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Queenpin: A Novelby Megan Abbott
I want the legs.
That was the first thing that came into my head. The legs were the legs of a twenty-year-old Vegas showgirl, a hundred feet long and with just enough curve and give and promise. Sure, there was no hiding the slightly worn hands or the beginning tugs of skin framing the bones in her face. But the legs, they lasted, I tell you. They endured. Two decades her junior, my skinny matchsticks were no competition.
In the casinos, she could pass for thirty. The low lighting, her glossy auburn hair, legs swinging, tapping the bottom rim of the tall bettor stools. At the track, though, she looked her age. Even swathed in oversized sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, bright gloves, she couldn't outflank the merciless sunshine, the glare off the grandstand. Not that it mattered. She was legend.
I was never sure what she saw in me. You looked like you knew a thing or two, she told me later. But were ready to learn a lot more.
It was a soft sell, a long sell. I never knew what she had in mind until I already had such a taste I thought my tongue would never stop buzzing. Meaning, she got me in, she got me jobs, she got me fat stacks of cash too thick to wedge down my cleavage. She got me in with the hard boys, the fast money, and I couldn't get enough. I wanted more. Give me more.
When I met her, I was doing the books at Club Tee Hee, a rinky-dink joint on the east side, one of a twinkling row of red- and blue-lit joints the cops never touched. Starlite Strip, it was called, optimistically.
I'd been working there a few months. Accounts paid and receivable. Payroll. My old man knew the owners, red-eyed, slump-shouldered Jerome and his terrier-faced brother-in-law, Arthur. Had filled their vending machines — cigarettes for the front hallway, perfume and face powders for the ladies' room, men's stuff for the men's room — for fifteen years. And they liked the old man, had a funny kind of respect for his churchgoing, working-stiff life — widower, paid his bills, three daughters, all of whom reached age twenty without a stint at Agnes Millan's Home for Wayward Girls. My old man, he didn't like the idea of sending me to work at a nightclub, but he did like the idea of me having a job sitting at a desk over rows of numbers rather than my last gig, which was modeling dresses for leering businessmen at Hickey's Department Store, where the pay is cut-rate unless you went off the books and to hotel suites for private parties. I never went to one of those parties, but let's be honest, it was only a matter of time.
"With that figure and that puss," Jerome said, "you can't blame him for wanting to keep you buried in a back office, behind a green visor, sugar cake." Jerome and Arthur came off as decent men, given their trade, profiting from the sinning ways of hopeless souls. Pop knew firsthand they always paid their vending bills and went home each night to thick-ankled wives and a couple of kids, had lived in the same modest houses in the Sycamore district as long as anyone could remember. So he figured them for honest joes. And he was wrong. My old man never was too bright, never saw the angles. That's how you end up never making two dimes in vending, one of the crookedest rackets there is. I loved the guy, but I knew a week in that the Tee Hee was bought and paid for five times over by the city big boys and Jerome and Arthur were in over their heads.
The job was easy. Mornings, I took advanced accounting at the Dolores Grey Business School. Afternoons, I took the city bus to the Tee Hee. I tallied time sheets, paid the liquor bills, supply invoices, rent, and insurance. And I looked the part, decked out in my Orlon sweater, tweed skirt, one-inch heels, round toes, my unpolished nails pressing the adding machine keys, counting the whiskey-stained dollar bills. But I never believed in it.
Hell, I'll admit it, I had a taste for the other from the start. Where would a twenty-two-year-old kid rather be? Setting the table for a corned beef and cabbage dinner with her old man, forks scraping, moths fluttering against the window, the briny smell from the kitchen sinking into my skin with each tock of the imitation grandfather clock? Or gliding my way through the fuzzy dark of the Tee Hee, vibrating with low, slow jazz, clusters of juniper-breathed men and women touching, hands on lapels, fingers on silk nylons, cigarettes releasing willowy clouds into every acid green banquette? Sure, it was no El Morocco, but in this town, it might as well have been. The place felt alive, I could hear it beating in my chest, between my hips, everywhere. Clock-out time and I never wanted to leave. I'd grin my way into a Tom Collins from Shep, the lantern-jawed bartender, and watch from the corner stool, watch everything, eating green cherries, the candied drink soaking into my lips, my tongue.
There were about three hours of actual work for every seven hours on the clock. That's how I figured there would be different duties on the horizon, if I passed the test, whatever the test would be. And it started soon enough.
It was all so easy. With or without Dolores Grey Business School, I could make those digits fall in line and when Jerome asked me to cook the books, I did it.
"Muffin, there's this new way of doing things I'd like to try," he said, leaning over me at my desk, stubby finger on my ledger.
"Sure, Mr. Bendix. I can do that," I said, looking him in the eye. I wanted him to see that I was no fool. That I got the game — and believe me, anyone would have gotten the game — and was still up for it. Looking back, I don't know why I wasn't more scared of getting pinched or worse. But it never really ran that way for me. I saw a chance, I took it. I didn't want to miss my ticket.
The method Jerome had in mind was so creaky you'd have thought it went out with detachable collars and petticoats. It was like asking to be caught. But he didn't seem to be breaking a sweat about it. So I figured he'd gotten orders on this and felt protected. The Tee Hee was under an umbrella and the boys felt safe and dry. For a time, at least.
I'd been working the new system four of five days when I first saw her. The place was hissing with stories told behind hands as she walked into the place. About the big gees and button men she'd tossed with back in the day, everyone from Dutch Schultz to Joey Adonis and Lucky himself.
Turns out, she came every few weeks, sipping a club soda with a twist and counting Jerome's vig before she drove off in her alpine white El Dorado to kick it Upstairs. Her name was Gloria Denton.
Jerome, Arthur, the regulars, they loved to talk about her, share stories, tales, legends. About how, in the glory days, she used to carry a long-handled pair of scissors in her purse when she collected in the rough parts of town, about the time an angry wife tried to run her over with her Cadillac outside her husband's betting parlor, about a stripper named Candy Annie who crossed her on some deal back in '48 but, when Annie walked into the ladies' room at the Breakwater Hotel in Miami three months later, Gloria got her revenge with a straight-edge razor, gutting the stripper like a fish.
"Who is she anyhow?" I asked, that first time. "Whose wife?"
"She's no one's wife," Jerome said, shaking his head. "And she's no moll, never was, not even when she was fresh and tight as Kim Novak."
"What's she, some kind of kingpin?"
Jerome shook his head. "Not like that. She's on the inside. She's one of them. They trust her. She's been around forever. In her heyday, she ran with the real pros, back when they owned the whole show, their own national wire service, not just little numbers rigs in sunken-in burgs like this one. She and Virginia Hill, they were the two gals that mattered past what they could pull in the sack."
Soon enough I saw her eyeing me. Arthur said she'd been asking about me, where I came from. "Who's the lollypop," she asked. "What's her story?" Later, I figured she must've heard about the way I could work things, work things and keep my mouth shut about it. She knew everybody and everybody knew her and she plucked me out of that two-bit hootchy-kootch and put me on the big stage, footlights up my dress.
I wanted more.
So when Jerome stepped it up, asked me to make him a fake numbers book for his single-action game, I did that too. I was a fast learner for a kid who never heard of running numbers, except in the pictures. I guessed it was a pretty chancy thing. What made guys like Jerome and Arthur, who couldn't stop the bartenders from padding tabs and pocketing the difference, think they could pull something over on the big-time boys who owned them wholesale, from their wispy forelocks to their cheap shoes?
It was ledge-crawling for the slickest of operators, writing a numbers book. But for schmoes like Jerome and Arthur it read like suicide. If I'd been around the rackets longer, I'd have told them to find another patsy. I was about to put myself on the chopping block but was too raw to know it. Too stupid to be scared.
The idea was to skip over the actual gathering-of-bets-from-customers part and instead dummy up a set of books with numbers Jerome and Arthur would play themselves. Then, when they hit, they'd get to keep all the honey.
"You got the cash for it?" I asked. "Even if the bets are phony, you still gotta pass the bag to Gloria Denton, like if you really were collecting them."
"Tell her, Jer," Arthur sniffed anxiously, pinching his nose like he did when he saw Shep serving to jailbait. "Tell her what you conjured."
Jerome smiled broadly. "Week by week, little girl. As long as luck holds, we'd score winnings first part of the week to pass over to Gloria at week's end. And this joint leaks enough scratch to hold us over when the lady Fortune ain't in our corner."
"You don't think they're wise to this kind of game? They've been in it a long time."
"Since before you were a gleam in your poppa's eye," Jerome said, straightening his cuffs. "But they got bigger fish to fry. They're not gonna notice one set of phony ribbons in that leaning tower Gloria packs into her tired trunk twice a month."
"You're the boss."
We'd been running it less than a week when it took a bad turn. Mugs, the kid with the ducktail who was our usual runner, didn't show up to take our betting slips and instead she was there, like an IRS auditor for the rackets. It was the first time she ever spoke to me.
I couldn't take my eyes off her. It was like a famous picture on the wall suddenly started yapping at you. I was staring, you bet. I wanted to take it all in, her whole setup. The half-moon manicured nails, pale green suit and hat, the pearl-ring brooch. Class. No gun moll, she.
It never crossed my mind that she'd start talking. When she did, I nearly jumped out of my swivel seat.
"Yeah," I said, trying not to fidget. "Well, I haven't been doing it long. Looks pretty green, huh?"
"Just careful. Not the scratch sheet I usually see."
She pulled a seven-column steno from her dyed-white alligator briefcase and set it in front of me. "What do you notice?"
"Other than the coffee stains and the bad penmanship?" I said.
"Yes, other than that." Straight face. Always a straight face.
I looked at it, squinting at the curled pages. "Different color inks. Different pens. Even a grease pencil here."
"And different weights, angles. What do you make of it?"
"Bets were recorded at different times, in different places. Maybe standing here, sitting at a desk or counter here. With a racing form pencil here, so maybe scribbled down at a betting parlor."
She ran her hand over my book, with its tidy columns, its uniform blue figures in crisp Dolores Grey script. She didn't say anything. She didn't need to. In my head, I cursed Jerome and Arthur for not telling me how ribbons should look, how, at least at places like the Tee Hee, they're filled over time, not all at once, at a desk. Schmucks. Slapping big fat targets on all of us.
"So where'd all these new bets come from?" she asked. "First time I ever saw two books at the Tee Hee."
"Kilapsky Brothers Vending Machine employees," I said. That was the nursery rhyme Jerome told me to recite if asked. "They're new and so am I, so Jerome and Arthur put me in charge of doing ribbons for them."
"They cut you in?"
She looked at me. "Must be a reason to have a whole separate book," she said.
"They wanted to see how I made out first. They didn't want me fouling their setup. So a separate book to keep track."
"So these Kilapsky boys never had any action until you came along."
"Not that I know of. They're family men. Spend their Friday nights at the VFW."
"You know who owns Kilapsky?"
"The brothers. Junior is the head guy now," I said.
"That so?" she said and that's when I got it. Her bosses really owned Kilapsky and I was the schmuck. They probably already had a controller taking bets from those employees. She'd been stringing me along from the minute we started talking, watching me dig my own grave. My only choice was to take it all the way and play the prize-one chump.
"That's what Jerome and Arthur told me," I said. "They pass me the slips each morning and I fill out the ribbon. It's duck soup, so who am I to complain?" Sure, it was kind of a rotten move to pitch it all on Jerome and Arthur. But they were rotten guys. Hell if I was going to hang for them. They'd've sold me up the river for a song, maybe already had.
She gave me a prisonyard stare and I thought I almost saw a smile crimp those crimson lips. "Who are you to complain," she repeated, tossing my steno back at me. "Keep at it, ace. Keep at it."
I didn't get it. But I would.
The next week I saw her again. She was walking across the Tee Hee parking lot, taking short steps in her fitted suit, her pointy-toe heels — snakeskin, I was sure. She was looking straight at me as I stood by the bus stop, shivering in my rayon coat, tapping my feet to keep warm.
"I'll drop you. Get in," she said, nodding toward the El Dorado.
My pop had warned me about this kind of invitation, but only from jumpy-eyed or slick-faced men, salesmen and bar patrons, barmen and kitchen help, suppliers and deliverers, custodians and busboys. Never from anyone in spiky heels with a gold-clasped clutch of creamy leather under her arm and gold button earrings and a sharp green rock balancing on one long finger, a sleek charm bracelet swaying from one wrist, dangling like a promise.
Who was I to say no?
After all, the old man's rule book was mum on taking lifts from middle-aged ladies.
I started toward her car.
My, did the leather seats feel fine. And the car warmed up so fast and had the rich smell of good cigarettes and department store perfume.
"Where to?" she said in a low voice as we made our way down the Starlite Strip.
"Pottsville section. On Fleetwood Way."
She nodded, eyes on the road. "Tough break, kid."
I didn't know what she meant. At least not for sure.
"Must be a forty-minute bus ride home," she continued, "and all you get at the end is what? Vinyl siding and one picture window? Or is it a walk-up that takes you for a sleigh ride every time the commuter train heads eastbound or west?"
I sat up a little straighter and looked at her from the corner of my eye. "Aluminum siding," I murmured.
She didn't give me any I-told-you-so, no I-got-your-number. Instead, she said, "Don't mistake me, kid. I grew up three kids to a bed on the south side of Coal City, USA. I'm just saying, time comes and you gotta crawl your way out."
"With those two chumps? Fat chance." She shook her head wearily. "Listen. Maybe you'd like some brighter opportunities."
"A job?" I tried to keep a measured tone.
"Something like that, Dolly Dingle. Let's stop and I'll buy you a cup. I think it's time you put on your miner's hat and headed toward the bright light."
For two hours, we sat at the Triple R Diner on Eastern Boulevard and she did her thing. The slow-voiced, hard-eyed Mesmer routine I would come to know so well. All so logical, everything flowing like syrup off a spoon.
I've always known when to shut up and listen. Hands curled around my coffee cup, I said maybe five words. She was giving me the keys to the kingdom. I knew that much, even then. I just didn't know where the kingdom was. Truth was, I didn't care. I liked its shine even from a long distance.
She told me how her work afforded her a very comfortable lifestyle. It required significant discretion and considerable flexibility (she might, like a fireman or doctor, be called upon at a moment's notice to attend to duties). But in return there were substantial rewards. In material things, yes, and a way of living, but also with regard to the way one was treated, viewed. Still, there was a great deal of travel, long, late hours in the car or on trains, even airplanes. Now, after coming on twenty-five years, she could use a little help. And there was more than enough work to go around, for the right kind of girl. Smart, discreet, and with some fire in the belly.
Was that how she saw me?
Sure, I wanted to ask her what exactly she did other than collect bets and protection money. But it never seemed like the right time and I didn't want her to think I was square, that I didn't get the whole jury-rig, that I was just some Ivory soap kid who took the bus to work and daydreamed about new dresses and dates with men who wore flowers in their lapels.
So I nodded and paid close attention as she talked. I watched how she moved (like she'd thought through every finger lift) and the way she spoke (with care, in the same even tone all the time). I knew I was looking at the big time. I figured she might have to spend a few hours a week in this flea circus of a town, but she was big city all the way and somehow, somehow she saw something in me, something in the face like a bar of soap, plain, unshaped, ready for dirt. Made for it.
"So, kid," she finally said, setting a ten on the table to cover the eighty-cent bill, "what's your take? You up for a new business venture? One that'll make real use of that stuff I know you have upstairs. You'll learn more in a week than in a decade at the Tee Hee or two decades in the classroom."
She rose, smoothing her skirt with a flash of the hand and looking me straight in the eye. "You want it?"
I met her gaze for the first time. "Yes," I blurted, standing too, if shakily. "I'm ready. I'm all yours."
She nodded and I got the feeling that nod was her version of a smile. "Good, kid. You did good."
Copyright © 2007 by Megan Abbott
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