“Good just barely afternoon, Kee-mo Sah-bee,” purred the voice in his shirt pocket, and on signal Morty smiled secretly, brushed his hand inside and without losing a heat of the packing and stacking, fondled the warm little head and whispered back “Good just barely afternoon, Kee-mo.” So reliable, so dependable, such truth; the big hand at the top of the clock was a notch past the little one, and the actuality of Morty’s schedule had been reconfirmed: He had indeed stacked boxes in the allotted time, four sets to a box, from the comer of Grossman’s stockroom to the window side and around to the chalkline halfway hack. Straightening up for the first time since Rambling With Gambling, he looked around and again carefully checked. And double checked. Almost satisfied, he nodded and looked down and with his thumb and forefinger delicately circled held out his pocket so the little voice inside could get some well-deserved air. Yeah. The soft, smooth tones came floating up to him, happy to be free—“Bob Manders here, you lucky people, and right now for all you winners and losers and all you in-betweeners, just this barely minute, here is the Chairman of the Board.” Standing perfectly still lest he in some way spoil things, Morty slowly absorbed the granting of his wish, the all morning hunch that at good just barely afternoon a wonderful new surprise might leap out of his pocket. And (typically) the shrewd little bugger had reached down and was producing, Morty realized with growing certainty, the Chairman of the Board. Himself! Excitedly, but very gently, he fingered the tiny tone dial so the Chairman’s voice, all light and zingy, filled the room. Hey now. Chair breezed, they gottan awfullotta coffee in Brazil, and standing respectfully beside his last box, head down, Morty memorized the new fact that coffee beans grow by the zillions way down among brazilians (wherever brazilians was). He stood stiffly, mouthing the words until the Chairman had finished, then as though the command had been snapped by Mr. Grossman himself, he bent down to finish the line-up to the wall by the first afternoon Robert Hall jingle. The voice next to his ear purring away, the big, filled room, neat and cosy, like his own cosy room. Slowly but precisely, he lifted boxes, fitted and closed, feeling the assurance of each familiar position. Pleased that all the while Bob was confiding—anxiously —in him. Not, of course, that Bob had right to worry, for Morty was plenty safe all right, and not just half safe and a little sniff under the arm for Bob and the little geezer was proof positive. Plus, for insurance against offending, the Arrid with Perstop in his own drawer, marked with his own name, Morty J. Aranow.
He worked in his quiet, soothing swing, alone in stock (but not really alone), handling all the work Billy and he used to do together, until Mr. Grossman patted him on the shoulder and rewarded him with the entire room while Billy worked the truck with Sam. Which was a fine reward since Billy never talked to him anyway, except to say knock down that stinkin noise jocko, and it gave him the final, necessary area to complete his circle of command. This was probably (beside Baby) Morty’s most important possession—space to be in charge of. Whether around him as he worked, or in an invisible case as he walked the street with the world (his world) reporting from his pocket, or in the darkness of his West 88th Street room, these manageable areas formed the compartments of his life. Aware of the continuity in this final link, he moved now along his chalkmark, hearing Bob Manders talk of familiar things—the Chairman, his boys, Sammy, Pete and Deano, Lavoris and Chockfullanuts donuts. Listening with the reassuring knowledge that they would check into each life space, he assessed soft little Patti, happy Julius and weisenheimer Bobby Darin, who would try for chairmanship, hut fail miserably. And reinforced, he pulled hard for the wall, knowing in a dark, dim way that he was repeating the terrible swim for the dock in the great lake of that special camp mama had sent him to many years ago. Feeling from this safe distance the terror of the dock sliding away no matter how hard he kicked and screamed, demonstrating now how smoothly he could stroke, while the comforting lift in Bob’s voice told him the wall was close by and he had once more reached shore with no hard, mocking voices tearing at him. Patting his pocket, flipping sweat off his forehead (not worrying about his armpits, which were parched and burning), he awaited Bobby Hall’s commercial message and the 12:30 news, which from dateline Delhi, Moscow, Berlin and New York would converge under his nose. Next to the wall he sat down on his stool and pulled out his first Kent with the micronite filter of the day. He lit up, inhaled and felt so much better (naturally) about smoking with the taste of Kent. After the news, he repeated station identification and then with a happy pull of surprise welcomed the razor-fine voice of William B., pinchhitting for the vacationing Big Wilson, an extra added bonus, since William was a nightly visitor with the Make Believe Ballroom and now they could walk home together and kick off the evening with no break in the space links. He permitted himself another Kent, pulling deeply on the filtered flavor and stared happily at the floor, which like his pocket and private compartments, was always there.
“Why do you always look down? ” the quiet voice demanded; slowly his head swung to the tip of the voice and marked a pair of spiked heels, then it moved to bulging insteps and on to pink, hair-crushing stockings. Up the stockings slowly to the inch of white, the dress, the twisted waist, the puffy chest and the smiling face, which on contact opened and said, “You look so sad, always with your head down, why is your head always down? ” Miss Mandell. Tiny Miss Mandell, one week in the office, leaning to one side with her hip always stuck out as if it couldn’t stand her crooked back, with her hair all frizzed and her nose so small, h ow could she breathe? She shivered him with a draught in his stomach. Since the time in that class with all the strange, jerking, drooling kids, ugliness had chilled him, then reminded him of his superiority. “You know, ” Miss Mandell said, “if you look up, way up, you’ll feel a whole lot better.”
“I feel good,” he said; if he got real lucky she would disappear and leave him loose like everyone else, but she stayed harder and laughed as if he had said something so funny.
“Hah. What in the world are you listening to? You’re always
listening to the radio.”
“The William B. Williams show.”
“Do you like that program?”
“Yeah I like it.”
“And what else do you listen to?”
“A lotta different things.”
She sat down beside him. “Like what? ” she said. “What do you like?” Asking it as if she were that picky teacher who always demanded what, why, which way, how does it make you feel...
“A lotta things.”
The breath hissed out of her tiny nose holes in the teacher-mama sound. “That is not very real,” she said softly while he pulled out a Grossman towel rack and dug into the hard plastic. “Yeah...” In and out his nail, bending, cracking... “I mean,” she said with a push-smile, “it is not exactly flesh and blood.”
“Yeah I know.”
“It is steel and plastic and the Philco people make a million of them. And a million dollars besides.”
“Yeah I know.”
His Kent was now down to the white micronite filter and he was dangerously close to falling off schedule; a fleck of blood stained his nail and he covered his hand. “Morty—if I may be so informal—” she said. “would you like to have lunch with me?”
“Oh I can’t, I always eat here,” he lied. “I—uh—gotta sandwich.” Her frizzy head bobbed up and down. “So this once you break a rule and come out.” She leaned close to him. “I’ll tell you a secret I wouldn’t ordinarily tell,” she said. (She sure didn’t use Arrid with Perstop, if that was her secret, forget it.) “I don’t like to eat with Mildred,” she whispered. “She’s very loud. I cannot stand loud people. I like sensitive people, Morty, you know?” That tone, a familiar ping in his belly where the feelings about mama lay, all behaved and sleepy, until a Miss Mandell came along with a nudge... ‘You can do it dolling, you talk beautiful, just stand up on the stage and talk, sweetheart...’
“Well I can’t.” A thing he had never said to mama, oh he loved his mania all right, but thank goodness she was dead.
“Not even,” she said, “if I say pretty please with sugar and cream on it? You know, Morty, I like William B. Williams. And I like the Make Believe Ballroom too.”
He looked. Who would say things he had locked up in his head? Could all that ugly?... But wait, that kind said things just to agree, to get you someplace... But she knew the Ballroom... Yeah, well it was his Ballroom... “No, I can’t.”
“Leona, aren’t you ready yet?” called a whistle-thin voice. Miss Tomack. The heavy body followed the voice and she filled the doorway, thick, tight, spiny and blonde; a cow, a soft cow. Beside her, Billy boy, red and sweating from the morning deliveries. “Come on doll, leave jocko alone,” Billy said. “You wanna give him bad dreams? Besides he gotta be free to do his union bustin.” Miss Mandell turned pink, all except her nose which stayed white as if he had pushed his thumb into the middle of her face. “Oh oh,” Miss Tomack said, “I didn’t know.”
“I’ll—ah—be right with you,” Miss Mandell said. Whispering “I’ll take a rain check,” she turned and with her stuck out hip holding up her dress, she walked to the door and the three of them dropped away from him like the cellophane off his Kent box. He stood very still and heard Miss Tomack’s tough, piercing voice say I bet he sleeps with that thing, and then quiet. He roused up and hurried to the back to wash up with Dial for people who like people who like Dial.
The morning was boxed in, so lunch was the next hurdle. He gathered himself and walked downstairs on the right, walked to Ninth Avenue and crossed at his corner and proceeding still on the right, with the image of M. Aranow flitting reassuringly beside him in the windows, walked one block south, where the shape and color of Roger’s Bar and Grille told him he had once again made a dead reckoning. He entered through the waiting side entrance and occupied his private space while his stool at the counter served another customer. When it was released, he straddled it, felt the smooth old leather under his behind and knew he was safely at lunch. Good old Roger winked, came over and gravely shook hands; the good old guy always shook hands. He always said “What’ll it be sport?” sticking his jaw out and waiting, which were important things to do. He said it. He did it and Morty wriggled on the stool. He looked down at the shiny beer taps and felt the same warmth he always did; his buddies were in charge of the golden, cold streams that were so mellow, not sweet, just the dry flavored treat, and if the beautiful glassful never tasted quite like that, it was his fault, not the golden stream’s. Another wriggle; he looked at Roger and brimming all over with excitement, circled his forefinger and thumb and propped the other three straight up like an Indian headdress. Roger nodded. “Hey Charlie,” he called, “make it a Ballantine for the sport.” The stiffly held fingers tingled. Oh that Roger... Morty drank the golden brew, savoring the extra two weeks of mellowing in the cool autumn sun. Roger was beckoning; he swallowed hard and leaned far over. “Say don’t forget to vote, sport,” Roger said confidentially. “Remember last year you picked a winner.” It was the embarrassing truth and flushing, he looked sideways at the six overpoweringly radiant Miss Rheingold candidates lined up over the taps. Their smiles were full on him and he dropped his eyes. “Who do you like, expert?” Roger said and Morty felt the bright hot look of one particular candidate, whose voice had followed him from WHN to WVNJ and whose name could be said over and over without losing its sense; he cleared his throat. “Pru Pishney,” he said firmly, glancing up. Roger looked thoughtful; he pointed to a smiling, black haired girl. Dial-clean, the whiteness behind her neat red Ups proclaiming careful brushing after every meal. “Not bad,” said Roger, “but she ain’t stuff.” He caressed a round, strapped up, spilling over blonde. A Miss Tomack. Ugh. “That I like,” Roger said. “She puts out.” Oh no! He looked straight at Pru and caught her need. Whipping out a pencil, right there in front of people, be tore off a ballot and X’d in under the two capital P’s and jammed paper into the box; Pru’s smile of gratitude burned and he bunched over, away from this public display of feeling. Roger’s hand was reaching over and patting. “That’s OK sport, you did OK,” and he swung his head back and forth, wanting desperately to say something. His hand snaked to his pocket and found the dial and brushed it. Judy’s voice poured over the counter and with a deep breath be straightened up and looked straight at Roger. Roger patted again. ‘Hey there,” he said, “how’s the baby?”
Now there was something to talk about.