By Dorothy A. Bell
Blog at https://dabellm3.wordpress.com
Word count 4,749
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Too short on one end, Penny made use of a step stool to reach the top shelf in her small bedroom closet. The box of old handbags and shoes came tumbling down, bouncing off her left brow and ending upside down on the floor. Huffing and puffing, her white hair in her eyes, she clung to the closet door to steady herself. Shaking, she stepped off the stool, grateful she hadn’t fallen.
She gathered up the contents of the box: her good, patent-leather handbag, a small, gold evening bag, two pair of two-inch pumps that made her wince at the very idea of squeezing her bunions into the pointy toes, and one big, ugly, green leather hand bag, the color reminding her of over-cooked green beans.
She hated that green bag. It was too big, but it held sentimental value. Her first husband, Jack Albright, had given it to her on their very first Christmas together. They’d been married barely three months and he was due to ship out after New Years. She was pregnant, and he was leaving; how could she tell him she hated his gift?
She started to put the handbag back in the box when she spotted the stapled together, yellowed and brittle newspaper clippings poking out of the side pocket.
WILLOWDALE GAZETTE, SATURDAY, JULY 10, 1953
MEETIN’ PLACE ROBBED
The headline stopped her heart. As a wave of guilt and shame washed over her, she gathered her lower lip between her teeth. The headline brought with it memories, some wonderful, some sad and heart-pounding. She’d forgotten she’d stashed those clippings in that old handbag. Now, she surreptitiously hid them farther down in the side pocket, afraid to look at them. Those clippings and that ugly old handbag belonged together, they told the whole story, and what a story it was.
Hands shaking, she couldn’t resist, she retrieved the newspaper clippings from the side pocket and tossed the purse into the box. Seeking her reading glasses on her nightstand by her bed, Penny sat down to read the article below the headline.
It is believed the robbery took place after Friday night Happy Hour and before the opening of the Meetin’ Place Tavern Saturday, noon. Four to five thousand dollars were stolen from owner Walt Osgood’s office. The robber, or robbers, entered and exited through a basement window. Anyone seeing or knowing of any suspicious activity on the evening of July 10th near the Meetin’ Place, or Saturday July 11 early morning, contact County Sheriff Ron Knight. All patrons of the Meetin’ Place Friday night Happy Hour will be interviewed and questioned.
At eighty-three, Penny could remember very clearly how disgusted, abandoned, she’d felt back then. If she closed her eyes, she could smell him, hear Jack, feel him tumble into bed drunker than a skunk.
Her blood started to boil.
Six years her senior, Jack was long dead, of course. He held the distinction of being husband number one—she’d outlived four husbands, each one of them devils, devils she would forever miss and hold dear to her heart.
For the past two years, Penny called Brookside Assisted Living her home. She no longer cared where she lived, or how. The food wasn’t bad here and the company, well, she thought her contemporaries a bit loony at times and irascible, but it was alright, at least they were all about the same age.
She usually took a nap right after lunch, but, around three-thirty in the afternoon, around the time the mail man arrived, she’d go down to visit with the other old tabbies while they waited for the mail to arrive. She called it her Happy Hour.
Happy Hour. Oh, my oh my.
A Marine, fighting in the Korean War, gone eighteen months, you would think that Jack Albright would want nothing more than to stay home with his pretty, petite, redheaded little wife Penny and their ten month old baby girl. But, by the second week, Jack grew restless as a caged tiger. Tuesday afternoon he wanted to look up some of his old buddies. After that, he went out every afternoon around four, staying out later and later, coming home in the wee hours of the morning smelling of cigarettes and beer.
On Friday night, Penny stayed up to watch Jack Benny on the new television set Jack had bought the very first day of his leave. Excited to have him home—really home—home for three months of leave, her disappoint hit hard when it sank in that he didn’t want to spend every minute of every day with her and their baby girl, Betty Lou.
The first couple of nights that he stepped out, she waited up for him, but angry and hurt, she soon gave that up; going without sleep wasn’t an option with a baby to take care of. Exhausted, she fell asleep on the couch, coming to when the television station signed off with the national anthem. She got up to change Betty Lou’s diaper and give her a bottle, then dragged her butt to bed.
Lyin’ there in the dark in that big bed all by herself, she cussed that man, and feared there was something wrong with her that he didn’t want to stay home and make love to her. She’d put on a pound or two, she had stretch marks now and couldn’t wear a bikini. At nineteen, she lay there wallowing in self-degradation and self-pity.
Jack Albright was one good lookin’ son-of-a-gun. He was movie star yummy. He kind of looked like Montgomery Clift, soulful brown eyes, limber lips, a lean, tight body. Gorgeous! Penny was way gone on the guy.
At the ripe old age of eighty-three, Penny still was, as a matter of fact. She dreamt of Jack Albright almost every night.
His good looks didn’t help; it made matters worse, imagining Jack out there with some bar-fly hanging on him, nibbling at his neck, enticing him to do who knows what. She finally dropped off into a fitful sleep. The next thing she knew Jack was on his knees beside the bed, shaking her, trying to get her to wake up, slobbering drunk, in tears.
“Penny! Pen, wake up, I’ve done something….terrible. It’s bad, Pen. You’ve got to help me!”
“Jack…” She called out, groggy—half awake. The man was stinko. He was gonna wake Betty Lou, then she’d be up all night trying to get her back to sleep and, no doubt, Jack would pass out.
Every woman knows, sometimes, you gotta hate men. The topic came up quite often down in the Brookside lobby among Penny’s fellow inmates. So far, she’d avoided giving away particulars, sticking to generalizations. In her day, men didn’t have to worry about walking the floor with a colicky baby at three A.M, that was women’s work. As far as she could tell, things hadn’t changed a hell of a lot.
“Will you shut up, Jack. I don’t want Betty Lou to wake up. What are you talking about anyway? Are you crying?”
Pissed, she flung back the covers, swinging her legs over the side of the bed in a snit. “You’re drunk!”
Before she could come to her feet, Jack had her by the hips, holding her down to the bed. He shoved a wrinkled, brown paper bag in front of her nose. She could smell the bag.
To this day, if Penny closed her eyes, she could smell that thing; it had smelled of grease, smoke and stale popcorn. After all these years, she couldn’t go into a McDonalds without the smell of French fries and cheeseburgers making her stomach do summersaults.
Shoving the paper bag away from her nose, she asked, “What is that?”
Head shaking, she could see the beads of sweat glistening on his forehead.
Jack whispered in the dark, his beery spit hitting her in the face, “I stole it, Pen. I stole it. I don’t know why—stupid—I guess.
“I’m in trouble, Penny, big trouble. You gotta help me. You just gotta. I’m in a lot of trouble. I’ll go to prison. I’ll be kicked out of the Marines. They’ll throw me in the brig.”
He gave her a rough shake. “Pack up! We’ll get out of town tonight. We’ll run for it. We can go to Mexico….or Canada…!”
By then he had her scared too. Her stomach cramped up into a tight fist. She was shaking—the man was serious.
Penny repeated, asking him, “What’s in the bag, Jack?”
To her utter surprise and further disgust, he giggled. She suspected a joke, and seriously considered killing him.
Blubbering incoherently, he plopped down on the floor, his long legs splayed out to the side, his big feet going under the bed, hugging the paper bag. Penny couldn’t tell if he was laughing or crying; didn’t matter, either way she would have to kill him. He sat there rocking back and forth, blubbering and begging her to help him.
Penny thought being in love a silly thing. All these years later, she thought it a crazy, sappy state of mind. Love is blind and deaf.
She slid off the side of the bed and pulled Jack into her arms.
With her eyes closed, Penny could bring back the memory of his rock hard shoulders beneath her fingers as he wept into the nape of her neck. She remembered the mixed smell of cigarettes that clung to his hair and his clothes, and the sound of his sorrow and the heat of his body through her nightie.
They rocked back and forth for a little while, Jack crying hysterically as she tried to soothe him. “I’ll help you, Jack. I’ll help you. What’s in the bag? What have you done?”
He drew in a deep shuddering breath, then became still and quiet in her arms. “I robbed the Meetin’ Place.”
It took her a few seconds to absorb that revelation; she couldn’t breathe, but she could feel her heart thudding against her ribs. Half-asleep, she hoped it some fantastic dream. If it hadn’t been for the cold floor under her bare behind, she would’ve chalked this nightmare up to her supper of chocolate pudding and salami.
The Meetin’ Place was the only tavern in Willowdale. It was within walking distance of their apartment. She didn’t know why she hadn’t guessed that was where he’d slipped off to, night after night.
With his buddies? Like Hell!
With his buddies Hamms and Budweiser, drinking away his furlough instead of staying home making love to her. It would’ve been easier to take if he’d been with his friends. Definitely, now she would kill him.
“What are we gonna’ do, Pen?”
Oh, how she wanted to smack him upside the head…order him to grow up, but she loved the pathetic twerp. She might be just nineteen, but she was learning fast, and tonight she had to be the grownup.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. We can’t do anything tonight. We’ll sleep on it. In the morning we’ll come up with something. How much money’s in the bag?”
Jack opened the sack and dumped some of the contents on the floor. The bedroom door stood open and light from the hallway cast a weak beam of yellow light across Jack’s legs. The sight of all that cash took her breath away, but even scared spitless, she picked up a wad of bills and counted them.
“I gotta take a leak,” Jack groaned before he crawled off toward the bathroom.
Using the doorway for support, his long shadow came between her and the cash on the floor as he pulled himself up. She heard him flush the toilet, then turn on the tap, and she knew he was brushing his teeth. By the time he got back to the bedroom, she’d counted out almost fifteen hundred dollars, and that was only half the contents of the bag.
She heard him behind her taking off his clothes. She stuffed the money back in the sack and put it on the nightstand on her side of the bed. Jack stumbled across the room and fell onto the mattress. As expected, he was dead to the world in seconds, but Penny lay awake, her eyes on the bag.
* * * * *
They overslept. Penny got up with the baby, like nothing unusual had happened—just another day. While changing Betty Lou, she heard Jack bumping around in their room. She gave the baby her breakfast of warm pabulum and heard Jack get in the shower. Steam filled the hallway, the fog smelled of his sandalwood soap and shaving cream. It all seemed so good—so normal and so everyday.
But there was that damn sack of stolen cash on the nightstand, and her stomach bubbled like an acid-filled pool of green sludge. She closed her eyes and tried to wish that ill-gotten sack of booty away.
Reality came with the morning paper.
It was front page news—The Meetin’ Place had been robbed.
The county sheriff and a team of detectives had started an investigation. They suspected the robber, or robbers, had entered through a basement window and gotten away with over four thousand dollars.
Penny and Jack went through the day like a pair of wanted felons—jumping at every little sound. They both expected the cops to show up at any minute. The paper said the police were going to talk to everyone who was at the Meetin’ Place last night.
On automatic pilot, Penny went through the motions of being regular. She and Jack played with the baby. Jack took care of the kitchen cupboard door with the loose hinge, and she did a couple loads of wash.
Penny tried to eat, but everything tasted like cardboard. As the sun started to go down, they didn’t have any more notion of what to do than they’d had the night before.
Just like it was yesterday, Penny could see herself, on the floor with Betty Lou, blowin’ on her little toes, getting her to giggle. And Jack, pacing before the fireplace.
She asked him, “Why’d you do it, Jack? What the hell got into you?”
The look in his eyes said it all; he didn’t know. He was sick with guilt and filled with fear. She thought him handsome in his khaki slacks and olive green sweater; he didn’t look like a thief at all, he looked like a poster boy for the Marines.
Muttering to himself, he finally said, “I don’t know.” He paced back and forth a few more times, then flopped down on their saggy sofa, the one they’d found in the alley by the dumpster. Leaning back, his hands going behind his head, he turned his eyes to the ceiling and admitted, “It was just so damn easy. I’d been sittin’ there at the bar, like all the other nights, drinkin’ and shootin’ the bull, you know, bored out of my skull. When it came closin’ time, I was gonna walk home…sober up. I had to take a leak. The toilet’s in the basement. Of course you know that, you’ve been down there in that old basement. You said it stinks like rats down there.”
Even now, a chill ran down her spine thinking of that basement. Definitely, there were rats down there, big rats.
On the floor, in their tiny apartment, patting Betty Lou’s little tummy, she didn’t say a word. She intended to make him sweat, he had some explaining to do—she wanted to hear the whole story.
He must’ve realized she wasn’t going to give him a break. She heard him heave a weighty sigh. He closed his eyes and tossed his head back. Then confessed. “I was in the john.” Coming forward, resting his elbows on his knees, fixing his gaze on her, he explained, “I’d just turned out the light when I heard Walt comin’ down the basement steps, so I didn’t open the john door all the way.
“‘You go on, Doris,’” I heard Walt holler. “‘I’ll count this out in the mornin’. We can’t make a deposit until Monday anyway.’”
“‘Right. Goodnight then,’” Doris hollered back down to him.
“Well, I kept my mouth shut. I was standin’ behind the door, lookin’ through the crack between the casing and the door, and I watched Walt stuff this brown paper bag in the bottom drawer of his old desk.
“I know I should’a popped out right then and there, but I didn’t. I stood there in the dark while he locked up. I saw him put the key to his office under the coffee can full of sand in the hall where he snuffed out his cigarettes.
“The old fool,” Jack grumbled to himself. “Anybody could’ve come down into that old basement and swiped that cash, any time, no problem, Penny.”
Penny remembered being appalled that Jack could blame Walt Osgood for tempting him. She’d also thought her spouse a big horse’s-ass, but like a good little wife, she’d kept listening, trying to be supportive.
“I stayed in the basement as the lights went off, and I heard Walt lock the upstairs doors. I should take that cash, I told myself. Teach the old fart a lesson. That’s what I thought. I even thought it kind of funny. I was laughin’.”
Leaning back, Jack closed his eyes and then told her the God’s honest truth, “I was drunk, is what I was…and stupid.”
Opening his eyes, he stared up at the water-stained acoustical tiles on the ceiling.
“Crawling out that basement window, laughing my ass off, I had big ideas of what I was gonna do with the cash. I was gonna buy you some pretty dresses and get the baby a real crib and buy your mom a nice new bed. Last night, there for a while, what I‘d done didn’t seem so bad. No one would know it was me that’d done it. How could they know? Then, on the way home, I started to sober up and it hit me what would happen to you…to the baby, if they caught me…then not if they caught me, but when they caught me, and I knew I was in over my head.
“I’ve ruined us, Pen, I’ve ruined everything.”
Jack broke down, closed his eyes, put his head in his hands and started sobbing.
An embryo of a plan started to find purchase in Penny’s brain. “Watch the baby,” she told him as she hauled herself up off the floor.
“Where are you goin’?” Jack hollered after her.
She left the apartment for Mrs. Trask’s apartment across the hall. Mrs. Trask was an elderly old soul…lonely, and she loved Betty Lou. Penny would tell her Jack wanted to take her out to dinner. They wouldn’t be gone more than a couple of hours.
When she got back to their apartment, there was Jack on his back on the floor, his eyes closed, Betty Lou stretched out on his chest, one of his hands resting on her little back, both of them asleep. The sight brought a lump to her throat.
And with the sweet memory, a tear trickled down Penny’s old and withered cheek. Back then, she’d had no time for tears.
She rushed to their bedroom, changed her jeans and T shirt for a nice dress, stockings and high heels. On the top shelf of the closet, she found the big handbag she’d gotten from Jack for the one and only Christmas they’d had together
She hated that handbag, but it served the purpose that night.
She stuffed that stinky paper bag of ill-gotten gains into that ugly purse and marched out to the living room.
“Mrs. Trask is coming over to watch Betty Lou,” she said. “Come on, we’re going to Saturday Night Happy Hour at the Meetin’ Place.”
Jack opened his eyes, staring at her, stupefied. He laid there, his mouth open, looking up at her as if she’d gone crazy.
About that time, Mrs. Trask came in the door. Jack laid the baby gently back on her blanket on the floor while Penny showed Mrs. Trask what to give Betty Lou for her supper.
* * * * *
All the way down the block, Jack kept at her. He wanted to know what she was gonna do. Penny didn’t know exactly, but it was Saturday night and The Meetin’ Place was busy during Saturday Night Happy Hour. Walt laid out a taco bar. Lots of folks took advantage of the cheap eats and booze. She was only nineteen, but Penny knew…she knew.
She pulled up short a couple of steps from the front doors of the old tavern. The old building was made of red brick, built as a hotel and restaurant back in the early nineteen-hundreds. The multi-paned windows, painted over with flaking, peeling, green paint, allowed little needles of light to shine through like slivers of gold. Out on the sidewalk, they could hear the sounds of the juke-box playing a Hank Williams tune, and there was laughter and the smells of smoke, spicy hamburger taco filling, and salsa, escaping from around the door.
By this time, Penny had started to have second thoughts. Hell, she was having second, third and fourth thoughts. She wasn’t sure she could do it. She’d thought it a simple enough plan when she’d left the house.
“Penny,” Jack insisted, taking her by the shoulders and giving her a little shake, “what are you gonna do? You have that money, don’t you? You’ve got it in your purse. Are you gonna turn me in? Penny! You can’t turn me in!”
That surprised her, how could he think she’d turn him in? What an idea. It’d never occurred to her to turn him in. She would never.
She still wondered how he could’ve thought such a thing…how could he?
Indignant, she shook herself loose from his grasp. “Jack Albright, you idiot, I’m not going to turn you in. We’re going in there to enjoy Happy Hour and to find out how the investigation is going. It’s the neighborly thing to do. It would look funny if we weren’t interested. Curious, you know what I mean?”
He nodded, but she could see by the scowl on his face that he wasn’t too keen on the idea, so she gave him a sketchy outline of what she had in mind, “You’ll have a couple of drinks, brag to everyone about your Marine experiences, and I’ll sit there looking sweet and innocent and have a couple of cokes. We’ll visit with folks, eat some tacos. I’ll have to go to the bathroom, of course, and while I’m down in that dungeon, I’ll slip the loot back into the office…at least that’s what I hope to do.”
Over sixty years later and Penny could see him, see the look on his face, it had been priceless. She chortled to herself, then sighed, lost in the past.
Jack stood there, dazzling her with that big grin of his. She couldn’t help herself; she melted into his arms and he picked her up, swung her around and around, making her dizzy.
Before they went inside, he reminded her about the key to the office under the coffee can.
Penny splurged and had a couple of Shirley Temples to settle her nerves. Although she was starving, she didn’t think she could manage one of Walt’s spicy tacos.
A steady stream of ladies paraded up and down those basement stairs, passing in and out of the ladies’ loo like leaves in a swirling eddy. After an hour-and-a-half, she swam her way down there to use the facilities. She had to dawdle, washing her hands and primping, before she finally found herself alone.
The hall, lit by one piss-poor yellow light that cast shadows on the stairs and walls, closed in on her. With the all clear, and the sounds of the party going on upstairs, she slipped across the hall only to discover there was no key under the coffee can.
She began to sweat. She tried the office door, jiggled the doorknob and found it opened easily, and snuck into the room as two more women started down the steps. She couldn’t shut the door, or they would know someone was in the office, so she stood real still and tried not to breathe.
Those women fooled around down there, messing around in the hall and in that washroom for what seemed like hours. Then a couple of men came down as the women came out of the john and they started to have a little party down there.
She thought she would mess her pants, her stomach clenching up, squeezing and cramping. Finally, the party trooped back up the steps. By now, her eyes had adjusted to the dark and she made her way over to the desk in the room.
That’s when she nearly lost it; only by biting her tongue did she keep from screaming.
The office door opened wider and a beam of light spread across the room, exposing her. She ducked down real fast and bumped into the office chair. The person in the doorway stepped into the room. She figured she was a dead woman.
In a flash, Penny foresaw her future behind bars, her mother holding Betty Lou in her arms, the baby wailing, and her mother shaking her head.
“Pen…Pen, is that you, Pen?”
It was Jack. If she could’ve talked, she would’ve called him all kinds of dirty names, but she’d lost control of her voice, she couldn’t speak—hell, she was having trouble breathing.
Before she could think, she yanked that paper bag out of her purse and stuffed it under the office chair. She didn’t care anymore, she just wanted it out of her reach.
She remembered popping up off that floor like she’d springs in her butt, grabbing Jack by the arm and dragging him out into the hall.
Right about then, Walt came down the basement stairs. Jack twirled her around, put her back up against the wall and started to kiss her like she’d never been kissed before, with Penny, short of breath, on the brink of passing out.
They were leaning to the side of the office door, and Jack faked falling into the doorway before allowing her to come up for air.
“Hey, Walt, can’t a man have a little smooch with his wife? A little privacy, man.”
“I gotta get a new door for that office of mine,” Walt grumbled, head down, blushing, reaching around them to close his office door before he stumbled into the men’s john.
They went back upstairs. Walt returned, all bluster and bluff, and he took his place behind the bar, vowing to put in some better security. Penny thought he sure as hell needed to do something.
Pretending to be in no hurry to leave, Penny and Jack hung around awhile, managing to knock back a few more drinks and down a couple of tacos before leaving for home around nine-thirty.
Back in their apartment, they sat before the fireplace in their living room and counted their blessings.
The next day, Sunday morning, the headlines in the paper read:
Meetin’ Place mystery cash reappears, owner Walt Osgood calls investigation off.
Wisely, Jack suggested they head for the beach for a few days. Penny was more than willing to comply.
Sixty-one years ago, she’d clipped Saturday’s and Sunday’s headlines out of the Willowdale Gazette. But she’d forgotten about stuffing the clippings in the side pocket of her ugly green handbag.
Sitting in the Brookside lobby with the other tabbies, Penny considered sharing her discovery, reciting her adventurous tale. But, it was almost four o’clock, the mailman had come and gone, and here she sat silent as a tomb, lost in the past. Fumbling in her pocket for the key to her mailbox, her fingers encountered the clippings. She patted them, assuring herself that they were safe. She would keep her past to herself, hug her memories close to her heart.
With Happy Hour drawing to a close, it was Saturday night—Penny thought she would make herself some tacos for supper, maybe have a beer—a Budweiser for old time’s sake, and raise a toast to husband number one.