Death of a Flint Skin, Part 2

She quickly dialed Ethel’s number again. Damned busy signal. One of the girls must’ve got to gabbing and won’t let her off the phone. Or the other way around. Poor Ethel.

Lucy pulled her chair up to the window and lit another cigarette.

Or was it poor Ethel?

As Ethel had repeatedly said, theirs was no match made in heaven. Fred was twenty-five years older and the trickle of charm he had once possessed had long since dried up.

He had grown into a full-time nitpicker, finding fault with whatever she did. There was plenty to choose from — she did most of the work.

And it was hard to believe there was a time when Fred had won ANYONE over with how he looked or dressed; he prided himself on being a slob. He felt it showed who was boss.

Then, there was Fred and money. Fred and cheap went together like milk and cookies. And he didn’t just cut corners when it came to the building, he was miserly in his personal life as well. He didn’t notice or care how outdated and worn his and Ethel’s furniture and clothes were. Fortunately, Ethel did.

When I decided it was time for us to redecorate last year, Ethel waged an all-out war to get Fred to agree to redecorate their apartment too. After months of arguing, he finally gave in–but only on the condition that they could have our old furniture.

During one of our club meetings, when Ethel was getting the refreshments, the girls all said how bad they felt for her and how embarrassing it must be not to be able to pick out your own things.

Ethel would’ve died if she’d known.

And the clothes. Making due with my old hats and coats — fiddling with hems, buttons and dye trying to make them look new — or at least like they didn’t come from my closet! Still, it didn’t take long for the girls to catch on…Ethel’s last name would have to be Dior to have pulled that off!

She never gave up though. Every couple of weeks, Ethel would tell me about her latest struggle to get Fred to cough up the price of a dress (even half-off!) or a permanent. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it was a losing battle… learned how to give herself a home perm…pretty good at it too, now…still can’t touch Henri’s, of course, but pretty good. And she’s been able to get some fairly decent bargain-basement stuff by pocketing some of the grocery money and buying Fred the cheapest of everything, especially meat. No wonder he complains! But he certainly deserves, er…deserved, it.

Ethel always did do most of the work around here, thought Lucy, angrily blowing smoke, smothering the cheap perfume — collecting and depositing the rents, keeping the books, inspecting, cleaning and showing apartments — and acting as a buffer when tenants demanded to know what had happened to an ancient repair request. Fred preferred napping to filling those.

Except for that day about a week before he died. Our bridge game broke up early and I found him WITH his tool kit in our apartment. He had promised to fix the garbage disposal months ago but kept “forgetting” as usual. Then, out of the blue, he’d fixed it. Left in a hurry, too. That wasn’t like Fred either….he liked to stand around jawing, mooching food and putting off the next job.

Later, as I was going into the kitchen to make dinner, something white caught my eye. It was the corner of a racing form that looked like it had been shoved under the sofa cushion in a hurry. That, plus the phone being out of place and the way Fred had acted earlier, made me wonder if he’d been placing bets from our apartment.

I should have suspected something when Ethel proudly announced that Fred had been a big help to her lately: he had voluntarily taken over the collecting and depositing of the rent money. He also appeared to be developing a soft side because he’d mentioned letting several tenants who were in a bad way slide. I tried to get her to say who, but she said she didn’t know; Fred had been very vague about it. Ethel said she thought it was very gentlemanly of him and she couldn’t remember when he had pleased her so much.

She had also confided feeling horribly guilty; she’d been on the verge of accusing him of dipping into the emergency money she kept in the china sugar-bowl. How could she have thought he’d stoop so low, when he was being so helpful and selfless? Then she laughed and admitted her memory wasn’t what it used to be and she’d probably forgotten the amount she’d put in it in the first place.

She was going to have to start writing notes to herself to remind her what was what.

Lucy had hesitated about going to Ethel with her suspicions. If she was wrong, it might cost her her best friend. If she was right, things between tenant and landlord could (and probably would) get very uncomfortable.

But then Fred had died and that took care of that. She wouldn’t tell Ethel. Fred could rest in peace.

Lucy dialed Ethel again, let it ring ten times, hung up and re-dialed, thinking she might have made a mistake. Figures. I probably missed her by a minute. I’ll try her after Ricky leaves for the club.

Maybe we can catch that new Gary Cooper picture that’s playing at… rats. Of course she’s not going to feel like going. It’s probably all the poor dear can stand to run out and get a few groceries. 

Won’t that darn phone ever stop ringing?

Ethel had periodically taken the phone off the receiver to give herself a break from several well-meaning friends, but she couldn’t just leave it off
— somebody used to jumping to ridiculous conclusions might think she had killed herself over Fred and show up with the police! That would be just like Lucy. She was certain this current annoyance was Lucy (she was the only one with the chutzpah to let it ring ten times), and was equally certain she could keep it up for hours. With her nosiness, hare-brained schemes and lack of normal consideration, Lucy could be a real pip of a friend sometimes. There she goes again! She’s driving me crazy!

Ethel pulled open a drawer of sweaters and pushed them aside to make room for the phone. Hoping to at least muffle any further outbursts, she piled layers of wool over and around it and shut the drawer.

As she leaned back against the dresser and closed her eyes, Ethel began to feel the relief that was always the happy result of shutting the door behind Lucy. Eyes open, she reached for her whisky sour. She’d made a pitcher-full after breakfast. Now that Fred was gone, so were all his bottles of prune juice and beer and the space they took up. There was plenty of room, now, for pitchers. Ethel thought it was a much better use of space.

She fluffed up some pillows, kicked off her shoes and lay back on, what was now solely her bed, to relax. No more drafts and sleeping on the edge of the mattress while somebody else hogs the blankets and the bed, snores to beat the band and then complains all the next day about what a bad night’s sleep he got. She grimaced at the valley-like depression that marked what used to be his side of the bed. Time for a new bed.

Ethel gulped her drink. That closet’s all mine too. She smiled as she looked at its empty hangers and clean floor. With Fred’s stuff gone and my ratty, old things burned, it certainly seems roomy. She chuckled — that was one trip to the incinerator she’d enjoyed! This time I’ll fill it the WAY I want, with WHAT I want, without asking anybody’s permission or begging for a few dollars just to get some reject from the “bargain basement.” (I’ll never have to go there again.)

Ethel’s glance came to rest upon a small mountain of hat, shoe and dress boxes next to the dresser. It’s a start…but only a start. Won’t they be jealous? I heard what they said when they thought I was out of earshot. It’s too bad I burnt everything — I could’ve offered Lucy some castoffs and see how she liked it!

She lifted a newly purchased rose out of its equally new bud vase and breathed in the sweet scent–it reminded her of ripe peaches. Fred had only given her flowers when they were courting–once they were married they (like so many other enjoyable things) were “a waste of money.” If he could only see what I’m “wasting” money on now! The old goat’s eyes would pop right out of his head! Ethel took another gulp of her drink and picked up a home decorating catalog, pausing to stare at her freshly manicured and polished nails. They didn’t look like her hands.

Pretty soon you won’t even notice ’em. A standing appointment every week. Even Lucy doesn’t go that often. Out of habit, Ethel raised her hand, to try to pat her usually drooping home perm into place, when she caught herself. Her fingers couldn’t believe the pert curls of her recent, long-desired permanent were hers.

“What do ya want to go wasting all my hard-earned money for?” yelled Fred when approached for money for the hairdresser’s.

“It don’t last; you’re just gonna want another in a couple a months — it’s a waste!” She made a face as she mimicked him and stuck out her tongue at the end. Well Fred, it may not be permanent, but neither were you!  

Eddie Tanner toweled himself off with a thick, white hotel towel. The cold shower had finally jump-started his brain. He squinted at his clock–6:30. Starting to get dark out. He was just waking up.

He slathered on the shaving cream and began to shave with quick, sure strokes. Too quick; he cut himself. Eddie laughed and pinched the skin until it stopped bleeding. Then he ran his styptic pencil over the cut again and again, sealing it. He picked up the razor, rinsed it off and resumed shaving with the same speed as before. (Eddie couldn’t be bothered by cuts; he had business to attend to.

First, the boys. He flung himself on his bed and dialed.

“Tony? Eddie. I want you and the boys to come over later so we can discuss our plans for this evening.”

Tony laughed. “‘Discuss…for this evening’…gettin’ a little formal, ain’t ya Eddie?”

“Not at all, Anthony. Recent experience has shown me one can’t be too careful.” He dropped the refined diction and his voice returned to its normal threatening tone.

“Understand?”

“Yeah. Sure, Eddie. When do ya want us?”

“Let’s say eleven — go on in if I’m not back and make sure you bring everything and everyone with you.”

“Right, Eddie. See ya.”

Eddie hung up and lit a cigarette. It paid to watch what you said on the phone. He took a deep drag and slowly exhaled. Yep, smarter to head off a problem than to deal with one. He and the boys could plan to their heart’s content in his apartment without any fear of being overheard. Now that Fred was out of the way.

What could that old guy have been thinking? Eddie laughed and flicked his ashes onto the Mertz’s dirty, worn carpet. He didn’t know who he was dealing with.

Look for the story’s conclusion in Part 3!

Copyright: Karen Adkins