by Rob Hunter
|part 1 of 9|
Took my razor blade
Laid old Ruby in the shade
Lord, I’m gonna start a graveyard all my own.
Ruby, Ruby. Ruby, are you mad at your man?
Thelma Wagstaff blew herself away as she sat on her high red upholstered stool supervising the cash box at the White Street Billiards and Snooker. A symphony of flaccid flesh, Thelma hit the floor like she had fallen out of an airplane, no parachute, and her pistol went bouncing toward Ed Seitz and me. The gun’s muffled report reverberated, echoes crossing echoes like a dispatcher’s call in an empty marble train station. Ed and I were absorbed in the cushion shot he was negotiating. We did not look up; there was a fiver riding on Ed’s shot.
So you can tell us apart, I am Harley Pigeon — long and tall and stringy with a disorderly brush of sandy brown hair and a migrating cowlick, sort of Gary Cooper as an Eagle Scout who flunked his merit badges, but without the good looks and thinner.
Ed is built like an apple on a stick except Ed’s apple had slipped to half-mast, right at the equator. When Ed leans in to study a billiards shot, it gets kind of scary, you wondering who will back off and call it quits first, Ed or the slate table.
Before her suicide, Thelma’s nickel-plated .38 resided harmlessly in an open cigar box on top of her till where it kept the 10-dollar bills from blowing away. Parrish Wagstaff — Ol’ Parrish, to his few friends — had kept the gun loaded with dumdums and Thelma continued the practice out of habit. She died by her own hand — and her own pistol, not a razor as did the Ruby of the song, not by throwing herself under a train as was the practice for the small town debutante — pregnant, wronged or just plain bored.
Did I tell you Parrish Wagstaff used to own the hardware store? Ol’ Parrish, according to the store’s hangers-on, had been made cold by Thelma’s increasing poundage. Ol’ Parrish had run off with Norma Cawthorne, a varsity basketball cheerleader in 1928, twenty years before, and not been seen since. Thelma was a comparatively chunky thing back then. Twenty years of chocolate-dipped donuts had not improved matters.
Thelma didn’t get out much, just spent her shaded days and fluorescent nights rooted to the stool behind the till. She liked strangers and opened up to her regulars like she never would have done for kin. This means we occasionally talked. For the moment Ed and I were the closest Thelma had to a family. Including the weight of the bullet, Thelma tipped the coroner’s scales at 420 pounds.
Anyway, Ed blew his shot as Thelma’s vast body slid away in a long, slow faint. We watched her going down sideways. Her folds of fat absorbed the impact of the tiled cement floor as it rushed upwards to accept the offering of her life. Not much of a life, lately, I heard. Thelma’s death and Ed’s missed cushion shot were a delayed last act in a blighted marriage.
About here you’re probably asking yourself where we came from and what were we doing here, witnessing a wronged woman’s tragic end. Good question. The truth was we didn’t have much to leave behind in Milwaukee except a cubbyhole office on the second floor of Zabloski Bros. Tannery. The floor was unvarnished oiled hardwood with red crumbs of sweeping compound ground into the cracks. Frosted glass sagged in the partitions, walnut paneling was warped and had heaved around the steam pipes from generations of radiator leaks. The Zabloski Bros. were rapacious creditors.
For a salesman, knowing things is an important part of the job. I could get you tickets for the White Sox, Cardinals, Cubs and Bears. I knew sports, Broadway show tunes, heavyweight title fights and the up-and-coming welterweights. I did my research with the racing form, Variety and Sporting News.
Ask me a question, go ahead. Ed Seitz is my partner in Factory Findings. Not Inc. — when we had to choose between rent and Inc., rent won. We were making a living, barely. Ed once shared his vision of the New South with me: “Air conditioning, Harley. That’s what will relocate Northern manufacturers to Dixie.” Well now, that’s the story, isn’t it?
It was good to be on the road, open vistas, fresh air, blah, blah. See America First. We were selling anything we could find a buyer for. My specialty was brass grommets; Ed knew the industrial string and twine business inside out. The leaf springs of Ed’s Buick sedan sagged with sample cases and catalogs. He was a salesman to be respected.
Our next and only stop was Piedmont, South Carolina, where Dixie Duck and Process had landed a tarpaulin contract for mothballing every deck gun in the entire US fleet. Dixie Duck turned canvas into tarpaulins. To accomplish this, they needed thread and tons of grommets.
Ed and I hatched out our Southern Strategy over beer and billiards at the Antlers Hotel, near the depot in Milwaukee: We can solve your problem, Mister Manufacturer. This is not about Thelma, not about Ed or me. It’s about grommets and a patch of tomatoes.
We became Thelma’s regulars and hung out at the White Street Billiards and Snooker. It beat staying in our sweltering rooms at the General Longstreet where Charley Hoskins was the landlord. Charley will tell you about the tomatoes:
“Huh! Mister Lansford’s tomato patch. Lansford got killed at Chickamauga. Flop Eye, the tomato patch, that’s what they called it ’count of Mister Lansford’s ocular misalignment. And over here,” his finger traced a crooked boundary line to the banks of the Catawaba River, “Hog Wallow. Generated the county’s plague of pigs. Got washed out and went wild in the spring floods. ’Course that was a hundred years back. Nowadays we got a possum plague.
“With proper attention, the Purples are clairvoyant; this is not public knowledge. See, people will have their little dramas that seem pretty important at the time. But Cherokee Purples, while not indifferent to human suffering, have their own plans. Who’s to know what’s important to a tomato? The Purples look after their own business. Tomatoes want you to ask. They never volunteer.”
Charley’ll be back. He comes in later on.
Copyright © 2009 by Rob Hunter