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LADY, DON'T DIE ON MY DOORSTEP
by Joseph Shallit
WHAT GOT ME was Brownie making such a fuss. Brownie was one of those mild, milky old men who look as if they never learned the mechanics of getting sore. If you ever accidentally stepped on Brownie’s toes, he’d likely say, “Pardon me—did I hurt your arches?” He was as tame and friendly as an old St. Bernard. He could smile nicer with his four teeth than most people can with a full set.
And here he was, sizzling and fuming like a bromo-seltzer.
He stopped in the middle of the gym office, dropped his dustpan on my desk, let the handle of his broom bump against the desk-edge, and opened up: “Bawling me out for something I never did! Damn, that’s one thing I never liked—getting bawled out for something I never did!”
I was busy adding up the gym receipts. It was the time of day when I least liked being interrupted. But Brownie in a huff couldn’t be passed over.
“Why does she pick on me?” he demanded, his fuzzy gray eyebrows fluttering. “I don’t do things like that. In the first place, I’m too old—”
“Simmer down, Brownie,” I said. I put my pen on the blotter and eased back in my swivel chair. “Who’s bawling you out for what?”
“That Mrs. Clark. That woman.” He made the word sound obscene. “Listen to this,” he rushed on. “You remember you told me—she’s supposed to have the pool to herself after ten P.M. Well, ever since then I don’t even go near the place till she’s out of it. Not even look in the door. Just like you told me.”
He paused, and his lips moved reflectively in over his gums, commemorating the departed teeth. I waited. Brownie always finished what he set out to say, if you gave him time.
“So just now,” he said, “I’m sweeping the hall between the men’s and ladies’ lockers, and she comes hopping out the door from the swimming pool in her bathrobe and hollers I’m peeping at her.”
Brownie didn’t seem to think that was funny. “You oughtn’t to talk like that, Mr. Morrison,” he muttered. Brownie called me Mr. Morrison only when he was irritated.
“Just a joke, Brownie. Look—don’t let the lady worry you. She just got excited.”
Brownie took hold of his dustpan and broom, and turned away, shaking his head. “It ain’t as if she’s naked or something. She’s wearing a suit. Why’s she so excited if somebody sees her?”
“I don’t know, Brownie. That’s what she wants—that’s what we give her. We shoo everybody out of the pool at ten anyway, so it doesn’t matter to us. Anyway, she’s paying extra for the privilege.”
“Oh.” Brownie’s lips ovaled respectfully.
“Seventy-five bucks a year,” I said. “You wouldn’t want me to kick that away, would you, Brownie?”
“No—course not,” he said hurriedly.
I stood up and patted his shoulder, feeling every ridge of his shoulderblade through the gray sweater. “I’ll talk to her—I’ll straighten it out,” I told him, and eased him out into the corridor.
I sat down, took up my pen and started traipsing down the rows of numbers again. This was very important arithmetic. Once every two weeks I figured up the Apollo Health Club’s net profits, divided the total by two, pushed half over to my boss, Stan Harvester, and herded the other half into my pocket. From where I stood now, it looked as if the figure this time would come to $178 apiece. Which was the largest single bundle of money I had been able to get attached to in years—in fact, since I got my Army discharge pay.
If that makes me sound like a small-timer, a financial schmo, you’ll have to make allowances. The point was, I was a retarded veteran. You’ve heard of us—the boys who got sent overseas late—who didn’t have any offspring to help out with discharge points—who got out of the Army long after everybody else had snapped up the good jobs. By the time I got into civilian clothes, discharge buttons made as much impression on the public as old soda-bottle tops. I batted around from one dead end job to another—clean-up man in a restaurant, truck loader, elevator operator, life guard. Meanwhile, I was getting on to twenty-nine years old, which isn’t far away from forty, which is getting close to middle age. So I was very happy, not snooty at all, to take a job managing the Apollo Health Club, a job where every two weeks I could milk $125 and upward out of the economic system.
I felt as gay as a bedbug in a flop house as I meandered down the rows of figures and marked the plump, pettable totals at the bottom. I was enjoying arithmetic for the first time since the fourth grade. I was becoming a moneyed interest—
There was a quick jumble of steps in the corridor, and Brownie ducked back into the office. “Look, Dan, here she comes now,” he whispered, and breezed past my desk toward the washroom behind me.
I heard high heels clicking up the corridor. They sounded like telegraph keys knocking out a rush message. It struck me suddenly that you could probably discover a kind of language in footsteps if you made sound recordings and analyzed them—
The lady was standing in the doorway. Big, deep-tone eyes glared at me out of a fair-skinned, almost pale face. Her hair wasn’t fixed up yet—it swirled down at her neck, a rich black mane—glossy black, like caracul in the rain. She stood tense and erect, a tall, well-filled arch of flesh, rampageous-bosomed, in a forest-green crepe dress that somehow seemed a little skimpy on her frame. Her protruding, unsubtle lips were slightly parted—taut— quivering.
“Do you know what’s going on?” she said, with a trace of shrillness in her contralto. “You’re the manager. Do you know what’s going on around here?”
“Just what’s the trouble, Mrs. Clark?” I said, standing up, the politest kid on the block.
“Am I a peep show?” she said, and her voice broke. “Didn’t you tell me I’d have privacy? Didn’t you?” Her arms jerked with every word. It was a startling exhibition. This was Peggy Clark, the free-wheeling, high-riding lady with so much iron in her blood, it clanked. She wasn’t supposed to be acting like a hysterical Hannah.
“There’s some sort of mistake,” I said.
“Don’t tell me that,” she said, biting off each word. “Don’t tell me I imagined it, or I’ll—” her lips closed over what she would do, but whatever it was, I didn’t doubt she could do it.
“All I mean,” I said, “is I’m sure the janitor didn’t invade your privacy. He’s been with the gym a long—”
“If it wasn’t the janitor, who was it?”
“I don’t know. I’d like to look into this.”
“You just damn well better look into this.”
“Where did this atrocity take place?” I said.
“You come with me—I’ll show you,” she said, turning. She stopped abruptly. “You think it’s funny?” she said with her back to me.
“Not at all,” I said quickly. I didn’t want to tangle with Peggy Clark. She was one customer who was always right.
“Come on,” she said irritably.
I followed her green-sheathed hips out of the office. We went down the corridor between the men’s and women’s locker rooms. The corridor ended at a wall faced with a full-length mirror. There a right-hand turn led to the basketball court, and a left to the swimming pool. Peggy turned left, passing the mirror without glancing at it—that’s how sore she was. She pushed through the swinging door into the empty pool. She clicked across the white tiles, and pointed at the open window.
“Right here,” she said. “Somebody with a neck like a giraffe.”
The bottom of the window was at chest level. I boosted myself up and looked out the window into the dark areaway. Close at my left, intersecting the wall of the swimming pool, was the wing housing the men’s locker room. There was an open window there—so close, I could almost reach it. It would be easy, I saw, for somebody in the men’s locker room to lean out and look into the pool.
I let myself down from the window.
“Well?” said Peggy dark.
“Possible? I tell you it happened.”
“It won’t happen again,” I said quietly, choking off the lava spouting in my throat. What was all the fuss about? If some moron got a thrill out of seeing her in her bathing suit, what of it? But this wasn’t my night for arguing. “I’ll see it doesn’t happen again,” I said.
“I don’t think it’s asking too much. Somehow I don’t.”
Then she stamped away across the tiles and whipped through the doorway, and the door flapped weakly shut behind her, like a broken arm.
It was the first time I had had any sizable amount of talk with Peggy Clark. It left me confused. This wasn’t the Peggy Clark I’d heard about. The one I’d heard about was a lady who could take on anything. She owned a big taproom and managed it personally. She owned a race horse. She was co-owner of a prize fighter. She was something of an athlete herself—a horsewoman and swimmer. Furthermore, according to rumor, she had an easy way with men—she could toss her garter and make a ringer every time. All of which made it hard to understand her panic at being ogled in her bathing suit. The door swung open, and Brownie herded in his mop and bucket.
“Give you a rough time?” he said, enjoying himself.
“Nope, she treated me like a brother. Come on with me—I want you to look at something.”
I led him out into the corridor and down to the men’s locker room. I stepped into a dense, sour sea of smells, mixed mementoes of a couple of hundred men who had been here during the day. I went to the window nearest the swimming pool. “Ever see anybody leaning out of here at night—after ten o’clock?”
Brownie wound up his face and thought a while. “Come to think of it, I did,” he said wonderingly. “Twice, I think. But I didn’t rightly pay attention—I thought the fellow was spitting or something.”
“Who was it?”
“Long, skinny fellow—hairy—black hair all over his legs like a caterpillar.”
“What’s his name?”
“I don’t know. He’s a new one—joined up about three-four months ago. Sort of a long jaw.”
I thought a moment. “Say—what does this guy talk like?”
“Very nice. He talks very polite.”
“Pierce,” I said, a little dazedly. It was silly. But the description didn’t fit anybody else around the gym. George Pierce, the man from Penn. “About as tall as I am, with kind of narrow shoulders?” I said, “Thick black eyebrows?”
“That’s him,” Brownie said enthusiastically. “Is that the guy’s been peeking?”
“I don’t know—you’re telling me,” I said, suddenly noticing I was getting tired. “Look—we’ll do something about this tomorrow. Meanwhile, put a nail through the window frame. Just open the window a little and put a nail in so it can’t be opened any further. For the time being.”
“Yes, sir—yes, sir,” said Brownie. “We can’t have no peeking going on around here, without we get paid for it.”
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