Chapter 10

Nice Story

 

Once outside Chief Crazy Horse's tent, Yerkes took Emma's hand firmly in his.

"Come on!" He spoke to her in a rough voice over his shoulder, dragging her along. "The cafe's right ahead of us. Walk fast, but don't run or the guards may take us for thieves, girlie!" He pointed to a building east of them toward the Court of Honor.

Emma could not help looking beyond the cafe at the White City beyond it to the east. She felt drawn to that fountain of dreams, outlined so calm and serenely with electric illumination against the black sky. She watched that city of light bob in front of her as she jogged alongside Yerkes toward the brightly lit Moorish doorway. A sign read The Cairo Cafe. Little Egypt, caught in mid-gyration, gazed sleepily or sullenly from life-sized paper posters flanking the doorway. Emma caught her breath. The interior was so bright. Huge pierced copper lanterns hung about the room, showering it with warm, yellow electric light.

Emma squinted and adjusted her e. The night shift help were busily cleaning the garbage from the day's traffic off tables and floors. A knot of waiters sat yawning and playing cards in a corner of the cafe. The Cairo Cafe was for the security guards' use after hours. Not the full kitchen, but for drinks and finger food. Yerkes often brought ladies into the Fair with him after hours, so he had learned just where to take them. A waiter in a fez and a bright yellow tunic got up from the group in the corner and seemed to recognize Yerkes, smiling and murmuring welcome to the effendi.

"Where's the telephone?" Yerkes barked, impatient with niceties. The man in the fez widened his eyes and pointed a bony finger to a corner where one of the official telephone machines stood on an ornate porcelain cabinet. Yerkes cranked the thing a few times and was switched over to the stables; he yelled some instructions to his coachman.

Emma breathed a sigh of relief. Soon she would be home. What would Maminka think by now? They might be already dragging the river for her body.

Yerkes straightened his tie and ran a hand over his wavy, silver hair as he slid into the tiny alcove table next to Emma. "I had to order soda water. After hours, none of the Fair cafes serve alcohol," he said, smiling into Emma's face. The old Yerkes was back. His momentary loss of composure gone. So seamless was Yerkes's return to that smile that Emma felt a slight vertigo. The sparkling eyes. The waxy-tipped moustache, its little points signaling in the sign language of the 'nineties that here was a ladies' man. All were back in place. Seamlessly. The waiter glided over on his red plush slippers and put two sweaty glasses of soda in front of them.

"I must thank—" Emma started.

"Tush!" said Yerkes, smiling, and he brought a finger to his lips. "For what?" He rested his elbow on the table and propped his chin on his hand.

Emma felt a chill and shivered. Yerkes asked if she could use his jacket. She noticed what a fine jacket it was, she but said no. She didn't want to seem too much of a baby. But how strange. She had never been paid attention to in this way. Anton thought about Anton most of the time and if she were freezing to death and turning blue with the cold, Anton would never have offered Emma his precious jacket. Anton...Emma wondered if Anton knew how late she was staying out. She grimaced.

"What's the matter, girlie?" said Yerkes.

"My name is Emma," said Emma. Yerkes apologized for forgetting, but if that's all she were upset about...So many people in the reception line. Emma told Yerkes that her name had nothing to do with it. She was going to be in big trouble at the place where she was staying, it being so late.

Yerkes laughed. This could be amusing. Going up to a tenement flat and assuring the worried family that the little darling was safe. "I'll tell you what. I'll go up there and explain everything to..."

"Maminka," prompted Emma.

"Maminka, then!" laughed Yerkes. He slapped Emma on the knee, shaking his head. Emma stiffened. But it was nothing. More like a cuff from Anton. But you've got to promise me one thing, said Yerkes, taking his hand and drawing it up under Emma's chin.

"That's better; now I can see those eyes. Now promise that we won't have any more long faces." Yerkes did not remove his hand from Emma's chin so she backed her head off a bit. He smiled. "What did you think of old Chief Crazy Horse? Quite a scrapper, eh? I'll tell you something. That look he gave me as we came into his tent...I only saw a look like that once. It was Governor Altgeld. You've heard of our illustrious governor even in the First Ward, haven't you?" Emma nodded. "I made Altgeld a pretty sweet deal and he refused it. Was a lot of money, too. A lot of money. When he showed me out of his office and I turned around to say, well, parting is such sweet sorrow and all that...He had that look. Chief Crazy Horse and Altgeld. What a pair!"

At this juncture Emma had no idea what Yerkes was talking about. "Don't you think Chief Crazy Horse is a great man?" Emma said.

"There are men in this world who get the hang of things and then there are men who don't. In my view, Chief Crazy Horse is one of the latter," said Yerkes in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. They finished their soda water. Yerkes got up, stretched his arm out and yawned. He held out a hand to Emma, to assist her from her seat. Yerkes paid the waiter and they strolled towards the nearby train station gate, forgetting the nervous Columbian Guards for the moment. Off in the distance, like the city of Oz or a diamond-studded tiara, winked the lights of The White City. A low fog had rolled in from the lake and its frothy mass gave the impression that the White City was floating on a cloud. Emma caught her breath at the vision.

"Quite a spectacle, isn't it?"

"Yes."

Noises came from the Court of Honor, but nothing like the noise a short time earlier. Things were settling down to the carefully planned harmony, as before. The coachman and Yerkes's brougham were waiting at the station gate. Emma sat down into the soft, crushed velvet cushioned seat. Yerkes lit up a small, wall-mounted light, the night being pitch black along the South Chicago street.

"Now, where do you live...Emma?"

"At one thirty-eight Custom House Place," answered Emma, unaware that this address was quite famous, at least in the circles of men who entertained out-of-town guests. "But say, you didn't tell me that you were a whore!" Yerkes snapped. "That's Vina Field's sporting house." Yerkes had no doubt about the address, which was as famous as the clock at Marshall Field's due to a slightly unofficial advertising campaign. "Was this all some elaborate little ruse to get me to go spend money...?" Yerkes snorted. A man of good looks and obvious wealth, he had never gone with whores. Didn't need to when so many others were willing. He was outraged that he had been speaking all this while to a strumpet.

Emma looked down at her hands. "Mister Yerkes, if you know so much about Vina, then you know as well that she has no white girls. That's her policy. Also, I would like to get out now. Those girls are my friends, not like what you call them. Please, I can walk!" Emma began to fumble with the door handle, but Yerkes stopped her from jumping out of the moving carriage.

"If you really live at Vina Fields's, then you must have some interesting reason for being there. Tell me, what interesting reason do you have for being there?" Yerkes smiled. Emma explained about the coats and Mister Field's agents and how Anton was the bouncer and how Vina took them in as kitchen help. But now the supper hour had come and gone and there would be trouble for Emma because there were probably too many potatoes to peel and dishes...oh, she didn't know what else.

"Nice story," said Yerkes. "Sure you wouldn't like to go back to my place?" Emma shook her head. "Well, nice story," Yerkes repeated. He leaned out the window and called the address to the coachman. "Sir, I..."the coachman began. Yerkes closed the window. He folded his arms and glowered out at the street below, thinking of ways to make Emma pay for her probable lies. Women should be what they seemed to be. Yerkes did not go around seeking draggle-tails, blowens and so forth, but most of all—his moustache bristled in the dim light—he did not like to be fooled. He had thought that he had seen some spark in this girl's eye, something of the awareness he had of the world and what was really important. He was not confused about life. When he found a woman who could think clearly, he let her know. He had been about ready to tell this one that they were really very much alike. He didn't tell that to all his women, only to a few. It was a lonely thing to be Charles Tyson Yerkes. Yerkes observed the city each day. The vast multitudes of people lived out their dreary little lives, wondering what it was all about. Ever since Yerkes had seen that lobster slowly dismantle the jellyfish, he had known what was what. But the very fact that he could make his way in life with no confusion seemed to separate him from the others. A few women seemed to know what he knew. But...not a whore. That wouldn't do at all. He was glad that he had said nothing about a similarity to himself to this girl. The very idea. He rode toward Custom House Place in silence with folded arms. Emma couldn't think of anything to say. She felt very awkward.

Luckily, the night was a slow one for the unofficial soup kitchen at Vina Fields's place. They had only fed soup and rolls to about seventy of the unemployed men. The Fair was creating a little buffer of day labor during the summer, cutting down on the general depression. The number of paying customers was greater than usual, at least two hundred that evening. Of course, Vina's staff of girls had also doubled during this time of the Fair. Hers was Chicago's largest sporting house and there was never enough help in the kitchen, it seemed. Vina could see that old Missus Klimova was having a hard time supervising her scullery help, now one short, because her daughter Emma hadn't come home from the Fair. It didn't matter to Vina that Emma was late as long as the work got done, but that son Anton was in a general state, pacing around and jumping up every time the kitchen door opened. Vina had no real use for a bouncer. She often just had Anton do light work on the roof or among the water pipes. Tonight, since he was being so edgy, she had asked Anton to go give his mother a hand out in the pantry. Anton had grimaced briefly, then he went. And there had been a million other details for Vina to attend to all evening, as usual. They never did need a bouncer that night, but you had to have one. Oh yes, in case. Vina was ready to drop as the evening grew late. Fridays were the longest evenings. Longer than Saturdays. She wiped her hands on her immaculate, blue calico apron. Her feet hurt. She was going to go into the side parlor, kick off her shoes and put up her feet. The last guests were leaving. Her hall clock showed it was after one in the morning.

Vina spotted Minnie coming down the hall from the kitchen. Vina had been sitting on a lounge and massaging her foot when Minnie waltzed on in as happy as if she'd had good sense.

"Did I say that you could stay out for half the night, Minnie?" Vina chided. "I thought you agreed to take this for one of your half day holidays."

Minnie sat back in an armchair, humming. It sounded to Vina like Minnie was humming "After the Ball is Over." She could have at least hummed some revival hymn to show the proper attitude. "You won't be hummin' no more After the Ball is Over, Missy! Tomorrow, first thing, I want to see you out there scrubbing those windows until they shine." Vina pulled at her hair in frustration. "Minnie, there's only one thing I can't have around this place. That is...A bad attitude."

"I don't have any attitude at all, Miss Vina," said Minnie in a curiously flat tone. "And besides, that song is After the Fair is Over. They just made up new words. Want to hear?"

"No," said Vina. "I'm going to bed."

"Me, too," said Minnie with an exaggerated yawn. "I 'spect I'm just tired." Minnie stretched her arms over her head. Vina asked Minnie if she wanted to say where she was all this time. Minnie said, No, she did not. Vina did not press it. Up to now, Minnie had been one of her steadiest girls and always ready to amuse the other girls with a circus trick or two. Minnie told Vina that Cissie Ford had come back late with her and was fast asleep out on the back porch. Vina nodded. She had never turned Cissie away if she needed a place to stay the night. It would seem that Cissie's employments came and went. Cissie was not at all the type that Vina's clients would like. Vina had a feeling that Cissie didn't care for men much in any way, shape, or form. She had seen Cissie once holding a boy her age in front of her and shaking him like a rat. She would probably make a fairly good bouncer though, but she had an uncertain temper and Vina didn't want Cissie roughing up any of the girls. Cissie... Vina repeated distractedly, Oh, yes. Let her sleep there. I'm going to bed. Vina doused the gaslight in the parlor.

Minnie thought how nice it would be to go off on her own and quit being one of Vina's girls, but the money that she and Cissie had cleared from that fence Mary Hastings had dug up was only enough for a small nest egg, not a fortune. Minnie wondered how much that diamond whip was really worth. Must be at least ten times what they were getting. She patted the wad of bills under her belt and went upstairs to bed. She could hear a carriage pulling up outside, but...they were closed. Minnie went upstairs singing her song under her breath...

"After the Fair is Over...What will Chicago do...With all those empty houses...Run up with sticks and glue?"


 

Emma and Yerkes got out of the carriage and she lead him down the path to Vina's kitchen entrance. Anton jumped up and sprang at Emma the moment she poked her face around the door.

He screamed into her face in Bohemian, "Where have you been? Maminka thought you had drowned in one of those canals they have over at that Fair! Well?"

Emma stepped fully inside the door and Yerkes walked in after her. Anton's jaw dropped. Yerkes took off his straw hat with a smooth motion and stood still for a second to see if the beefy young fellow were going to swing at him. Yerkes was careful of his stance. He had taken lessons in self-defense.

Instead, Anton stared piercingly first at Yerkes, then at Emma. "Who are you?" He demanded of Yerkes, none to civilly.

"Yes. Never mind about that," said Yerkes. "The young lady was held up due to a robbery at the Fair, you see. Chaos all around. Anyway, I told her that I should explain her late arrival to you. Being a man of my word"—luckily the traders from the stock exchange were not present or there would have been giggles in the gallery—"as I say, being a man of my word, I have done so and now I am leaving." Yerkes did a partial turn towards the door, but Anton caught his collar in his meaty fist and twisted it. Yerkes knocked his hand away.

"Really. I hadn't expected such outrage in a sporting house..." Anton pulled back his fist and let fly, but Yerkes was quick and he was only able to land a glancing blow to his cheek. Yerkes caught Anton a solid punch to his gut. Anton doubled over and Yerkes clasped his hands and brought them down on Anton's head. Anton slid down in slow motion.

Yerkes shoved the door open around Anton's hunched body and took Emma's hand. "Would you like to come back with me now? Offer's still open. You know, he—" Yerkes pointed down at the groggy Anton—"has a terrible disposition. If it were I, well, here's my card." Emma nodded as she took the card. "You don't have to stay here, girlie!" Yerkes went through the door.

Anton raised himself and began rubbing the back of his head. "Boze muj! My God! What hit me?" he groaned. Emma got a wet towel and tried to mop Anton's face, but he shoved her away. Anton sat dazed for a few moments. Then he got up and brushed his trouser leg off. The whole tussle had only taken a few seconds, so Madame Vina was not even roused from her parlor. Anton staggered over to Emma and slapped at her face. She ducked around his hand.

"Get out, Emma. Vina doesn't take white girls. You'll have to work somewhere else. I'll tell you something, though," he said through clenched teeth. "None of those others are kind like Vina, you kurva!" Emma winced. Kurva was the Old Country word for whore. Anton said it in Bohemian, so as not to insult the other girls. What they did was none of his business. He felt himself somehow cheapened if Emma were going to take up that trade. Emma snapped back at Anton that she would leave, first thing, when day came. She would leave!

Emma went into her little closet and packed her few changes of underwear into a little valise. She sat by the back door until day broke. A woman was not safe alone on the streets until then. She would not say good-bye to Maminka. Maybe when she had some place of her own, she would tell Maminka where she lived. Anton had gone off to bed. She did not even try to tell him that he was wrong. How could she prove it? Besides, Emma had meant what she said to Yerkes. Vina's girls were her friends. They did what they did. Men did what men did. Emma was tired of being bossed around by Anton.

Thin fingers of pale light crept down the wall of the building west of Vina's. It touched the tips of the two skinny trees that Emma had been watering in the little back yard. She got up and walked outside. There was no sadness in the air. It just smelled dewy and fresh as always. If Emma walked up the other side of Custom House Place, she would go by Moritz's Bakery and be able to smell the fresh rolls he put in the window every morning. Emma had some change in her pocket, but she decided to keep it for now. She walked up to the bakery window and looked inside. Moritz the baker was stoking an oven, but nothing was ready. Emma wasn't hungry, not yet, anyway, though she was realistic enough to think that she might be, soon. She had been thinking about some people that she knew and who might hire her. One was that lady from Hull House. Alzina Stevens. Miss Stevens might try to help, because of all the fuss over those coats she had burned. Emma turned south. It was more than a few blocks was all that she could recall. She noticed that things were finally quiet at Mary Hastings's, the house nextdoor to Vina's. Mary Hastings's was always last one to close. Emma headed on up the street.


 

About one in the morning, the night shift workers were starting to trail by Mary Hastings's place. Mary's girls were done for the evening and were proceeding to close the red damask curtains for their sleeping shift. A single gaslight burned below the row of second story windows of the red brick house. Bathhouse John Coughlin strolled along in front of Mary's brothel, kicking at a piece of wood. He was still wearing his eye-catching sky blue linen jacket. But by now, he looked and felt rumpled. What was worse, he felt used. Soiled. So, that's what they thought of him. Why, Yerkes nearly stepped over his body to get to that young lady. Another thing, The Bath always took those young ladies home at a decent hour. Who could say what had become of that little flibbertigibbet by now? Her own fault, of course, but the very thought of Dunne's sneer and Yerkes's arrogance grated on Bathhouse's mind like a dog gnawing at a bone. He couldn't even sleep, so that was why he was out at this godforsaken hour touring a bit of his rate-paying turf. One place where Bathhouse John could still get a respectful hearing was Mary Hastings's. She was an awful woman, t'was true, a heathen who didn't do her duty, but she did pay her dues to the re-election campaign. And anyway, thought The Bath, much less was it his privilege for to visit torment upon th' sinful. Sinner, vile pagan an' all was Our Mary, but she'd be a long time dead and she owed a month's dues...He might even be coaxed into a small sandwich of boiled tongue. If Mary insisted. It being late, the jingling of the out-of-tune Kimball piano in the corner had ceased as The Bath walked in quietly through the front door. He hung his boater hat on a nail. Maggie Darling, one of the girls, had just finished closing the curtain at the street level window and turned to face Coughlin. She jumped at the sight of him. "Who the bloody Hell let you in here? Can't you see that we're closed?"

Maggie read Bathhouse the riot act for a couple of seconds until Madame herself came into the room. "Maggie, take yourself off, do you hear? And apologize to the gentleman! Do you hear?" Maggie mumbled something indistinct. She ran up the stairs, making the maximum amount of noise on each stair. Madame Hastings smiled as sweetly as her jowls would permit, showing a gold tooth. "You just cannot get proper help these days! Maggie will be fined for her rude talk, you may bet on it." Madame Hastings raised a crepy arm and smoothed back some wiry strands of hair. "What brings you here at this hour, Alderman Coughlin?" asked Madame, all dewy-eyed innocence about the delinquent payment. The Bath didn't want to bring up anything so indelicate as money as the first pig out of the chute, so he suggested that they talk in the kitchen.

"The—ahem—kitchen?" shouted Madame in a voice so loud that the stiffs in the county morgue must have heard. The Bath nodded. "Oh, all right, we can go out to the kitchen. The kitchen is right this way, your honor!"

The Bath had to screw up his eyes for all the shouting. "I can hear ye, Mary darlin', ye needn't shout!" Madame ushered The Bath through the swinging doors, certain that Joe the fence and the two from nextdoor had finished their haggling. There were several unfinished glasses of absinthe on a table, alongside smoking cigarettes. Minnie and Cissie had scooted over the fence to Vina's, sure of their clean getaway. Even though he was not of a swift frame of mind, the thought occurred to Bathhouse John that Mary was warning somebody to clear out before he came in. He didn't care who they were. T'was not his business to visit torment upon the miserable sinners who frequented Madame's place. It turned out that there was a lovely cold soup on the counter and Bathhouse John started his second bowl before alluding to the campaign war chest. Madame Hastings heaved a sigh and turning her back with grave modesty, hauled up her skirt and pulled a roll of bills from her stocking. She shuffled down her skirt and petticoats.

"Will this do?"

Bathhouse took the bills in his hand, fanned them out, and beamed. "Entirely sufficient, Mary. But say, I see be the papers, that they're takin' up the testimonials for to be published in that brochure for Lame Jimmy's benefit ball. Might we count on you fer a line or two? You know th' lad has worked like a Trojan these many years sawin' away on th' fiddle over at Carrie Watson's, despite his affliction..."

"And how much might that be?" bristled Madame, who did not take kindly to being hit up twice in an evening. Bathhouse John saw that he was reaching the limit of what the market would bear. "No, no, not tonight, Mary. You just think about it and we'll be back in touch with you. Only ten dollars a line. With me blatherin' and all, I forgot to tell ye! I've written a song. would you like to hear it? Come, let us betake ourselves to th' parlor and I'll strum a few bars to give ye th' idea..." Madame began to plead the lateness of the hour, but gave in, thinking that, all things considered, this was probably the fastest way to vacate The Bath. She yawned loudly as they walked to the parlor and Bathhouse John explained the origins of his musical career.

"Me old woman, it was, got a piano for our parlor...for the youngsters. 'Tis a melodious instrument. I could listen for hours to our little Eileen strugglin' over th' likes of Bootoven and Choochooski..." At half-past six, Bathhouse John walked back down the steps of one twenty-eight Custom House Place, feeling a pleasant thickness in his right shirt pocket and humming a few airs from Choochooski. Detective Wooldridge, who had been stationed to patrol the known fences of hot goods, wondered if the alderman's presence was of any significance to the jewel theft at the Fair. He thought not, but made a note of it. The alderman was known for these pre-dawn collection raids. The Bath was known to suffer insomnia.

Emma got to the door of Hull House about seven that morning. She was standing at the front door along with a Sioux man who was down on his luck and was looking for some work up on the tall buildings. He did not fear for heights, he told the cheery volunteer at the front desk. Emma stepped up and asked to see Miss Stevens. She could not forget that name because of all the excitement, but she hoped that this woman still stayed at Hull House. Emma's pulse raced.

"Just a moment, I'll see if she's in her office yet," said the volunteer. The volunteer came back. "She is at breakfast, but knows you're out here. Why don't you have a seat, my dear?" said the woman, pointing to a bench with a needlepoint cushion. Emma sat. People began filing in with eviction notices, a case of rat-bite, a tall, skinny Swede who had heard that they offered classes in Engelska, and so on. Finally, a youngish woman with wiry blonde hair tied in a bun around a moon-shaped face came out of the dining hall and walked up to the volunteer who pointed at Emma. Emma stated her case boldly. "Miss, do you remember the Klima family? You had some coats burned that Maminka and I..."

"Oh yes, of course!" Alzina Stevens gave as a startled reply. "I did try to do a follow-up, but you had gone." Emma explained what had happened and how they had ended up at Vina Fields's.

"Vina is a very good woman," said Alzina, "But go on. What has brought you to us?" Emma explained about the wealthy man and what Anton had said. Alzina looked at Emma, but did not question her.

"Yes. I see. You need a temporary job and someplace to stay." Emma nodded rapidly.

Alzina looked at the oak door of Miss Addams's office. Well...she thought out a plan rapidly. "How's your English, Emma?"

Emma told Miss Stevens, who cocked her head at an angle and stared at her bird fashion, that she had twice won a gold medal for her compositions and Miss Hedgeworth had said that maybe there was some chance that she might be taken into the new Chicago University for a special course in writing. They were talking about a stipend. Just then was when it happened, the coats. She hadn't been back to the evening class in the church basement since, of course. Of course, repeated Alzina. Your English sounds quite good enough to me.

"Good enough...?" Emma prompted. Did this woman have something—anything—in mind for her?

"Just a moment. I need to discuss this with Miss Addams," said the woman and she disappeared by an office door. Emma sat very still. Her stomach turned and turned. The volunteer looked over at Emma and smiled. She smiled back.


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