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Won't You Call Me Sweetheart

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tommy scout tells him one day,  chewing on a toothpick with his usual nonchalant grace,  that there’s no way in hell they’ll ever ban booze in new york.

“it’s too much money,”  tommy said,  kicking his heel against the barrel that lies in half-ruined waste by his foot.  he’s an idle boy       hardly a man,  though he has half a foot on paterson,  and the beginnings of a fine mustache that’ll be the envy of every man in the bar.  paterson likes to think tommy comes and goes as he pleases,  drawn to the hubbub and chaos of new york because it presents something to see;  otherwise,  what else could he be doing?  he’d fit better in the south,  where the drawls run thick like molasses on words that slur into the next,  and tom sawyer paints a fence with a lazy idea in mind.  

paterson doesn’t fit in anywhere,  he supposes.  he’s 26 and he still has too many boyish features:  ears lopsided and prominent,  practically made to be pulled and snatched at whenever someone wants his attention.  he’s tall limbs and gangly appearance,  not quite at home in his own body,  built for tripping over and kicking over and generally making a mess when one is hoping for quiet.  he imagines himself as some kind of tragic background character in his own poems,  the one he scrawls on scraps of paper he can snatch away whenever the opportunity presents itself;  not a hero,  and certainly not a villain,  but doomed to observe and see and never find himself within.  

“those old loons have got the wrong idea,”  tommy remarked,  and paterson pulled his attention away from the barrel to follow tommy’s gaze,  falling on the women holding up signs and calling up all sorts of questionable decrees he couldn’t care less about outside the magistrate’s office.  “they wanna ban the booze,  they’re just gonna make it harder to find husbands.  half of ‘em will only get married if their man has his goggles on.”

paterson didn’t answer,  but tommy never seeks one from him,  anyways;  he seems utterly at ease in quiet,  and more often that not,  laughs at his own jokes harder than anyone else.  he is a caricature of comedy,  a mimicry of the jest,  and paterson thinks that one day,  tommy will have turned out to be some kind of imp that wanders from town to town,  no goal in mind but to keep himself vaguely entertained,  and no one will at all be surprised.

“they’ve been protesting nonstop,”  paterson commented,  and tommy shrugged,  a half-hearted gesture that shows nothing but disinterest in the whole affair.

“governor makes too much money from the drinkers to throw ‘em out.  hell,  governor drinks himself quiet every evening.  not to mention the mayor and all the judges.”  he snorted,  pulling his toothpick from his mouth and flicking it into the busy street;  paterson watched as it disappeared under the rickety tires of one of the new automobiles careening by.  “these birds think the drink is to blame for everything.  most be the most boring households in the city!  even the puritans had a sense of humour.”

paterson said nothing.  under his arm,  in crates stacked two by three,  were bottles and bottles of wine and rum that were stamped from halfway around the world,  touring through europe on the back of an assassination that took them all by surprise.  they’re earmarked for the mayor himself,  and he paid an arm and a leg to get them,  right around the same time that he let one of the drys come in and make a stirring speech about the morality of the drink and how the world would be better off without it.

uncle dean was real chuffed to get the order,  but uncle dean was in one of those strange moods where the wind could blow him one direction or another.  some days,  he was happy to throw his arm around paterson’s shoulder,  and offer him friendly advice about life,  and love,  and all the rest of the business;  other days,  paterson was ducking under that same arm,  moving faster than his limbs allowed to get him out of the way of whatever uncle dean happened to be hurling.  there was no real middle ground with dean,  and there was certainly no pleasing him with bad news       paterson had learned to keep his mouth shut when the times were bad,  and keep it shut when things perked up.

they’d been doing this a lot,  lately       grabbing goods from the docks late at night,  when the guard was persuaded to look the other way,  and selling it for a profit out the back,  so to speak.  alcohol might not be prohibited,  but new york was tense,  real tense:  just the other week,  the dryers had managed to get a bar shut down on serving german beer,  and there was a lot of talk about europe,  europe this and that,  europe and the duke who was killed,  and the duke and his country,  and where that all fit into the greater picture.  no one had any real clue what was going on,  but it seemed like germany was on the wrong side of it,  and austria-hungary,  and suddenly things from overseas was very expensive,  and worth more than paterson could imagine earning in his life.

“more than those damn scribbles could earn you,”  uncle dean was sure to remind him,  and paterson had simply pretended that it was a good point,  and he wasn’t working on a poem at that moment,  anyways.

he was always working on a poem.  he had been writing since before he could remember,  watching the world and turning it into prose through eyes that always saw more than he let on.  it was difficult to write when his uncle was always pressing him to run errands,  and it was difficult to run errands because uncle dean was mixed up with crowds that veered towards the unsavoury.  paterson was a good kid,  and he had looked it;  no one took notice of him now,  because how could anyone imagine arthur paterson smuggling booze and goods around in his little beat-up cart,  with his scruffed hat and his dozens of little papers that always seemed to have something scratched across?

he was thinking of that now,  crossing the lane across central to bring a new shipment in that uncle dean had said was more than his head’s worth,  and he better not forget it.  he had a good idea of what was inside,  but hadn’t really bothered to take a good look       the less he knew,  the better.  his head was stuck on his latest verse,  stuck on trying to get it to work;  all the words fit right,  but he had nothing behind it,  no spark,  no jolt.  no muse,  really.  and he was still pondering that when someone in front of him gave a loud cry,  and paterson realized he had been about to hit someone who had accidentally crossed in front of his rickety auto.

he swerved,  hard,  nearly upending the whole thing as he sought to avoid hitting what was evidently a woman in a blue jacket and dress;  he didn’t see much more,  as his wheel hit the curb and gave a tremendous screech of annoyance,  causing passerby to jump out of the way,  or snicker openly at the whole affair.  there were a few honks behind him as other cars witnessed the mess,  but other than nearly jolting himself out of his seat,  the damage didn’t seem too bad.  

shit.  the booze.

he leapt from his seat,  ignoring the door entirely,  and as he did,  he realized the dame was still in front of the car,  probably frozen in shock.  despite his worry over the cargo in the trunk,  he couldn’t just leave her there to come to her senses       what if he had grazed her,  or she had twisted an ankle,  or something?  better to make sure she was okay.  so he turned,  opened his mouth,  and  …  found himself speechless.

you hadn’t meant to cross the street just then       you had gotten distracted by something,  found yourself a little too close to the road,  and only realized your predicament when a car came barreling down at you.  luckily your mouth knew better than to freeze like the rest of you had,  and you had let out an unladylike shriek as you came close to being flattened like a pancake on easter sunday.  you had just caught your breath when paterson came out to check on you,  and something about the way you looked       your hair in the sunlight,  maybe,  or how the blue of your dress showed off the high colour in your cheeks       seized his attention and choked all the words right out of him.  

“oh,  my goodness!”  you had said,  highly distressed,  flapping your arms in hopeless anxiety.  “are you alright?  i didn’t mean to step in front of you,  it was an accident and i       and your car!  i am so sorry,  is it very damaged?  does it need any repairs?  are you alright?”

you asked that all in one breath,  your eyes blinking up at him from thick lashes that swept out like a brush of ashes on the hearth,  and paterson had opened his mouth to answer and closed it again when none of his words would surface.  

“are you alright?”  he managed to ask,  only after you had started to inquire at a higher pitch about needing to see a doctor;  you stopped mid-sentence to look at him in puzzlement.

“i  …  oh,  yes,  of course,  you didn’t even hit me.  but are  you  alright?  you hit the curb awfully hard!”

“it’s fine,”  paterson said,  having not once looked at the car.  “i’m fine.  it’s fine.  you sure you’re not hurt,  miss  …?”

“[y/n],”  you said,  and you had smiled up at him in such dazzling relief that paterson was immediately struck with the desire to repeat the entire process all over again,  just to see you smile once more.  “and you are mr  …?”

“m’name is arthur,  but all my friends call me paterson,”  he replied,  and he was intimately aware of how silly he sounded,  how stretched out and inelegant he looked compared to your beauty       with a lose twist of hair bobbing on your neck,  and a flush high in your cheeks,  and a pretty white brooch on your chest,  accentuating the line of your throat and the curve of your chin.  

“well,  i am very sorry we couldn’t meet under better circumstances,  mr paterson,”  you said,  and the way your tongue rolled his name like a sweet had his knees shaking.  “are you very sure the car isn’t damaged?”

“absolutely,”  paterson answered,  quite firmly,  and he leaned one arm down on the door,  as if to prove a point;  it gave an ominous shake underhand.  “uh,  but if you need a ride anywhere  …  you know,  to apologize for having almost run you down  …”

“it was all my own fault,”  you declared,  and you shook your head firmly on the point.  “and i am meeting a friend just across the street,  but thank you very much for the offer.  mr paterson,  if you  do  find that the car has been damaged,  please,  please  give me a call and i will pay for the damages immediately.  i’m just       ”  you rummaged in your purse for a moment,  and emerged with a thick white card,  printed with fine black lettering.  “my father,  mr.  sullivan,  will pass along your message.  you can find us at this address.  please,  mr paterson, if there’s any damage at all,  it really is my fault,  and if you find there were any injuries!”  you pressed the card into his hand,  the fabric of your glove brushing along his skin like an electric shock.  

he had been struck dumb,  only able to offer a garbled  “thank you,”  before you had smiled that dazzling smile again,  and darted back across the street,  making sure to glance both ways before you made the crossing.  he watched after you for several minutes,  until you had disappeared from sight,  and then his gaze fell to the card you had closed in his hands.

fifth avenue,  beamed up at him in that elegant script,  barrister and business.  underneath was the name you had mentioned,  and an address that paterson knew spoke more money and manners than he had hairs on his head.

but god,  he thought,  slumping against the rickety old jalopy that was still parked up on the curb,  much to the annoyance of passerby.  but god,  oh god,  that smile.  if your smile was an arrow,  that he had been struck to the quick,  and was bleeding out in the most wondrous agony.  

that poem he had been irritated with was already forgotten,  replaced with one that emulated your eyes to starlight.  paterson smiled,  clasping your card to his heart.