Thursday, January 17, 2008

A Taste For It - Sophie Littlefield

A TASTE FOR IT

Betty Glack might not yet be twenty-three but she had a few things figured out:

First, you had to make use of every asset God gave you unless you wanted to end up at the bottom of the slag pile. And principles? Sure, nice enough, if you wanted to ride them all the way back to Hackensack.

Second, men only wanted you until you wanted them back. She was cursed with a taste for it, though. A man’s breath on her neck, his hand on her thigh, these were the things that lit her up and let her forget what a decade of hard luck had already cost her. Still, she fought it. Pretended indifference. Kissed with her mouth closed.

Betty found a job the week she moved to town, while she was still sleeping on her cousin’s sofa. She knew she’d found the right place from the gleaming Packards and Cadillacs parked out front, the men with their broad shoulders and swagger. She put on lipstick as red as a hibiscus bud, tugged her sweater low on her breasts, took her cousin’s highest heels from the closet without asking – walked in and stood in the middle of the restaurant and pretended to be lost until the manager himself came out to ask if he could help.

Betty had no intention of falling for a restaurant manager. She knew where the power was and she had in mind to work her way up the chain with the trouble boys.

But there was Cabot Hancock, hair touched with silver at the temples, looking like William Powell if he had better posture and a gold-plated watch. Cabot gave her the best station that first day, ensuring that the other waitresses hated her, but Betty had been the target of female envy since grammar school and it no longer bothered her in the slightest. In fact, she had an instinct for cruelty. She’d choose some unfortunate aspect - a shoe with a clunky heel, a rinse that came out drab - and compliment the girl extravagantly until she turned away with her cheeks flaming.

Betty might not make any friends, but that wasn’t what she was here to do.

Cabot wasn’t what she was here to do either, and she turned him down, a little regretfully, when he offered to take her to the beach on her afternoon off.

She turned him down again the next week – he asked her to dinner at a club where Danny Kaye had been seen – and again the next. By then she’d been on a couple of dates with Carmine Reggolo, who collected on the slots for Jimmy G. and picked her up in an Aston Martin after his last stop of the night.

Betty knew that collection men had to get rough now and then. Carmine didn’t talk about that part, but thinking about it gave Betty a shivery feeling. She liked it when he talked about the job, making sure Jimmy G. wasn’t getting ripped off. There was a counter inside the slot machines. You could read the digits if you knew how. They didn’t check that often; every few weeks they had a mechanic come to clean and oil, and he checked the numbers then. The club and restaurant owners weren’t told. Most had no idea the counter was there. As long as the totals matched up, most never would.

You’d have to be out of your mind to skim, anyway. Ripping off Jimmy G. was suicide.

Betty liked Carmine – maybe a little too much. The fourth week she told him she couldn’t see him any more. Drago Fazio had noticed her from his table in the back, where he sat with a couple of tough guys and ran a book. Drago asked Betty to come out with him and listen to some jazz in a club so hot there were lines around the block. Anyone could see that was the better opportunity. They made plans for Saturday.

But when she finished up her shift on Thursday night, she was overcome with the sort of wistful, homesick mood she allowed herself only once in a blue moon. She thought about her mother, frail and tentative even before she got sick. She thought about buying her little sister ice cream with money she stole from the collection basket.

Betty was taking off her starched apron when the mood came over her, and she didn’t notice Cabot watching her until he stepped close behind her and lifted her ginger curls off her neck with warm fingers. He offered a penny for her thoughts. She had to swallow hard, the lump in her throat making her feel vulnerable and younger than she’d felt in a long time.

An hour later Cabot was plunging into her with an intensity that triggered a starry revelation: this must be the kind of passion they always talked about.

#

But the next day he wouldn’t meet her eyes. He left early with Caroline, the little blonde waitress with the affected drawl, on his arm.

Betty burned, her shame matched only by her fury with herself. She’d broken her own rule. She’d wanted, Lord how she’d wanted, and now she was paying. The other girls smirked at her, banded together with their cigarettes and their pin curls, not bothering to disguise their laughter as Betty wiped down tables with a sour rag.

She made sure Drago escorted her past Cabot when they left for their date, laughing and holding Drago’s arm. His glossy thick hair, his starched shirts, these were charms she could appreciate without putting too much thought into it. She let him light her cigarettes, asked for help untangling her hair from the zipper of her dress, removed his hand firmly but gently from her breast as he kissed her good night.

The next Monday she left after the other girls, then doubled back and slipped in the side door. She’d left a wad of napkins jammed in the outside door to the stock room earlier in the day, so the lock wouldn’t catch. She’d also dragged a chair in and left the inside door open an inch. That stock room: stacked with bottles, boxes, cans, it smelled like musty rags and sweet syrup, stale beer and bleach. She slipped off her rabbit-collar coat and folded it carefully on top of a crate, then settled in to watch through the narrow slit in the door.

She could see right into Cabot’s office. A bulb in the overhead fixture was out. The remaining bulb wasn’t up to the task, and the tiny room was shadowy and dingy. Cabot had one of those memo spikes – he liked to slam papers down on top of it. Ever since their one date, Betty imagined the spike sinking into the soft flesh of his palm.

Now, though, he was smoking, with a vacant, satisfied little smile on his face. Betty was astonished that a man like him, an unexceptional man, could sit alone in the squalor of his own making, having a smoke and being content. Betty was furious, but there were edges of her fury that were unknowable even to her. She saw that contentment was out of her reach now and it always would be. Even if she ended up with Jimmy G. himself. Even if she rode in a long black car and wore diamonds in her hair and never again had to wash out mended stockings at night, she’d still never look like Cabot did, tilted back in that chair with its ripped vinyl seat leaking kapok, with the four smoke-stained windowless walls closing in tight around him – and still smiling.

At last Cabot stubbed out the cigarette and fumbled in the top drawer of the desk. Betty had already checked the desk. She’d made a thorough search of the desk and the filing cabinet and even the coats and sweaters forgotten on the coat rack, and she’d found lighters and matchbooks and slips of paper with girls’ names and phone numbers, but no key.

Something clicked and Cabot tugged at the drawer and out it slid, smooth on its tracks, and of course there it was, the false back wall of the drawer came away and Carmine looped a length of red ribbon around his fingers. The ribbon was frayed and dirty but dangling from it was a key.

#

The way it worked out, she didn’t even need to sneak back in at night again. Cabot hired a lush brunette with a derriere that looked like it was carved from marble. Elvetta – it sounded like a made-up name to Betty. Cabot gave Elvetta Betty’s shift and demoted Betty to the lunch shift, where you couldn’t make a third of the tips you did at night.

But it meant she came in early, just her and the bartender, Goldy. They took down the chairs and filled the nut dishes and did the setups and after Betty took Goldy in Cabot’s office and shared just a little sample of what she’d learned to do in cramped quarters, he was plenty open-minded about her idea.

Cabot took the money out of the slot machine twice a week, on days when Jimmy G’s men came to collect. She and Goldy would just take a little at a time, she explained, so Cabot would never notice. What was ten, twenty bucks on a weeknight’s take? It barely covered the tips they were missing by working lunch. When Betty explained it that way, it sounded like justice even to her.

The slot man came around a few weeks later for maintenance, but Betty didn’t know about it until she came to work the next morning. A pair of detectives was sitting at a table with Goldy, who gave her a look of pure terror across the room. The rest of the tables still had chairs stacked on them, except for one corner of the room where a fight had clearly taken place. Furniture was overturned, broken glass lay on the floor, and a dark red stain shone dully in the light from the grimy brass fixtures.

Betty found a job closer to the financial district. It wasn’t one of Jimmy G’s joints. No slots, but the businessmen ordered steaks and martinis at lunch and it didn’t take long for a tax attorney with a cold-hearted wife to start asking her if she didn’t think she deserved to have some fun now and then.

She heard Cabot would be able to walk with a cane eventually, but while he was still stuck in a chair he had to let his cousin manage the place. When Elvetta came around asking if Betty’s employer was hiring, she said she’d gone to visit him and Cabot didn’t look too good.

##

BIO: Sophie Littlefield writes everything from magazine articles to True Confessions to academic textbooks to fiction, along with the occasional Christmas letter, grocery list, and teacher note. Sophie lives in Northern California with her husband and two kids. Checkout Sophie's blog Can't Stop Won't Stop

3 comments:

Cornelia Read said...

Oh, sweetie, you are DARK! I love it.

r2 said...

Very nasty. Nice work.

Patricia J. Hale said...

Wow, this piece is fantastic.