” Ed said.

“No. Not here.”

“Come on, Rudy. You know me,” Liza said.

“There’s no Rudy here. Get off my stairs. I mean it.”

Liza tried some more of the cute stuff, but it didn’t work. When they got back up to street level, Ed smelled something odd—like alfalfa but sweeter. Liza was already walking toward it. Up on the steps in front of a very slender building, a young man was smoking.

“Jerry?”

“Who’s that?” The man put out the cigarette and held it behind his back.

“Relax. It’s me, Liza.”

“Liza, Liza? You’re gambling tonight?”

“My brother would like to. They won’t let us in.”

“Yeah, they’ve tightened up. There was word of reckless individuals. I’ll get you in.”

“Finish your tea.”

“No, I got a set to start. Hey, bring your fiddle some time. We’ll get downright classical.”

Liza laughed and Jerry led them back down the stairs. Ed was frisked thoroughly, but they got inside. The whole place was one open room filled with tables. It was about ninety percent male, but there were a few women bouncing around near the roulette wheels. Jerry left them at the change counter.

“Friends of mine, Sal,” he said. “Bigshot hog farmer from out west.”

“How many hogs do you have?” Sal asked.

“Nine thousand five hundred,” Ed said.

“How do you get them to fuck so much?”

“Sir, you can’t talk that way around a lady.”

“My mistake,” Sal said. “How much you need?”

Ed put the 1000 on the counter.

“A thousand?”

“You don’t have that many chips?” Liza asked.

“You got to be careful with the big paper.”

“You can let us play on credit if you like.”

“Let me get the sourdough man.”

Sal waved to someone across the room, and they all stood around for a minute and listened to Jerry play Fats Waller note-for-note on the piano. Finally, an older man with ink stains on the front of his shirt came by to look at the money. He flipped it over once then held it up to the light.

“It’s good. Give them chips.”

They walked over to the roulette table. Liza patted Ed once on the shoulder.

“Nine thousand five hundred hogs. That was perfect.”

Ed wasn’t sure why it was perfect. He only knew that would be a lot of animals to care for.

“Let me have a few chips.” Liza held out one hand when he didn’t cough up right away. “Come on, we’re here to play.”

He gave her five 20-dollar chips, and she threw one right on red. He wanted to snatch it off the table or stop that ball spinning before it landed somewhere black. It came up on 17.

“Hard times,” Liza said.

The croupier took their chip, and Ed felt it like a slug to the stomach. How much bacon was that? How much feed? How much of his land could he buy back for twenty dollars? He grabbed Liza by the shoulder, a little harder than he’d intended.

“Let’s wait a little.”

“We have to bet. We can’t just cash out. Put a hundred down somewhere.”

“No.”

Liza put 40 on red. Again it came up black. But then she went on a streak. When she was 200 dollars up, she traded him five 20s for one of his 100s. She put it on a four-corner and hit it. Maybe this was a good way to make money. Ed put one of his 100-dollar chips on odd and won. He kept playing. As a young man, he’d rolled dice behind a few barns, and once played cards at Dutch Feller’s. None of that was anything like what was happening now. This was like flying. Twenty minutes later, Liza pulled him to the bar. When they were served, Ed threw his shot straight down and asked for another. He knew it was gin, but he could barely taste the alcohol.

“You want to cash out soon?” she asked.

“How much do you have?”

“1600.”

“I’ve got two thousand dollars.” His laugh was a rapid panting sound that he didn’t recognize. “But it seems to me like we could play a little longer and make even more.”

“Ed, we haven’t been winning because we’re smart.”

“Why have we been winning?”

“Luck. We’ve been lucky.”

Lucky. Ed had forgotten what that meant. As a kid he could remember the times their dad made a big sale. One night he came home with a baseball glove for Ed and a violin for Liza. That was luck. But farming just seemed to be a rigged game that got worse each year.

Could it really be true they could walk out with 3600 dollars? It was just as easy to believe they could walk out with a lion on a leash. But if it was real, he was set, wasn’t he? Not only could he get out of debt, he could buy back all his land outright. And a car. And a decent plow. He knew Baker was as bad off as he was. He could buy Baker’s farm, double his acreage. Maybe hire him to work it and split the income.

Ed was the last one in the room to notice the two men with sawed-off shotguns.

“Everybody’s a loser tonight,” one of the gunman said.

Ed could see two more men at the counter getting the money. He turned to Liza.

“They can’t take our money.”

“Hey, Big Corn. Shut up,” the second gunman said.

“You don’t understand,” Ed said.

But, of course, he did understand. He knew how much money was worth. The hopes and dreams. The simple survival. The man took a step toward Ed.

“Another word, I break your nose.”

He was so close now that the rifle was useless, and Ed wrenched the thing out of his hands and threw him to the ground. The other gunman spun and shot, hitting his own man. When he stopped firing, Ed charged him, too. The last thing he saw was a little white ball sitting on number 32, still running around and around.

***


With bodies on the floor, the Bedford Avenue club was finished. But they popped up again in a new location soon after, and over the next few months, some gamblers managed to cash in some of their chips. But Liza never could. They did pay for the coffin and train fare to send Ed back home so he could be buried under his own soil. But when he arrived, no one was there to meet the box. And the bank owned his land.


Preston Lang is a writer from New York. His work has appeared in Thuglit, Betty Fedora, and WebMD. He has published four crime novels with Down and Out Books to date. For more, check out PrestonLangBooks.com.

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