Death of a Flint Skin, Part 1

by Karen Adkins

“Poor old Fred,” sighed Lucy, as she watched a smoke ring slowly rise to the ceiling.  She and Ricky had just finished their third cup of Irish coffee, emphasis on the Irish,and things were moving at a leisurely pace.

“Poor old Fred,” echoed Ricky, oblivious to the fact that he was, again, repeating what his wife had just said.  He had been doing it all morning, to her irritation.

“Well, it isn’t as if he wasn’t a lot older than us…it shouldn’t come as that big of a shock,”snapped Lucy.  The friendly feelings produced by the whisky were beginning to wear off.  She ground out her cigarette and lit another.

“That would be fine, ‘cept he din’t die of old age.”

“I know he “din’t”— really — can’t you speak proper English?  You “din’t” just get off the boat.  I just can’t get over it — Fred falling down those basement stairs like that — he knew every inch of this building.”

“Even if he din–PARDON ME–DIDN’T–take care of every inch of it,” murmured Ricky scratching a flurry of paint flakes loose from a place near the window.  Looking down on him from the ceiling were several large, brown stains.  They served as reminders of how wet spring weather and a landlord’s scrimping on roof maintenance could add color to a room.

“Ricky, don’t speak ill of the dead!,” hissed Lucy, as if she was afraid it was Fred’s spirit, and not tobacco smoke, floating above their heads. “He’s only been gone three weeks. So he wasn’t perfect and didn’t keep the building up the way he should have.  So he was miserly where money was concerned, whether it was for repairs or for Ethel — he hardly ever let her get a new hat or dress.  She had to fight him for the money to get her hair done, even though the building was in her name and she did most of the work!  I don’t know how she put up with him for all those years…”

“Poor ol’ Fred,” repeated Ricky mournfully as he stared out the window. He wasn’t listening.  Again.  Lucy stuck her tongue out at his back.    

“I think I’ll go give Ethel a call and see how she’s holding up.”

As soon as Lucy left, Ricky regained conciousness.  He furiously ground his cigarette to bits. Finally some time alone.  And some quiet.  Two things he was constantly seeking and rarely found in his life with Lucy.

Poor old Fred — Ha!  That’s a good one!  That old ham — always pesterin’ me for a part in my show — thinkin’ people would still get a kick out of his stale, third-rate, vaudeville routines.  A real flint-skin — he din’t fix a thin’ in this broken-down, rat-trap unless it was an emergency.  And all of that money I “loaned” him!  Like I had a choice, when it’s winter and he’s controllin’ the heat!  Never saw THAT money again.  Always puttin’ me off when I brought it up, sayin’ he couldn’t get his hands on it now, but he’d have it for me soon, then changin’ the subject.

I wonder what he wanted it for.  Gambling probably. 

Ricky had come across some racing forms when he’d gone to the basement to get Fred for a card game.  The basement (and the roof when the weather was good) was Fred’s not-so-secret hideout, and Ricky knew he spent a large part of each day there with his tip sheet and forms, his radio and a bottle, ducking work and his wife, dreaming of hitting it big. 

 And eavesdropping.  Fred had told him he had a pretty good thing going: he found he could (plainly) hear his tenants through the furnace pipe whenever the furnace wasn’t on.  Seeing Ricky’s shocked face, Fred had hurried to defend himself:

“It’s just smart business Rick!  A landlord always has to be a step ahead of his tenants.  He has to know who’s planning to skip out before the end of the month; who’s gonna try to hand you what hard-luck story, instead of cash.  Ethel may fall for their stories, but not me, brother. You don’t get ahead in this business by being a pushover.”

Then he’d wiped off his bottle with his sleeve and offered Ricky what was left, which, declined, Fred finished off in one loud gulp, followed by an even louder burp.  As he wiped his mouth on his other sleeve, he chuckled and began talking, almost to himself:

“Yep, a landlord has to know every trick in the book…a master key helps…but this clues you in to things you’d miss, a lot of things…” 

Then he’d roused himself (from his reverie) and painfully clapped Ricky on the back.

“And Rick, old boy!  You wouldn’t believe the goings-on!

It’s better than television!  It’s right up there with goin’ to the track and winning a bundle!”

 Then he said that the h’actin’ bug had been bitin’ him again an’ maybe I could “find” a part for him–better yet, why not plan a bunch of shows aroun’ him and his vaudeville bits,ay-yi-yi!  Din’t seem to care if the club folded–an’ when I told him, sorry ol’ man but no, he said no, HE was sorry but he would have to tell Lucy ’bout Valerie. 

Ricky pressed his forehead against the window and listened to the pigeons cooing on the ledge.

Ah, Valerie!  Complete opposite from Lucy — quiet, almost shy.  He smiled thinking of the peaceful hours they’d shared and winced as he compared them to the shrill voice, the  quarrels, the questions.  Where had he been?  Why was he so late and why didn’t he call? Why can’t I be in the show, Ricky?

He poured another drink, minus the coffee this time, and lifted his glass.  Sorry ol’ man, but I like to eat my cake and have it too.  An’ you thought you were goin’ to put a stop to that…

Lucy slammed the receiver down on another busy signal.

Drat–will you look at that nail?  A perfectly manicured, blood-red polished nail had torn, threatening her nylons. 

Honestly–there’s so much”upkeep” to keep up with, Lucy thought, filing the nail smooth.  That done, she sat down at her vanity and began to brush her naturally curly, naturally red hair.  (She divided the recommended hundred strokes throughout the day.)  She glanced sideways at the bedroom door, remembered it was locked and parted the mass of curls covering her forehead.  Brown and silver roots were now visible in what had been uniformly, if artificially, red.  Darn it!  It seems like I was just at Henri’s!  I’ll have to see if he can fit me in for a touch-up.  I can’t afford to look less than perfect with all the glamorous dancers Ricky works with.

Lucy eyed herself critically.  She was paler than usual and her makeup couldn’t completely hide the circles under her eyes.  She hadn’t been sleeping well.  For the last several months, Ricky had been keeping more late nights.  Much later.  He used to come home directly from the club.  He used to bring her flowers for no other reason than that he thought she might enjoy them.  There were a lot of things he used to do. Now, a couple of nights a week he’d get in at dawn and tiptoe around, trying not to wake her.  Fat chance of that; she’d been listening for him and only pretended sleep on hearing his key in the door. 

One day after discussing her suspicions with Ethel, she’d run into Fred coming up from the basement where he claimed he’d been working on the furnace.  He said he hoped she and Ethel weren’t too sore about the late nights he and Rick had been keeping lately.  They’d been taking in some late fights, with drinks afterwards, and started up their old poker sessions again.  One of the boys had it pretty rough right now and they were just trying to be pals. 

Now that Fred was gone, Lucy thought Ricky would keep more regular hours, but he stayed out just as late as before.  Unasked, Ricky said that he and the”boys” were now keeping the poker games going in Fred’s honor and that he didn’t know what he would do without them.       

At first, Lucy felt relieved.  It was a perfectly reasonable explanation but she couldn’t help wondering if it was the real one.  Was Ricky running around on her?  With one of those big-eyed dancers with the twenty-three inch waists?  She looked at her waist.  It seemed enormous–surely it wasn’t THAT big.  Add “diet” to the list of things I need to do, she wrote down mentally.  And where on earth did all these wrinkles come from?  With her forehead free of curls for the moment, the lines stood out plainly.  There weren’t that many yesterday.  She’d had plenty of chances to see those dancers up close–everything about them was taut and smooth.  Even their foreheads. 

Lucy furiously brushed and rearranged her hair, dabbed on some rouge and re-did her lips, admiring the crimson impression they made when she blotted them.  That’s better.  She stood up, smoothed her dress and checked her front and rear views.  If I ever found out that Ricky was cheating on me and that someone was covering for him … the thought brought more color to her face than rouge ever could.

Read part 2 of the story!

Copyright: Karen Adkins