There are things you don’t tell even your best pal, and English is definitely mine. Especially since Theresa, from the old neighborhood, doesn’t wanna talk about anything but babies and recipes anymore, and told me I was “immature” for keeping my dreams of acting on Broadway alive. She had some real pipes in high school glee club, too, but now she just keeps telling me I should grow up. Hah! That’s rich, coming from someone who married the first guy she ever held hands with.
Anyway, English, yeah. She’s an independent woman, just like me, so we hit it off right away when she used to come into the Automat on her own so much. But she keeps things from me. Like she still hasn’t explained quite how she’s such solid pals with Howard Stark . . . HOWARD STARK, ferchrissakes, zillionaire inventor playboy . . . that he’s letting us stay in his second-best apartment rent-free. (And his second-best is miles ahead of anything I’ve ever seen outside of the newsreels! Or even in ‘em.) She says she drove him for a little while during the war, and I wonder if that handsome fussy butler type who works for him, who comes around and checks on things once in awhile, is a relative or something. I’m sure she means it when she says she never dated Stark; Peg’s not the kind to follow the herd, and she wouldn’t want to be one of his crowd of women. So that means they really are friends.
And she’s never explained who that guy is that she used to keep a picture of on her dresser in the old place. He’s kinda scrawny but he looks weirdly like Captain America. If America’s hero was skinny and gawky and got beat up a lot, that is. Or why that picture’s nowhere to be seen anymore, except sometimes, I knock on her door and she says “just a minute,” in that so-proper way of hers, and I hear her dresser drawer slam shut. It’s not her late brother; she’s shown me a picture of Michael, and that was one good looking Brit.
So, if I keep secrets, too, it’s only fair, right? Like where I go on the nights of the full moon and the new moon. See the women in my family have always been special. We’re not exactly strega, though it kinda comes from the same place. We were village wise women back in the old country. In America? We just kinda . . . keep an eye on things, in our own special way. Our men don’t know, the priest *especially* doesn’t know. Sister Maria Magdalena has been known to send a forsaken girl or a widow having trouble making ends meet in our direction, though. She says God is a lot more understanding than Father Thomas or Father Giovanni think He is.
This particular night, it was a new moon. I really prefer the full moon, ‘cause back in the neighborhood the street lights aren’t so close together, and it’s not like I can see in the dark or anything. You know I’m from Queens, yeah? I’m not going to tell you exactly where in Queens, though, ‘cause you might feel tempted to come and see what we’re doing sometime, and that’d be a bad idea. I’m already telling you more than you should know. Like I said, English doesn’t even know this stuff, and she’s my roomie and best pal. But I know you need our help, so that’s the background.
You know how in some neighborhoods, there’s that house that has the rep of being haunted? Either it’s empty, or someone really strange lives there? Well, my nonna is the sweetest dearest lady in the whole borough, maybe the whole city. People are in and out of her place all the time, and she never lets them leave but that they take something to eat with them. But her house is next to a small park, which is real pretty during the day, but nobody *ever* sets foot there after dark. Not even the neighborhood drunks, or teenagers looking for a place to be alone together. Even the cats know to steer clear. It’s ours, and ours alone.
So on the night in question, we’re all there, in our little patch of urban woodland. There are some rituals we follow, and again, I’m not going to tell you about them because they’re secret, and they’re sacred. I will say that if we hadn’t intervened, Theresa might not have that pack of kids she’s always on about – she’s pregnant with her fourth and she’s only my age, but she did start just outta high school. It really wouldn’t have been fair if someone that baby-crazy couldn’t have got pregnant, and there are cases where nature needs a little encouragement. And the boy was as anxious to get married as she was, especially with the war and all. But sometimes we’re not so much helping life as . . . well.
You know. Those bruises you’re trying to cover with powder and that scarf you keep adjusting tell me all I need to know. You did right, bringing me his favorite tie-pin, and the hairs you could gather from his brush. That should be enough.
Anyway, as I was saying, it was that particular night. Mrs. DeAngelis from two blocks over, her husband was gambling again, and it looked like they might lose the house. We were arguing about what was appropriate; this had happened before and it looked like Ronny DeAngelis wasn’t learning from experience. But this was a bigger problem. Ronny was weak, and some of us thought maybe it was down to him. On the other hand, there was someone preying on his weakness.
We made the decision quickly. And grandma keeps things in readiness, for when we need to act quickly. Sometimes that means blending in. So my sister-in-law, Bobby’s wife Sally, and I, got ourselves all dolled up – seriously, grandma’s got everything in that attic of hers, including a dress just in my size that was six months further ahead of the fashion than anything I could buy on my waitressing paychecks – and were on our way to a certain Manhattan nightclub where a certain bad influence holds court.
Freddy Exeter-Jones sounds like a fake name, doesn’t it? And the way he talked – between English and her butler-friend, Jarvis, I knew what a real English accent sounded like and this guy wasn’t quite it. But he came from some kind of money, and he liked to play on his real or imagined connections. He also didn’t have too much pride to take money from working stiffs like Ronny DeAngelis.
It was late when we got there, but not late for nightlife, and the club was full. The doorman looked askance at two unaccompanied ladies, but Sally kinda fixed him with that glance of hers, and in a matter of moments a table opened up right near the stage. Those two drunks sitting there didn’t have the money for the rest of their drinks, and they suddenly felt an urgent need to be elsewhere. Sally may be one of us by marriage, but she’s most definitely one of us.
So, there was Freddy himself, in his tux and with his slicked-back blond hair, seated a few tables away from us. And who was he with but Howard Stark? As in, my landlord. Now, we’d never met, but I felt kinda like I knew him, living in his place and all, and he’s not a jerk. Well, yeah, actually he is, but not *that kind* of jerk. I mean, he’s rich ‘cause he’s a genius inventor and stuff, and he likes the nightlife, but I don’t really think he’d like the kind of stuff Freddy Exeter-Jones gets up to if he knew. Howard Stark doesn’t seem like the kinda guy who’d want to put a family out on the street just to get the kind of money he probably blows on buying drinks for his table in a single night in a ritzy joint like this one.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, in a moment two ladies came and took their seats at the table. One was a gorgeous but forgettable redhead, presumably Howard’s lady-of-the-moment. The other, looking stunning in a red dress I remembered her bringing home just a few weeks earlier, was my roomie and best pal Peg Carter.
Well, if that didn’t complicate things.
I knew Peggy’d never be taken in by scum like Freddy. In fact, she’d have seen through his fake-Brit thing the second he opened his mouth. So something must be going on there. Something to do with Howard Stark and the kind of favors she owed him that got us our apartment, maybe. Definitely not *those kind* of favors – I knew my Peg too well to imagine that – so maybe industrial espionage? I’d heard rumors that Freddy had his finger in a number of different pies, not just the gambling thing.
“Isn’t that your roommate?” Sally whispered in my ear. She’d been by our place once or twice. “Does that mean we need to cancel tonight?”
“Absolutely not. But it does mean we need to proceed with caution.” I needed to think. Luckily, the band started playing again, and everyone’s attention shifted to the stage.
I glanced over at Peg, who looked numb with boredom, and again I wondered why she was there. And I wondered how to draw Freddy’s attention without drawing hers. It looked like tonight was going to be all Sally’s job, and that I’d need to fade into the woodwork. I thought that right up to the moment that I felt a tap on my shoulder, and it was no one else but that sleazeball Freddy Exeter-Jones asking me to dance.
Of course I said yes. And of course he was a wonderful dancer. His type always are. The superficial charm and something else oozing underneath it all. I couldn’t help wondering if maybe Stark was the opposite – superficial sleaze but something solid beneath. Otherwise why would Peggy have anything to do with him?
Sally and I had planned it out, already, and maybe it would be me to carry it out, after all. After a couple of numbers, he asked if I’d like to take a breather. Unfortunately, he led me back, not to the table where Sally sat nursing a highball, but back to his own.
Crap. I was going to have to use my real name.
I’ve gotta say, Peggy was cool. You’d never have known we’d set eyes on each other before. I wondered if Stark had ever heard his tenant’s name, but I suspected it would have gone in one ear and out the other. It’s a good thing I hadn’t touched my drink, before, because too much alcohol can inhibit our . . . abilities. Never more than one when I’m on the job, so to speak. I didn’t trust Freddy not to slip me something, though, so I said I’d have whatever he was having, which turned out to be a rye whiskey, and I switched the glasses at my first opportunity. (Any waitress worth her salt oughta be able to do the same, without anyone noticing.)
The conversation was about as bland as you can imagine. It was clear there were all kinds of things going on beneath the surface – the redhead was jealous of Peg, Howard was probably inventing half a dozen things in his head while smiling absently at the redhead and tapping the table along with the music (badly out of time, too), and Freddy was trying to impress me with boring stuff about how much the nightclub cost him and how he enjoyed playing polo and things like that. Peggy, alone, was impossible to read.
Finally, a suitable length of time had passed, and I announced, with all the tact and subtlety for which I’m renowned (in other words, very little), that I was going to powder my nose. As is customary, Peggy rose along with me. The redhead, fortunately, saw this as her time to consolidate her hold on Howard Stark, and did not.
It was one of those fancy powder rooms with an attendant, so there wasn’t going to be much privacy. Fortunately, or perhaps not, the attendant suddenly felt an acute need to step out for a moment and have a smoke. I could sense that she’d actually quit six months ago and I hoped this wouldn’t set her back too far, but sometimes you’ve got to use what you’ve got.
(Sometimes it made me crazy I couldn’t do this stuff at work when the customers were jerks. But it’s important to keep these things separate. Plus, we only do it at the full moon and the new moon.)
Not realizing I’d arranged it, Peggy seized the opportunity. “What the hell are you doing here, Angie? Don’t you realize how dangerous that man is?”
“Don’t worry so much, English. Sally had a night off from Bobby and the kids, and we’d heard good things about the music at this place.”
“Angie, I realize you think someone like Freddy Exeter-Jones might be able to help you with your acting, but . . . “
For just a moment, I was really mad. “Is that what you think? You’re gallivanting around with Howard Stark, and you think I’m trying to sleep my way onto Broadway? Look – I make it on my talent, or I don’t make it at all. I just wanted to dance.”
“Then why did you follow my lead, and pretend you didn’t know me?”
“’Cause I’ve learned with you, Peggy, that there’s stuff I don’t know. I’ve learned that it’s better to play along. You think I didn’t want to introduce myself to my landlord, there?” I really am a good actress, ‘cause Peg clearly thought I was still mad, and I’d gotten over that quick flash of anger already. “Sally and I’ll take off, and I’ll see you tomorrow, when you get out of work . . . at the phone company. Or whatever it is you really do.”
“Angie, you know I work at the phone company. And I’ve told you – I knew Howard during the war. I was his driver for a bit. I’m just helping him out with something tonight. And if things work out the way Howard’s got them planned, Freddy Exeter-Jones won’t be dancing with anyone but his cellmate for the foreseeable future.”
That was as close to an admission as I was going to get. And that was fine. I was sorry Peggy and Stark were going to all that trouble, because I’d done my job while Freddy and I were dancing.
Freddy Exeter-Jones died of heart failure two days later, and it was put down to natural causes.
And I still hadn’t met Howard Stark properly, and industry gossip was that he was going into the movie biz. The thing is, I didn’t want to be one of his women, either. But if we were friends, just friends, then I wouldn’t mind getting a little bit of a career boost. And I had seen just a glimpse of what Peggy must see, that there was something more underneath the surface with him.
Sometimes those kind of guys eventually do want to settle down. And I know what you’re thinking, but we never make people fall in love with each other, or with us. That’s against our rules.
But I gotta lot of natural charm, don’t you think? And a best friend who’s maybe his only female pal. So, maybe someday when Howard Stark is ready to grow up. Angela Maria Stark . . . that’s got a ring to it, no?
Anyway, let’s get back to how we can help you.