Wednesday, October 5, 2011

THE SCARF, Chapter One

September 6, 1935

It is the first day of my criminal justice class at Cleveland College. Waiting with the other students for the professor to arrive, I try to look innocent. I have taken the precaution of sitting in the back row between a boy with acne and a chubby girl with a pretty face and too much makeup. I wish I were like them. I wish acne and weight were all I have to worry about. I wish I could shake the plump girl until her teeth rattle. I want her green life.
           Someone has carved initials in the wood of my desk. Does “H. R.”  belong to the wood carver? Or to the wood-carver’s spouse? But that’s
silly-- eighteen-year-olds aren’t married. As I was. To my regret. And surely to my former husband’s, who is now safely buried with the other dead Jews in Mayfield Cemetery.
           Now the door opens and the dean arrives with a man so handsome I am aware of a collective intake of breath from the girls in the room. Who is he? I knew Dean Conway from his boring speech to the freshman assembled last week in the auditorium, but would have remembered if I had ever seen the other one. You don’t forget a face like that.
           “Good morning, students,” Dean Conway says, with his pasted-on smile. “I have a swell surprise for you. The professor in your class will be a real-life F.B.I. agent Adam Fairfield,” he says, gesturing to him grandly. “Before joining the Bureau, he taught law and criminal justice at Ohio State University. How about those credentials? How lucky can you get?” Someone starts to clap, the dean joins in and then the rest of the class.
Fairfield is standing a bit to the side, his hands in his pockets, looking like Tyrone Power or maybe Douglas Fairbanks without the mustache.
I slide my eyes over to the door. Too far away.
“I leave you now in the capable hands of Special Agent Fairfield,” Dean Conway says, pausing and lifting his chin as if posing for a photograph.
“Thank you, Dean. I only hope I don’t disappoint after that introduction,” he says, grinning as if he knows better.
He takes a sheet of paper from the desk. “Please stand as I read your name so I can get a look at you.” As he reads the names, each student stands, saying, “Here.” Waiting for him to call my name, I start to sweat. When he does, I rise, manage a mumbled “Here,” and slide back down in my chair. His eyes linger on me. Or am I imagining it? No. I am not imagining it. He knows who I am. I thought I could disappear among hundreds of college students. I thought by using my maiden I could skip the part when I became Mrs. Ben Gold. I was wrong. I should have packed up and gone as far from Cleveland as I could get—California. Oregon. Anywhere but here. Well, it isn’t too late--this is my first day in Special Agent Fairfield’s class. It’s a big country.
I see that he’s dressed for the part of charming professor in one of those tweed jackets with leather on the elbows, a blue shirt and neatly knotted brown tie. It’s hard to tell his age—30’s? 40’s? Even though his hair is cropped short, I can see the grey starting.
After the roll call, he looks at me again. I make myself  return his stare as if that will make him drop his eyes. It does not. I drop mine.
He looks at his watch. “There’s still time for me to tell you a bit about the F.B.I,” he says, sitting down on the edge of the desk. “Before J. Edgar Hoover became Director it was just the Bureau of Investigation. But Hoover got it federalized so we could cross state lines to chase the bad guys. How many of you have heard of  Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde and Machine Gun Kelly?”
A bunch of hands shoot up.
“I can tell you that we know Nelson’s in San Francisco, a source has Machine Gun Kelly in Chicago, and we’ve spotted Bonnie and Clyde in Des Moines. Believe me, their days of robbing banks and killing people are numbered.” There is a sudden gravity about him with that grim look you see on agents in the movies. 
The boy with acne raises his hand.
“Mr. Flemming,” Fairfield says, nodding.
“So how does a person get in?” the boy asks.
“You want to be an F.B.I. agent?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Well, son, you’ve got some years to go—you have to be twenty five. And before that, you have to have gone to law school. You have to be a lawyer. And come from a good family.”
Good family. That lets me out.
The boy sits down. 
A skinny girl in a navy blue dress raises her hand.
“Miss Sawyer,” Fairfield says. But he is looking at me again.
I feel the familiar blush of redheads and look down at my white schoolgirls’ blouse to check on buttons.
“Does the F.B.I. take women?” She asks.
“Not any I know of now,” he says. “Although there were a few. Emma Jentzer back some twenty years or so. Also, Alaska Davidson and Lenore Houston in the old bureau.” He stops, as if searching his memory. “And oh, yes, Jessie Duckson.” He lets go of his charming smile. “Maybe by the time you’re twenty-five Hoover will let women in. So go to law school, just in case. And if you can’t be an agent, you’ll have a back up. You can be a lawyer.”
“I don’t know any women lawyers, do you?” There was a nice edge to her voice. I liked her.
“Well, no. A great injustice. But perhaps you’ll change all that and be
the first woman agent in modern times.” The girl doesn’t look convinced. Another hand is raised.
“Mr. Linsky,” Fairfield says.
I am impressed with his memory of names after only one hearing. More to worry about.
“So how come Mr. Hoover can’t catch Dillinger?”
“Well, Mr. Linsky, we have it on good authority he’s in Dayton, Ohio. As we speak. He moves around a lot but we’ll get him. Sooner or later we’ll get him.” He narrows his eyes. You can imagine him wearing sun glasses, a fedora, and that serious expression, moving silent as a cat, stalking Dillinger, ready; you can imagine him shooting. No questions asked. Just the Springfield Armory Model M 14 machine gun with 20 round USGI—like the gun that laid under my husband’s side of the bed. Or the Smith & Wesson 22, with a clip that holds 12 rounds. Small enough to fit in a pocket. Small enough to fit in a woman’s hand. Like I used. I feel a small thrill.
           The boy sits down.
Fairfield looks at his watch again, opens a notebook, and recites the course agenda: Intro to Criminal Justice; Criminal Law; Criminal Investigation; Intro to Forensic Chemistry; Human Relations. I dutifully write the list in my notebook with a shaking hand, now convinced that he knows who I am
           “Class, please read chapters one through four in your ‘Intro to Forensic Chemistry’ by the next class,” he’s saying. My classmates begin noisily scraping chairs, murmuring, moving toward the door. A couple of girls almost trip as they turn for one more look at Fairfield.
           I close my notebook and gather up my books.
I am almost at the door when he calls from the front of the room, “Miss Brady.”
Pretending not to hear him, I put my head down and keep on walking.
“Miss Brady!” he calls. “My office, please. Room 321.”
Three or four of the girls look at me. I see envy in their eyes.
Caught, I find my way to room 321, four or five doorways down the hall. I hear him hurrying behind me. He doesn’t speak as he unlocks the door, and I cannot. He politely holds it open for me--I enter and pause in the middle of the room. I think he can hear my heart pound. I stare at my hands. No blood. In fact my fingernails are painted an innocent shade of pink which I had applied the night before as I listened to Amos & Andy on the radio.
           His office is bare, as if he is just passing through. A desk, a couple of chairs, a few books—no plants or pictures on the wall. I see that there are no photographs of a blond wife and adorable children. Could he be single?            I lower myself carefully into the chair he is offering. Through the window I see luminous clouds drifting by; I want to be out there with them. I want to be anywhere but here with this stranger who is staring at me with knowing eyes.
He sits down at his desk and gazes at me. He’s actually better looking up close than from the back row, if that’s possible.
I clear my throat. “What did you want to see me about?”
“Let’s just say I want to welcome Ben Gold’s widow into my classroom.” He smiles at me. “It isn’t often that I have the pleasure of teaching the former wife of a notorious gangster.”
           “How did you know?” I ask. I can’t help myself.
           “I saw you at your husband’s funeral.”
           “You were at Ben’s funeral?”
           “Hoover always sends agents to gangsters’ funerals.”
           I wince, thinking how the Mafia  had sent its members to mourn Ben Gold. Where police mounted on chestnut horses had to hold back the crowds. Where peering down from their handsome horses they knew which mobsters supplemented their meager Great Depression income for looking the other way. The City of Cleveland is broke, paying its employees in play money called script, making the police more than willing to be corrupted.
The gleaming black coffin was covered in gardenias and roses emitting a sickening perfume as if to cover Ben Gold’s rot in life and death. But people were respectful, clad in proper black suits and fedoras; the few women in dark-colored dresses. It could have been a funeral attended by bankers putting a colleague to rest.
           “Given your background,” Fairfield is saying, “I can understand your interest in a criminal justice class.”
I’m getting mad. What does this complacent man know of my background? How I had lost my job at Shapiro’s Bakery. And then lost my scholarship to Ohio State for the simple and terrible reason that there was no money for room and board and books. How after a while—a long while—of looking for a job that didn’t exist I just stopped looking. This arrogant know-nothing professor-man has no idea what it is like to be eighteen years old with no future and then have the handsome, magnetic and rich Ben Gold come into your life. An older man of 26 or so. Who took me to fancy restaurants, to the movies, for Sunday drives, his hand on my knee in the car, his proximity emitting heat.
Then after work one day, still in her maroon uniform, still smelling of permanent wave solution, still sober, my mother said, “You probably should get married.” She said it smoking her Camel, picking a bit of tobacco off her tongue. She said it sadly, as if I was a hopeless case with no other chance of a future. Which, of course, I had already thought of because the truth was that it was true. So on my next date with Ben Gold I wore my halter top cut low and tight skirt that showed off my backside—and then pushed him away when he got on top of me on the couch of his fancy living room. I figured by holding out I’d get him to marry me. My strategy worked—we were married by the Justice of the Peace at City Hall, attended by his bodyguard and accountent. Later, my plotting made me ashamed, but back then I thought I was so smart. Maybe I got what I deserved. Maybe I outsmarted myself. Maybe clever girls who use their sex to get what they want wind up getting punished. Or punishing themselves. As I did. So I blamed my mother for putting into words what I already figured out. I blamed her because it was easier to blame her than myself for screwing up.
“ Mr. Fairfield, I am also taking English, History, and Psychology. I’m going to be a writer.”
“A writer! Well, well. Ben Gold must have provided you with plenty of material.”
I get up. “I resent being subjected to this.”
           “You’re a person of interest to us.”
           I sat down. “What does that mean?”
           “Look. We have a file on Ben Gold thick as a book. Robberies and murders going back to 1920 when he was fifteen--sixteen.”
           “I didn’t know him then.”
           “No, but you knew him when you married him.”
           “He told me he was in the insurance business.”
           “Mrs. Gold. Come on.”
           “My name is Kate Brady.”
           “Okay, Kate Brady. You really expect me to believe you lived with him for two years and thought he was in the insurance business? Please.”
           “Well, I did,” I lie. “Anyway what do you want of the man? He’s dead. And what do you want of me?”
           “Information. Names of his associates. Conspiracies. Mob conflicts. Any bit of information you have, no matter how small, can be significant.”
           “I have nothing to tell you. I married Ben Gold when I was 18 years old,” I say slowly, as if he is dense or hard of hearing. “I married him because I lost my job. I married him because I couldn’t afford money for room and board and lost my scholarship to Ohio State. I married him to get away from my mother and her drinking problem. Do I have to pay for it the rest of my life?”
My eyes fill with real tears, I fish in my bag for a handkerchief and blow my nose. I stand up and gather my books and handbag, feeling as marked as if Ben Gold had written his name on my forehead.
“All I want is to do is forget I ever laid eyes on Ben Gold.” I look at him. “Or you.”
He rises from his chair and stands, shifting his weight, looking uncomfortable. “I’m sorry you’re upset, but if anything does occur to you about Gold or his associates—again, no matter how small--we’d appreciate your cooperation.”
           He opens the door for me. “See you tomorrow in class.”
           “No you won’t.”
“But I apologized.”
“That’s not an apology and even if it were, I wouldn’t accept it,” I say. I leave the office slamming the door behind me. Hard. I am more than relieved. I am pleased.

Driving home, I calm down, deciding to simply drop Fairfield’s class. Besides, I tell myself, even if Fairfield has me under surveillance, I really have nothing to hide. I have no contacts with anyone from my life with Ben, in spite of calls from his hit man, Sam Bernstein. His last call was just a week ago telling me he’s out of work, complaining that none of the Jewish outfits trust him because of his long association with their rival Ben Gold and that the Mafia won’t have him because he isn’t Italian. He said he wants to be my driver and bodyguard.
“Sam, I’d love to hire you,” I said, carefully, knowing full well of his lethal temper. “But I’ve learned to drive and since Ben’s gone, I really have no need for a bodyguard. Do you need anything? Money?”
“I can always use a few bucks. Especially since I aint been workin’.”
“I’ll send you a cashiers check for a thousand dollars.”
“Thanks, Kate. You always was a good dame.”
“But Sam, it’s better if you don’t call me. Okay?”
“Yeah, okay, I get it. You’re done with the life, you’re gonna be a college girl now. Your mother told me,” he says huskily. “It’s just that I miss Ben.”
“I miss him too,” I lied.
“Okay, so I won’t call you no more. Anyway, thanks for the dough.”
“Oh, Sam, you’re so welcome! And I appreciate your understanding. Take care of yourself. I’ll call if I get any ideas for you, or if something turns up.”
“Well, thanks. Like I said, you always was a good dame.” 

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