Chapter 23

Coals on the Fire


Anton scowled down at the buttons straining against his thin cotton shirt. Maminka had chided him about buying such a tight-fitting ready-made one from the tailors on Maxwell Street. If she only had known sooner! But for next time with the bosses Maminka would sew such a shirt as only was worn by such velky muz—such a great man—in the old country.

Maybe she was right, said Anton to himself. Anton smiled down at a button that seemed to be losing the struggle. He hoped it wouldn't pop off into his boss, Alderman Powers', soup. Anyway, what did women know?

They always thought everything depended upon fashion. . .But, on the other hand, Anton noticed in a shop window that his hair had become ruffled in the wind. He patted it down quickly as he went through the front door of the Berghoff restaurant.

The hostess at the cashier's dark wooden desk seemed to stiffen up as she noticed Anton's looming figure approaching her. She smiled nervously at the little man in front of Anton. As the waiter began escorting that man to his table, the hostess looked off to the side, instead of toward Anton. She gazed intently at something not immediately apparent out beyond the plate glass window to her right.

The hostess didn't look over until Anton cleared his throat. She blinked twice rapidly, but didn't say a word.

"I. . .I. . . am expected by the alderman," Anton offered lamely, as though he were trying to excuse a bad debt to a creditor. He wasn't even convincing himself.

"Sir?" the hostess asked, looking him up and down.

"I am coming to meet Aldermen Powers at his table," Anton said, lowering his head to avoid eye contact.

"Oh! Why didn't you say so!" the hostess brightened up. Now she could handle this rough-looking customer. They all looked like this at Alderman Powers' table. "Right this way...we have a special corner table always on reserve for the alderman!" she smiled and swished her pertly starched apron. Anton followed the hostess into a deserted dining room. Acrid smells of turpentine and oil paint wafted everywhere in the room. "Please excuse the smell. Mister Brendel is trying to paint a mural of the World's Fair in here," she explained and walked over to look. "Why, Mister Brendel! That's little Egypt. . .Well, I never. . . !"

The scowling hostess hurried off, back to her desk.

Anton got up to see the mural. He stood behind the short, hunched- shouldered man as he finished a few meaty thigh strokes on the poster of Little Egypt.

"Nice work," said Anton.

The artist turned and squinted at Anton. "Ach! You hear how she talks to me? That woman gets to a fellow's nerves. That Little Egypt is for her!" Brendel stepped a few feet back from his painting. "But she isn't bad, is she?"

"Which?" Anton asked.

"Feh! The Little Egypt, of course," the man smiled at Anton.

Anton chuckled. "When I said it was nice work I was meaning how you made sunlight go from clouds, just so as it goes in afternoon," Anton traced a line along the clouds with his finger. "See how colors go here from warm to cool. I like it!"

"Bitte, be so good as to stand a moreso that way out from the light," Brendel motioned a bit with his hand. "Yes, thank you. I see what you mean. Sometimes in the painting I am not thinking with word meanings of what I am doing. So, do you like here das Weiss Stadchen?"

Anton nodded. The White City. It was a very good rendering of the classical panorama on the Midway.

"Do you paint?"

"I only do tilework," Anton shrugged. "But I make sketches all the time. . .ornaments, little faces. . ."

The artist nodded and went back to his work, tracing a delicate arc around one of the dorian columns of the. . .

"Good God, what a stench!" Alderman Powers had come up suddenly behind Anton and the painter. They both jumped. Powers blew his nose.

Brendel threw a disgusted look at Powers for making him smear a line.

He put down his brushes and walked to the far end of the room, where sat an unfinished beer mug. "Even with my sinuses and all, I can smell that," said Powers with a shrug, "but we need the privacy."

"What about him, then?" Anton nodded over at the old man.

"Who, the painter?" Powers laughed. "He won't care. Your artists are all off in their own world. . ." Powers touched his head. "Half crazy, you know. Comes from the way they sniff paint fumes for so long. Say, did you see the scenes of Kilarney this old fellow painted on the Democratic Club Hall?"

"No, I didn't. But that painter's a funny old man," Anton nodded at the far corner from where Bendel was avoiding them. "We were talking about his work. I'm no painter, but I like to watch people who can do good work in color. . ."

Powers pulled out his pocket watch. "I TOLD Williams that he was to meet us here at noon. Better we wait for him. . .go get a waiter." Anton went to the doorway connecting the two dining rooms and brought back a waiter. The two men ordered a dark beer and goulash with red cabbage. Leaning back in his chair and letting his waist expand comfortably, Powers said, "Normally, I'd light up a good cigar after eating, but I'm afraid that it would set the place off, with all the paint stink in here. . ." Anton rubbed furiously at something in his notebook with a little pocket eraser. Powers leaned over Anton's shoulder to look.

"Say, what's that you're makin' there?"

"Nothing. . . " Anton blew away the eraser shavings. "Just my drobnosti."

"Your drob-whatsi?" Powers wrinkled a fat forehead.

"Tiny things. . .drobnosti."

"What little banshees they are!" Powers squinted at the little grinning and grimacing faces, and patted Anton's shoulder. "You have quite an eye for the little people, but I myself prefer a well-turned ankle and. . .there he is! Williams! In here!" Another portly man in an almost identical summer mauve linen jacket came in. Powers pulled out a chair.

"Johnny, my feet are burning like the damned souls in hell. . .Ouf! You know you could fry an egg out there on the street?" Williams pulled off his resisting shoes, wiggled his toes. "Hope you don't mind. So, this is our new man?"

Powers put a meaty finger alongside his nose and squinted at Anton for a second. "Ah. . .yes. . .after a manner of speaking. Meet Anton Klima." Williams had already eaten and was eager to give Anton his instructions on how his activities would fit in with Williams' plans to coordinate the utilities of all the southside wards. George Williams had, until rather recently, been a Republican. He was now the Yerkes candidate to unseat Bathhouse John Coughlin on the Democratic side. He sweated in the heat, all smiles. Very eager to show his new friends that he really could deliver the goods. Williams' ambitious plans harmonized neatly with Mister Yerkes' ambitious plans.

"Been checkin' all these details out with Mister Yerkes himself, have you?"

Williams nodded. "When Yerkes says to me 'George, I need somebody with vision to go up against that damnable obstuctionist Coughlin,' I said, 'You're looking at him.'"

"And you a Republican at the time and all," Powers nodded, awed by Yerkes' skill in finding the right man for the right job.

Williams waved his hand in the air, brushing aside the unimportant detail of party affiliation. "We still need several more men in those near south wards in order to begin work on the Allen Bill, the ninety- year franchise." What the Allen Bill amounted to was a huge hunk of cake for Mister Yerkes and anyone lucky enough to be hitched to the Yerkes wagon. Utility franchises that usually returned one-tenth to the city were engineered to return one hundredth to the city—if that—in this legal piece of artistry.

"The shame of it is that all that's standing in the way of Mister Yerkes' grand scheme are a crowd of idiots the likes of Coughlin!" Powers spat into the brass spittoon. "Not that they are capable of thinking up their shenanigans alone. . .It's that Jane Addams who keeps promotin' it all, Powers held up a warning finger. "Mind me now, it all comes from her and her Civic League or Federation—whatever it's called!"

"Ah, your foreigners, they been bought," complained Williams.

"Her with her Kindergarten, boys' band and working girls' club!" he looked sharply over at Anton. "Do you know what I'm saying, lad? Buyin' sympathies that way ain't right!"

"That's true," agreed Anton, smiling, not really paying attention, as he drew more little faces on his pad.

"Now they're calling themselves 'social workers'! What's that?

It's some fool license to meddle that those young geese from the North Shore have picked up from Jane Addams and her radical ideas!" Powers stabbed the table with his index finger. "So there's disease down there in Ward one. Ain't there always been? So there's over-crowding.

Ain't this a city?"

"Natural attrition will solve it," nodded Williams, as he took a gulp of his beer.

"Right! I heard about it from Billy Skakel—Billy's still a bit sore about—you know—Well, here's to 'natural attrition!'" Powers slid Anton's drink over to him, spilling some on the paper where Anton had been drawing. The little faces began to bleed and run together.

Anton shook the paper off so it wouldn't all soak through and wrinkle.

"What ARE you doing, Klima?" Powers demanded, grinning.

"What? Oh, just a few drops on the paper here. . ."

Powers honked his nose and slapped Anton on the back. "There's the good fellow, now. Drink up! You're falling behind."

Anton's English wasn't quite good enough for him to guess what Alderman Powers was joking about with his friend Williams. He listened as they told him as much as he needed to know to do his new job.

Anton got up the next morning with a spring in his step, for every day from then on he would have a job to go to. An important city job. Anton felt the relief that comes of a regular schedule. And he knew that Mister Powers was there to help him, yet what Mister Powers had said about "natural attrition" often came back to Anton, even though he hadn't the faintest idea what the words meant.


Bathhouse John couldn't help seeing Johnny Powers' bloated face, sneering at him, as he scanned the faces in the huge crowd. In honor of dedicating Solly Saranoff's fountain, the Bath was wearing what he now called his "dedication" suit: a double-breasted yachting suit with a bright blue vest, white flannel trousers, and a green leather belt. He grinned toothily at Missus Tierney, standing in the front row across the street.

She waved a handkerchief. Indeed, he thought that he caught a gleam of admiration in every eye facing him across Halsted Street. Nice-sized crowd. Coughlin brushed a spot of soot from his gleaming shirt front and wondered if any of Powers' men were out in the crowd the way they had been when Jane Addams gave her campaign speech. The damage tomatoes could do to this gorgeous suit. . .! Coughlin winced. But that would be too low even for Yerkes, even for Powers. Such disrespect to a dead boy would only antagonize the neighborhood. No, he didn't see any Powers men. Bathhouse John was to address his brief remarks after Rabbi Hirsch and the Rabbi was just finishing. He got up and was introduced by Miss Addams.

"I see how you all turned out for this worthy occasion," the Bath went on congratulating the neighborhood for turning out, being themselves, having the good taste to appreciate dress reform, and so on. Returning to the topic of the day with a skillful rhetorical gambit, the Bath concluded, ". . .and that brings me to why we're all here. To see and to be seen. Now your graveyards have a depressing affect on the neighborhood. They should not be seen and that is why I proposed ten- foot walls around the lot of them! But this fountain here has no depressing effect. We see it and we are not melancholy. We watch the blue-tiled trout jump and splash and we recall the fluid notes of Solly's piano technique. No, never in a hundred years could a better monument to this lad—and all our other dead children —have been dreamed of.

Enjoy it, my friends." On this remarkably succinct note the Bath stopped.

No applause followed, but an approving murmur from the crowd let the Bath know that he had—some would have said unkindly "for once"—managed to say the precisely appropriate thing.

As the Bath stepped down from the podium, the Hull House Boys' Band struck up "Semper Fideles." As Coughlin turned to get his jacket off his chair and leave, he saw Miss Addams herself waving at him and motioning him to come to the front doorway. The Bath naturally assumed that she wanted to compliment his speech.

"T'is a proud day for our ward," opened the Bath, "to have this fine. . ."

"Mister Coughlin!"

The Bath blinked and halted in mid-oratorical flood.

"Something has come up," said Jane.

"Th-this is hard to believe," the Bath shook his head. He recalled the events at Yerkes' telescope dedication. "But. . .it's my fault!

I never should have let her go off with the Streetcar Magnum, evil scran to his face!"

"Evil scran or not, I need your help now," Jane said, taking the Bath's arm.

Emma could hear the dying strains of the Boys' Band although she was drifting in and out of a laudanum-induced stupor. She thought she heard voices just outside her door. Jane Addams stuck her head around the door and smiled.

"Emma? Good, you're awake. Would you mind a visitor?"

Emma sat up with a twinge. Her powder-burned and flesh-wounded left breast throbbed. "Oh. . . I don't mind, Miss Addams," she said, pulling her blue cotton wrapper around her shoulders.

Jane spoke to Coughlin, who was waiting just behind the door.

Bathhouse John's bearlike figure filled the doorway, where he paused for a second and took off his straw boater hat. Jane pushed a cane chair over by the bed. "We'll need another chair," she said, and went out to fetch one.

Bathhouse John sat down next to Emma's bed and took her hand.

"What's this I've been hearin' from Miss Jane about some indoor skeet shootin', now?" he scowled, but the corners of his mouth twitched.

"No, there'll be no unauthorized indoor skeet shootin' in MY ward, Miss!"

Emma turned her head away. "I'm sorry to have upset everyone. I know it was rash and foolish of me!" she said to the wall.

"Now why would you be thinkin' that? There's no use to be pilin' more coal on the fire of your own miseries, is there?" Coughlin stroked his upper lip thoughtfully. "You felt trapped by the Streetcar Baron is all. Haven't we all?"

"Aren't you in with him?" Emma asked, eyeing Coughlin coldly.

"There you go making all those unpleasant assumptions," Coughlin shook his head. "Those times are gone. Once I saw that the man hadn't a whit of mercy or love or anything else human in his heart, I made a parting of the ways. Now, you can't do business the way he does. The man has no shame! And, faith, we're goin' to put the end to it all!"

"We. . .who?"

"Jane Addams, Mister William T. Stead, Missus Palmer her fine lot of swells, and me."

"He can't be stopped."

"I forgot to add. . .and you," Bathhouse John grinned showing a huge gold molar.

"Me!?" Emma jolted upright and felt a knife-edge of pain. "Ouf! Why me?"

"As I told Miss Jane just a minute ago, it's been weighing on my mind how I let Yerkes cut in front of me like a pirate frigate that day at the Fair," Coughlin frowned. "You never should have gone off sightseeing with the likes of him — look where it's gotten you!"

"What makes you think that my action had anything to do with — ?"

"Tush, now," the Bath put his finger to his lips. "You think I don't know how that feller operates? Any fool can see he's been playin' your brother like a pianola," sneered Bathhouse John. "And why?"

Emma reddened at Bathhouse John's accurate description of the situation. "No, I know nothing. You know everything. Tell me. Why?"

Bathhouse John nodded. "Because he knows he CAN!" He slammed his fist into his other hand. "The man's like some large, dangerous feline in the zoo, taking its time by playin' with its dinner."

Emma sighed. "Well, my side is really starting to ache, so. . ."

"All right, then. You asked."

Emma shifted on the bed and winced. "What do you want from me?"

Bathhouse John smiled broadly. "I need an actress. Someone for our side to infiltrate."

"Infiltrate what?"

Coughlin looked sharply at Emma. "It won't be pleasant, but you would need to be a waitress at Johnny Powers' strategy meetings."

Jane came into the room carrying a light wicker chair. "I'm sorry to take so long, but Florence was asking about you. . ."

Bathhouse John got up. "I really must be leaving, but I discussed out little scheme with Emma and she's for it."

"That's splendid, my dear," Jane patted Emma's shoulder. "I'm sure if we all bide our time, something good can come of all this." Emma stifled a yawn. "I see your medications are making you sleepy," Jane noted, smoothing the coverlet. She pulled down the window shade as she left the room and Emma settled back down to sleep.

As Jane walked Bathhouse John to the front door, she turned to him and asked, "What little scheme, Mister Coughlin? What did you tell Emma?"

Bathhouse John just placed his straw boater hat on his head, tipped it, gave a walrusy smile, and sailed out the front door.

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