Howell was still on the lam. He’d been a grifter most of his life, a guy without a permanent address. He had six Social Security cards, seven driver’s licenses, a potpourri of voter-registration cards, bankbooks under a dozen names. He was Mark Crawford in Florida, Mel Eisenstein in Tennessee. He’d never declared any income, never paid any taxes, never been caught. His grift was quite simple. He’d settle into a small town, deposit $10,000 into the local bank, walk around in a very conservative suit, register at the best hotel, and wait: the women would always come to him. He never poked around, never asked questions, never made a list of wealthy widows.
Howell had beautiful hands; that’s what the widows noticed first when they stepped onto the porch of the hotel and discovered Howell reading The Wall Street Journal. Sometimes they hinted at marriage after a 10-minute talk. Howell avoided spinsters and old maids, who were nervous about money no matter how much they had in the bank. He would have had to be a bird of prey, a handsome hawk, to pry a bankbook from their fingers. But the widows fell right into his grift. The secret was very simple: they didn’t like to live alone. The widows were the real birds of prey. They grasped at Howell with their forceful talons.
He could have wreaked havoc on the town had he been some kind of Don Juan. But he always settled on a single widow and shut his eyes to the rest of the field. And it usually wasn’t the richest one. The grift depended on how authentic he was. He would only chisel from a widow he might have married. He had to be attracted to the woman, imagine spending his life with her. He couldn’t have lasted five minutes with a chatterbox. And when he took her to bed, he wasn’t dreaming of his score. The chiseler fell in love, even if only for five minutes. And the widow could feel the tug of his passion.
He didn’t discuss money. The widow would bring it up, talk about her holdings, as if to lasso him to her heart. She didn’t want him to stray, to find his adventure elsewhere. And then she be would be curious about what her new intended did. Howell would smile and make love to her again. She’d have to use very tender talons. Couldn’t she invest in one of his enterprises? It would tie him to her. And he’d offer her a share of some phantom enterprise at a stingy rate of return, less than she could make on a jumbo certificate at the bank. It was the unattractiveness of what he offered that always drew the widows in. He’d suggest a cautious investment of a few thousand dollars, and she’d write him a check for 50 grand.
Howell didn’t disappear with the check. He’d let it sit for a while, have lunch with the widow’s daughters and sons, and begin returning bits and pieces of her investment, until she had half of it back, and then he’d close his account and move on. It was Howell’s own sense of limits that saved him. Sometimes a widow didn’t wake to the chisel for months, and sometimes she never woke to it, having convinced herself that her sweetheart with the beautiful hands would return with the remainder of her capital.
That’s why Howell was never caught. He lent a certain grace to his grift, even value to whatever he grabbed. The widows never felt cheated. They remembered the dark-haired stranger who drifted into their lives and made love to them like some Manhattan sheik. But Howell had little to do with Manhattan. He was from the Bronx. And because of his own odd chivalry, that ceiling he put on whatever he stole, Howell never grew rich.
He was middle-aged, well past 50, and couldn’t bear to romance another widow. A swindler might fall prey to someone else’s grift and end up panhandling on South Beach, among all the models and the movie stars. And he couldn’t even say what kind of curious radar or homing device had brought him back to the Grand Concourse in his Lincoln Town Car. Howell had little nostalgia in his blood. He was the son of a Bronx superintendent and happened to grow up among all the rich Concourse brats. He inhabited a cellar apartment, with barred windows that gave out onto a backyard and a storage bin for the building’s junk. But he’d had a Concourse address, like all the brats. He lived at the Lorelei, an Art Deco apartment palace near Joyce Kilmer Park, on a hill above what was then Yankee Stadium. He could peer right into that enormous horseshoe from the Lorelei’s roof, and that’s how he watched Yankee games; even with binoculars he couldn’t see very much, but he could tell when the Yankees were at bat from the tumult of the crowd. And as a boy up on the roof, Howell realized he would never be near enough to what he wanted; he would always be “binoculars away.”
And here he was, driving past the Lorelei, when he saw a huge signboard on the front wall:
Superintendent on the premises
Finding an apartment at the Lorelei had once been impossible; except for the Lewis Morris Apartments, near Mount Eden Avenue, it was the most distinguished address on the Concourse. But the Lewis Morris didn’t have Yankee Stadium at its door; the Lorelei did. And what kind of crazy impulse sent Howell looking for the superintendent, who no longer lived in the cellar, but had a sterling apartment on the ground floor?
Howell didn’t care how many apartments were available, or if the first month was free. The super seemed desperate to have him. His name was Nando, and he was from Venezuela.
“I want Apartment 6A,” Howell said.
Nando peered at him like an artful poker player. “That’s impossible. It’s our flagship apartment, the top of the line—with a triple exposure. It’s like being on your own planet.”
But Howell saw right behind the super’s ploy. “You don’t have to tell me about 6A. I’ve played hopscotch on its parquet floors.”
Now Nando was alarmed. “Are you some kind of burglar?”
Howell laughed and told him that he’d lived in the Lorelei as a child, that his own father had once had Nando’s job.
“Then you know about Miss Naomi?”
Howell froze; he’d tumbled into a secret little game. Miss Naomi. She was the reason he’d drifted back to this land of desolation. Naomi Waldman, the little Bronx debutante who’d driven Howell wild when he lived under the ground with his Pa.
The Waldmans owned the building and two or three other Art Deco palaces along the Grand Concourse. Apartment 6A was their castle keep, the official residence of the Waldmans, where they gave their parties and concert recitals, and where Naomi Waldman, their only child, studied and took private dancing lessons in one of the Lorelei’s sultanic rooms. Hugo Waldman was the paterfamilias of the whole tribe—nephews, cousins, and uncles-in-law who lived along the Concourse in lesser palaces. He’d come from Hungary at the age of 5, was orphaned at 9, but was still able to attend Harvard and Columbia Law. He’d been a fencing champion at Harvard and he fluttered around on the balls of his feet, like a man who was superior to anyone else in the room.
He went into real estate, eschewed Park Avenue, and established himself in a storefront right on the Grand Concourse. He married one of the local beauties, a myopic girl without much credentials other than her ability to play the violin. Her name was Helena Goldenhagen, and she pleased this young paterfamilias of the Bronx. He bought the Lorelei with the help of a Bronx savings bank, had Helena give recitals at home. She played in front of the Concourse hoi polloi—councilmen, department-store moguls, savings-bank scions, even the borough president.
She gave birth to Naomi between two recitals. She was 27 years old. Carrying Naomi in her womb had dazed Helena, left her with some kind of permanent squint, as if her insides had been seared. The child was born in its own bullet of blood. Helena stopped playing the violin. She couldn’t nurse Naomi. They had to call in an Armenian woman with her own supply of milk. This woman suckled the child. She had a mustache that Helena couldn’t bear. Hugo had to fire the wet nurse.
But it didn’t harm Naomi, who burst out of her baby clothes. It was 1950, a decade before the Grand Concourse began to decline. Hugo would lope along the Concourse with his daughter on his back—the entire boulevard her domain. She was incorrigible by the time she was 3, throwing tantrums and hissing at her nurses and Helena, who had already withdrawn to the back rooms of the family’s apartment-castle. Even Hugo could hardly keep up with the little dark-haired tyke, who never ceased to explore. And that’s how Howell was first introduced to Naomi Waldman.
Oh, he’d seen her before, wrapped in scarves, coming out of her father’s Lincoln. But his father had told him to keep away from Mr. Hugo and the Little Miss. Howell didn’t have much to do with the building or its magnificent lobby of hammered silver and black marble that shone like devilish, blinding glass. He entered the building through a gate that led right into its bowels, and that’s where he remained, unless he was at school, or was ordered by his Pa to polish the black marble in the lobby.
He must have been 6 or 7 that first time, and the Little Miss was about the same age. She was already wearing lipstick. She’d come from a school play. She looked like a witch in her mascara. She’d come into the super’s apartment without even knocking on the door. Howell lived alone with his Pa. His mother had run away with another man before Howell was 5. This devil of a man had something to do with Mr. Hugo. He was a dentist who had an office in the building—his teeth were capped with silver. Howell recalled those silver teeth. He didn’t have much of a recollection of his mother. She had arms that moved like magical sticks. Her hair smelled of silk. But he couldn’t have told you the color of her eyes, or how tall she was.
His encounter with Naomi was much more vivid. She’d come to him in high heels, a girl of 6 or 7 who seemed to walk on stilts. She’d already appropriated her mother’s squint.
“I beg your pardon,” she sang in a voice sweet as a violin. “I must have strayed. Might I trouble you for a cup of water?”
Howell rushed over to the sink. And she followed him into the kitchen like a pony on high heels. He had to rinse his own drinking cup and wait until the water ran cold in the faucet. He held the dented tin cup like a chalice and handed it to Naomi.
“Do you have a biscuit?” she asked. “I’m famished.”
Howell was bewitched. He couldn’t have known that Naomi had gone to elocution school and had been taught to speak like a little duchess in her own manor house. The voices he heard in the Bronx never had Naomi’s lilt. Even Mr. Hugo, who’d had his own fencing master at Harvard, spoke with the usual Bronx burl—it was gangster talk, though Howell hadn’t met many gangsters on the Grand Concourse.
He had the devil of a time coming up with a biscuit for Naomi. All he could find was a stale soda cracker in one of the tins his mother had left behind when she ran off with the dentist. He let her feast on the cracker with strawberry jam.
And that’s when his Pa appeared with Mr. Hugo. Pa’s eyes narrowed down to pale-blue slits. All the usual paranoia had settled in. That’s why his mother had abandoned this cave under the Lorelei. She couldn’t bear the darkness and his Pa’s paranoia. But why did she leave Howell behind with her own little gallery of tin boxes?
Mr. Hugo wasn’t suspicious at all. He had a razor-sharp mustache, like Smilin’ Jack, Howell’s favorite character in the funny papers. All Mr. Hugo needed was a pair of goggles and an aviator’s cap and he could have been Jack.
Pa twisted Howell’s ear in front of Naomi and Mr. Hugo. “Carlton,” he grumbled, “why are you bothering Mr. Hugo’s little girl?”
No one called him Carlton, except his Pa. Even his teachers at elementary school learned to call him Howell. And he felt ashamed in front of the little duchess. But she rescued him right away.
“Super,” she said, with little blinks of mascara, “your boy was most helpful to me. I was lost in this underground passageway, looking for the bin where all the travelers’ trunks are stored. And Carl fed me a scrumptious biscuit and a cup of water.”
“Was he a gentleman with you?” asked his Pa, one of his pale eyes practically screwed out of its socket.
“A perfect gentleman,” she said. “I was playing Scarlett O’Hara in my elocution class, and I ran all the way home in my costume.”
The little duchess offered Pa her hand to kiss. He was trembling, but he pecked her hand with his lips, while she winked at Howell. Then she and Mr. Hugo crept back into that shadow land under the building. Pa waited 10 minutes before he beat Howell with his belt buckle, just for offering a soda cracker to the little duchess.
That was 50 years ago, but it stuck in Howell’s memory like a strange claw. He couldn’t believe that “Miss Naomi” could still be found in 6A. How could the Waldmans have remained at the Lorelei while the Concourse slid into oblivion? Howell left home while the Cross Bronx Expressway was being built. It was tunneled right under the Concourse, near Mount Eden, in some marvel of engineering, but it still cut the Concourse in two and created desolation on both sides of its path. The Bronx now had a series of ghost neighborhoods, with concrete walls and concrete gardens. But Howell was gone before the Bronx began to burn and wild dogs roamed Claremont Park. He had to leave once his father could no longer seize him by the ear. Howell had grown too tall. He vanished without a note, before he ever had a chance to murder his Pa.
Mr. Hugo had always been kind to him, had given him pocket money to accomplish little household chores. He’d shellac the desk in Naomi’s room, repair a chipped tile, take Helena for walks in Joyce Kilmer Park. He’d learned all the skills and handicrafts of a superintendent’s boy. He’d also become Naomi’s slave and part-time beggarly brother. He was forever in her room, which was as large as the grand salon at the Concourse Plaza. She could never find a wardrobe that fit. She’d burst out of her clothes from season to season. She was voluptuous at 13, and it was almost as if she vampirized whatever small charms Helena had left. Her mother began to shrivel while Naomi swayed like a tigress. She had marriage proposals before she was 15. Millionaires pursued Naomi for their sons; and sometimes for themselves.
It was Howell’s misfortune that he had to listen to all their clatter. Bankers wanted to elope with her, realtors wanted to buy her a building. But Mr. Hugo had flooded her mind with a sense of Grand Concourse culture. Why would she need a building when she had her own grand salon? While her miraculous chest fluttered and her calves swelled, she dreamt of marrying a Bronx Van Gogh.
“Carl,” she told him, “you can’t have art without suffering.”
She was the only one who was allowed to call him Carl. And he was obliged to commiserate with her. Since she was constantly chauffeured from class to class, and went to school with the heir to this fortune or that, it was difficult for her to meet struggling artists and musicians. And she had no ambition to venture outside the Bronx. Howell would escort her to the Loew’s Paradise or the Botanical Gardens, with little envelopes of cash Mr. Hugo stuffed into his pocket. He’d clutch her hand at the movies whenever a monster was on the screen. But he could never have become Van Gogh.
And yet one afternoon, while they were in the dark of the Loew’s Paradise, with its Alhambra walls and star-crusted ceiling, Howell’s hand strayed upon her breast. How could he ever have described her heaving heart? She didn’t brush his hand away. It was the most insanely erotic moment of Howell’s life.
Nothing was the same after that. They would stumble about on the queen-size sofa in her room, neither of them really knowing what to do. And then, after a few such fumblings, she wiggled out of her clothes and lay with Howell in her panties and bra, as if both of them had been entombed. Helena found them like that and started to shriek.
Howell had to sit in the hall like a prisoner until Mr. Hugo arrived. His mustache barely bristled. He seemed disappointed in Howell.
“You can’t marry my little girl,” he said. “Not because you’re the super’s boy. I’ve always liked you, but I don’t fancy you as my son-in-law.” Howell was 15 at the time. “You’ll never have an artistic career, and Naomi would die without culture.”
Howell packed whatever little he had, got on a Greyhound, and had been wandering ever since. He had a hundred different jobs until he discovered his own particular way with women. He’d never been rich, but it didn’t really matter. He wanted no permanent attachments.
Now he was back where he started, and his Yankee Stadium sat like a feeble, gutted ghost beside the new stadium. But what irked him wasn’t a green graveyard at the bottom of the hill. It was that other ghost out of his childhood.
“Nando, what is Miss Naomi doing in 6A?”
“She never left. She’s been sittin’ up there since the day she was born.”
“Even when the crackheads ruled this part of the Bronx?”
Nando sneered at him. “We never had crack at the Lorelei. Mr. Hugo still owns the building. He and Miss Naomi gotta eat.”
“Did the Little Miss ever marry?”
She had many suitors, Nando said. “She was a real ball-breaker.” She had invitations to Italy, cruises along the Nile. The finest Manhattan chefs were chauffeured uptown to give her private cooking classes. But she had no one to test her new palate on except her own Papa. And so she prepared candlelight suppers near the Lorelei’s wraparound windows that looked out onto the ravaged heartland of the Bronx. And after all her tutors, and all the little tasks, she ended up in Mr. Hugo’s office, as some sort of executive secretary.
She was ravishing in her tailored jackets and argyle socks. But a hardness appeared at the edge of her mouth. She looked at you with eyes that were like tin telescopes. Her voice turned shrill. She began to lose her hair. She herself managed several of her father’s apartment houses. She would show up in a hard hat, like some truculent crusader. Soon she was limping, and then she couldn’t walk at all. Specialists from Mount Sinai examined her for six months. She was confined to a wheelchair when she was 40. And she sat and sat on that aluminum throne ever since.
Mr. Hugo was 90, but he still hopped around on the balls of his feet, like that fencer out of Harvard. He still went to work, still made deals, when he wasn’t gallivanting with Naomi in her wheelchair.
Howell picked up whatever furniture he needed at a Bronx fire sale. No sheriff in Louisiana or spurned widow could ever have tracked him to the Lorelei. He lived directly below the Waldmans, in a kind of squirrel’s retreat. All his life he’d lived like a squirrel, moving from one retreat to the next.
He found a note on his kitchen table. It was a dinner invitation for that very night, in a childish scrawl.
Dearest Carl, Welcome Home
Dinner at Seven
(We Eat Early in the Bronx)
It wasn’t even signed, or perhaps “6A” was enough of a signature. He searched for a flower shop and a local winery and found none. He had to invade Manhattan in his Town Car for a white rose and a decent bottle of wine. He wore his best suit, with a paisley tie and black-on-black shirt.
Mr. Hugo met him at the door. He was also wearing a black shirt. “My protégé,” he said.
Howell liked to introduce himself with a bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild. The name intrigued him. He was certain it couldn’t be found in the Bronx.
The little duchess sat on her aluminum throne at the dinner table, in the wondrous light of a candle. She had aged, certainly, and could have been puffed with cortisone, but she had on the same lipstick she wore at 7, the same red smear, when she was the Scarlett O’Hara of her elocution class. He offered her the white rose.
“Carlton,” she said, never even bothering to shake his hand, “that’s rather daring of you.” Her voice had the same old fiddler’s ring. That sound fired up his loins. He was her prisoner after a single sentence.
“Honey,” Mr. Hugo said. “Don’t talk in riddles. You’ll scare Howell away.”
“But it’s not a riddle, Papa,” she said, thrusting the rose into her hair, with its thorns. “The white rose is the symbol of love as everlasting war.”
Smilin’ Jack scratched his mustache and stared at his daughter. “That sounds a little like real estate … and we have nothing to sell Howell.”
“We have plenty to sell, Papa,” she said, while the old man used his corkscrew as some kind of tourniquet to suck that cork right out of the bottle of Bordeaux.
“And what are we selling tonight?”
“Me,” the little duchess said.
The old man sat down and started to pour the wine.
“Papa, you’ll cause a scandal. You have to let that bottle breathe.”
She lurched in her wheelchair and took the bottle out of her father’s hand. “Sit,” she said to Howell. “And take off that tie. I can’t really bargain while my suitor’s wearing such an elegant rag.”
Howell laughed deep within his throat and shucked off his paisley tie. A few more minutes of her patter and he would have given all his bank accounts away.
She was the one who served the salad, who raced into the kitchen and raced back in her wheelchair. The old man never moved from the table. Naomi poured the wine after twirling the cork once or twice.
“Papa,” she said, wiping some salad oil from her mouth. “You shouldn’t have broken our courtship.”
“I didn’t,” he groaned.
“I might have married Carl.”
“You were 13—a child. Isn’t that right, Howell?”
“Fifteen,” she said. “With Bronx millionaires breathing down my back. I wanted Carlton.”
“But he was the super’s boy. He couldn’t even play the fiddle.”
“He would have fiddled with me.”
She served the baked potatoes and the salmon steaks in their tinfoil. She refilled her father’s glass.
“If you had really loved me, you would have taken Carl in as a junior partner.”
“People would have laughed at me… a cellar rat selling real estate.”
She swiped her father’s cheek, softly, with her silk napkin, but it was the same as a slap.
“You were jealous of him,” she said. Then she turned on Howell. “Look at you. You never even crawled out from under my father’s shadow. A pair of Smilin’ Jacks.”
Howell was in misery. She’d robbed him of whatever little thunder he had left.
“Well,” she said, “you brought the white rose. What does it mean?”
“Love as everlasting war.”
“Didn’t I tell you?” she said to her father, rocking in her aluminum throne.
“Miss Naomi, I never loved another living soul.”
“And how long have I been waiting, huh, Carl?”
“As long as it took me to crisscross the country a dozen times, romancing widows and a couple of old maids who couldn’t hold a candle to you, swindling them out of a little of their life’s savings …”
“Well, I’m the oldest maid you’ve ever met. Why haven’t you swindled me?”
Suddenly Howell was getting the hang of talking to this hellion in a wheelchair. All her elocution lessons were just a mask. She was a chiseler from the day she was born.
“I think I’m the one who was swindled, Miss … You knew all along the hold you had on me.”
“And what if I did?”
“You sent me howling into the wind. I’m lucky to be all in one piece.”
Her face softened. She didn’t have the same hard curl at the edge of her mouth. Her eyes bled the viscous color of tears.
“But you never wrote me once. You had my address. You didn’t even send me a postcard from Arkansas. I had to have my revenge.”
“Wait a minute,” Mr. Hugo said. “This is taking a bad turn.”
And now she wheeled her aluminum throne toward her father with a cold fury.
“Stay out of it, Papa.”
They had pears in white wine, with a piece of fruitcake. Mr. Hugo didn’t look up from his plate.
“Carl, I’ve only been with one man in my life, and that’s you.”
The slice of fruitcake crumbled in Howell’s hand.
“I’m going crazy,” the old man said, banging his temples with his fists.
“Carl,” she sang, “should I tell you a secret? He pays his own daughter to hug him at night. He can’t bear to be alone. I wouldn’t let him touch me with those claws of his. I wouldn’t let him have a single kiss.”
She prepared the cups of demitasse. Meanwhile, her father began to shiver and cry. The little duchess tossed a tiny silver spoon at him and he stopped whimpering, but Howell bit right into the lip of his demitasse cup. He’d learned to chisel from these two. They were his teachers. He’d gone on the road with their sounds and smells inside him. His elocution had come from the little duchess, and his dancing swagger from this Smilin’ Jack of the West Bronx. He couldn’t stay at the Lorelei, or he would be sucked into this team of chiselers. They would swallow him alive.
He folded his napkin and set it on the table, as a child might do. And then he danced out of that apartment-castle on the balls of his feet. They were so occupied in the business of themselves that they didn’t even know he was gone.
Howell left his fire-sale furniture for the super. He’d never even signed a lease. Perhaps nobody signed leases at the Lorelei. He had his passport and his bankbooks in the back pocket of his pants. Howell had never been abroad, and had crossed only once from El Paso to Juárez, just to see what it was like. All he found were wild dogs with dust on them and 12-year-old whores. But a passport lent him some distinction, made him appear like a world traveler to the widows of Kansas and South Dakota.
He crept into his Town Car with a tiny suitcase and the shirt on his back. He was shivering in July. And he lit out from the Grand Concourse with his toe to the floor. Howell was running for his life.