On Friday night after the fights and the kids were down, Nora and Harry went to bed, too. Harry was exhausted, but Nora had to talk.
“If you’re going to work in Brooklyn, we should move there,” she said.
“I don’t want us living in Brooklyn.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Is it the people you work for? What are they like?”
“They move cars from auctions to used car lots. You know the kind.”
After World War II, he had left the Army and started selling cars for McGinty’s Chevrolet in Trenton. That brought in twice what he had made before the war. They moved out of his mother’s row house into a fieldstone in Pennington with a shaggy oak in the front and a backyard that overlooked a horse pasture. Nora loved that house—the high ceilings, the tall windows, the honeyed charm of its oak woodwork and staircases. Never had dreamed of such a place. On weekends, Harry’s mother, Ruth, supplied food and whiskey and most of the crowd, lifelong Trenton friends for whom Pennington might have been the moon. People sat on the front and back porches when the weather was good. In cold weather they danced in the dining room. Ruth was the ringmaster, filling drinks, telling stories, pulling people out of their chairs. “The war’s over, the war’s over,” she was still saying in 1948. Then came her infectious laugh. She ran a laundry and had money, more now that she’d gotten rid of her sad sack husband and didn’t have to waste it in clubs because she could take over her favorite son’s house, despite the fact that there were kids supposedly sleeping upstairs. In folks flowed. Some would realize Nora was the mistress of the manse and introduce themselves. Others paid her no attention. She didn’t care. People from downtown needed a break, and she was generous by nature. Share and share alike, a lesson from the Depression. By contrast, the late 40s were like a huge glass of champagne, a lake of champagne, bubbly everywhere. The men were home, their features worn hard and handsome, their manners more passionate. She loved the music, Nat King Cole, Keeley Smith and Louis Prima, Benny Goodman, and Harry was the best dressed man in New Jersey, his suits perfect, his shoes “Army bright” because he spit polished them as he’d done in barracks across the US, England, Italy, France, and finally Germany.
When he left McGinty’s and set up his own used car lot, Harry was more successful than ever. For a while you could call them rich. But his salesmen, Phil Monahan with his seductive baritone voice and Joe Richie with his impatient, ratty wince, were selling cars to people who could never keep up with payments. All Phil and Joe wanted was their commissions. They didn’t care that the cars would have to be repossessed, inflating Harry’s inventory to the point that he couldn’t finance it. He borrowed against their house without telling Nora. When the lot went bankrupt, they lost the house and Cadillac, too. Everything was gone but the furniture and all those clothes. Harry had to drive around in a bilious green 1942 Mercury that smelled like an old movie theater he borrowed from McGinty. McGinty said it was a personal favor, not professional. He wasn’t taking Harry back. He never took anyone back because “it causes trouble with the guys who stayed.”
“What about loyalty to someone who did well for you?” Harry asked. McGinty said, “Loyalty is that Mercury, take it or leave it.”
Nora said to Harry, “And you said you’d never sell used cars again.”
Harry cupped the back of her head to draw her to him, but she pulled away. Three boys were enough. She infuriated him by saying that once, but it was how she forced him to get a downpayment from his mother for the tract house in which they now lived, just across the highway from Trenton.
“I don’t sell used cars, I buy them for Eddie and Dave, and they sell them on their lots.”
“Do you drive them there yourself after you buy them?”
“Hell no, there are people for that.”
“Whose people—Eddie and Dave’s?”
“What difference does it make who drives clunkers to shanty used car lots?”
“Harry, this has been months. I don’t know anything about your life up there.”
“All right, no, other people deliver the cars. Drivers are cheaper when they’re not on the payroll. One gets sick, you hire the next guy. There are dozens of them hanging around.”
“Where are the auctions?”
“Long Island. The Bronx. Everywhere.”
“You go from place to place all day?”
“There’s a weekly schedule so the auctions don’t overlap and guys like me can make them all.”
“Do Eddie and Dave have special arrangements with these auctions?”
“Everything depends on showing up early with enough cash to keep a car off the block.”
First he lived in a hotel during the week, then a rooming house, then a tiny apartment on what he called the Slope. After the first week, he came back wearing a black suit and new glasses with heavy black frames. He looked like an undertaker. He said that was how they dressed in Brooklyn. He had a pocketful of bills and insisted she put half in a hatbox in the closet and not touch it. She didn’t know if this was fear of losing work again or something deeper, but it made her household budget tight—powdered milk instead of real milk, oatmeal instead of boxed cereal. The fear might go back to the war, or further, to feeling ashamed of his hapless father while siding with and yet being angry at his mother. He told no one that except Nora, who still guessed more than she knew.
“My mother’s coming tomorrow night. She’s bringing people.”
“The usual, Edna and Lou, Flossie. . . . Let’s put out a big spread so it won’t look like we’re paupers.”
“We were never paupers.”
“We were bankrupt, same thing.”
“I thought your father was coming.”
“I told him not to.”
“What was your excuse?”
“I told him I’d be in Brooklyn.”
“How’s it different from Manhattan?”
Brooklyn in 1953 was as blighted as Trenton. Two partially flushed toilets. But when McGinty wouldn’t take him back, a guy in the auction business said he knew a possibility in Brooklyn. Harry took the job but couldn’t commute five hours every day. As soon as Nora saw him come home in the black suit, she said, “You’re involved with mobsters.” “That’s nonsense.” “Why do they pay you so much then?” He said he earned it, it wasn’t charity. “Just always keep half in the hatbox.”
“Brooklyn’s not all skyscrapers like Manhattan, but there’s action everywhere,” he said. “I just wish they didn’t eat things you wouldn’t feed a dog.”
“At that boarding house, all I got was fatty bacon, burnt toast, watery soup, and one time a baked sheep’s head. You were supposed to carve off what you wanted like it was a pot roast but with an eye.”
They laughed, yet Nora still had to say what she had to say.
“Here we are, though. It’s like the war again except I have three kids to look after by myself.”
“They’re happy. Lots of grass, neighborhood kids, schools.”
“I don’t know if they are. This isn’t Pennington. No horses, just house after house.”
“If you’re not dead, you’re alive. The war taught me that.”
During the week she would sit in the kitchen sometimes and look up words in the dictionary: anger, frustration, misery, loneliness, money, bankruptcy, marriage, husband. Then she’d compare the definitions to what she was feeling. Their house was tiny. She said she’d never live in Trenton again but she could see it out the kitchen window.
“They don’t like having you here only on weekends.”
“With Friday that’s three nights out of seven.”
“Friday nights you go right into the fights.”
“They love the fights.”
“You’re terrible when you watch them.”
“When am I going to blow off steam? All week these auctioneers will sell you anything. How can you see sawdust in a transmission? How can you tell if they spun back the odometer? If I don’t get a car right, I have to get rid of it myself, Eddie and Dave won’t do it for me. Otherwise I’d end up owning a bunch of lemons with no place to put them.”
“You never told me that.”
“It’s the cheesy way they do business. I buy with my own money and resell the auction cars to them before the title’s recorded. Takes a lot of running around.”
“Harry, what have you gotten yourself into? We should be there with you, or you should be here with us.”
“I don’t want to come back here.”
“You’ll get over what happened.”
“I’ll never work in Trenton again. We’ll save and move further north in Jersey.”
“Where we don’t know anyone.”
“My mother will find us.”
During the war Nora didn’t know what was happening to Harry. Then she got him back, but now she didn’t know again. He got home on Friday nights in time for the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, the boxing show on TV, and ate his dinner on a folding table with the boys on the sofa beside him. He had been a tall welterweight amateur when he was young, and the announcer would say things and Harry would say he was wrong, he was blind, he’d missed half the shots, or one of the little figures on the screen was dogging it. Once he had a second beer he got louder. “Plaster him! Jab . . . right cross . . . uppercut . . . beat his brains out!” Between rounds the boys were so worked up they played at shadow boxing, sometimes hitting each other by accident. Or Harry would dare all three to come at him and he’d tap their cheeks with his fingertips, his hands as fast as scissor blades. The boys’ reactions were three taps behind. They didn’t know they had lost on points until he told them. She tried to read a magazine to be in the living room with everyone, but didn’t know which was worse, between rounds with Harry laughing and the boys squealing or during the rounds, fighters’ eyes swollen shut, their cheekbones split open, blood from one spattering the face of the other, Harry crying, “That’s it, that’s it, finish him!” and a deathly fascination freezing all four male faces as a battered man crashed to the canvas.
He cheered for underdogs, two exceptions being the supreme Sugar Ray Robinson and rugged Archie Moore. They didn’t quit, he’d say. They whittled their opponents from trees into twigs.
“The idiots in Brooklyn bet against Sugar Ray and Archie,” he said once.
She asked, “Do you mean everyone in Brooklyn or just the men you’re working with?”
“All the whites except me. They can’t stand black champs.”
“You’re not betting, are you?”
He gave her an answer she didn’t like. “I know the ring. These guys don’t.”
Thereafter she worried the money she had in the closet came from betting because she feared he was holding onto it for two reasons, not one: either to get them a house closer to Brooklyn or be able to pay off an inevitable loss, a big one. That would be exactly like him coming home and telling her the car lot was done, the office padlocked and all the cars towed away. She had had no warning. “Finis,” he said, using a French word he’d learned when he was based in France. “Phil and Joe did me in and I hocked the house and the Cadillac and it’s all gone. The bastards at the bank took it all.”
She lay there beside him in the darkness asking herself if she could take another revelation like that, the hatbox full of money gone, perhaps Harry gone, too, overwhelmed by shame that he was just like his father.
“Why did you say your mother would find us in that tone of voice? Are you placing bets for her, too?”
“What’s she know about boxing?”
“That’s why I’m asking if you’re doing it for her.”
“I’m paying her back for the downpayment on this house and the start-up money I needed to get going in Brooklyn.”
“I thought the downpayment was a gift.”
“She said it was. Then she said it wasn’t when I had to go to her again for the start-up dough.”
“Is half your day up there cars and the other half bets?”
“It goes on all day long. Place to place, every stop.”
“So when you’re carrying on in the living room, you’ve got money on the fights, and you’ve got to win?”
“You wouldn’t have all that money in the closet if I didn’t.”
“I don’t want to have all that money in the closet. I want you here. No more betting. That’s got to stop.”
“It can’t. Not in Brooklyn.”
“Yes, it can. You just don’t do it.”
“I win, and I’m going to keep winning.”
“No, you’re not winning. You’re losing this family.”
“I say. Stay in Brooklyn Friday night and watch the fights. I don’t want them in my house anymore. Move your mother to Brooklyn, too. Run around with her. At least that way I’ll know it’s not someone else.”
“It’s never been someone else.”
“Harry, I’m serious. No betting and live with us all the time or this is the end.”
He flung his body sideways, turning his back on her. She was furious with him. But then she realized he was crying, a grown man, forty-three years old, his shoulders rising and falling as he muffled his sobs with his pillow. She wasn’t fighting him, she was trying to love him, but he had to love her, too. So she stayed on her side of the bed and did not reach out to draw him near.