One Lump or Two - Chapter Four

She awoke in the dark, having no idea where she was, how she got there, or what time it might be. Stumbling toward the light from the shop’s front windows, she began to recall her surroundings. Still in a sleepy stupor, she made her way to the door. Fortunately, she noticed her shop key wedged into the interior lock, as she would have had no idea where to look for keys otherwise.
After gathering her thoughts and her things, she locked the door behind her. Consulting her wristwatch, she noted the time was 9:45, three quarters of an hour past Mrs. Prescott’s weeknight curfew.
“That’s an awfulleh beeg eenteerprise for such a leettle ladeh,” a voice said from the shadows.
Penelope recognized the unusual speech of Hubert Allen and located him by the waft of smoke floating up from his cigarette.
“This leetle ladeh has beeg plans for the place,” Penelope replied, unintentionally mimicking his irregular speech.
He dropped his cigarette to the sidewalk and extinguished it with a long, thin worn-out loafer. “Eef eet becomes too much for you, I’d beh happeh to take a good dell of thee meerchandise off your hands. I herr you are more inteereesteed een running a teh shop than seeling dusteh antiks.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mr. Allen.”
“Eet’s what good neighbors do,” he said, coming out of the shadows and giving her a fixed stare.
“Well … I best get going. Mrs. Prescott runs a tight ship,” she said, fumbling with her keys.
“Theen I’ll say goodnight. And seh you and Mees Zara in the morneng,” he said with a lecherous grin.
When Penelope got to the boarding house, she was immediately chastised by the sight of Mrs. Prescott sitting on the front steps and clutching a broom for defense, her hair in curling rags.
“Not the sort of behavior I expect from a Virgin girl, Miss Price. I’m very disappointed. I dare say your fine friend, Miss Clark, would be as well.”
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Prescott. I fell asleep at my new shop and lost track of the time.”
“That’s what comes from being a female merchant, Miss Price,” Mrs. Prescott said, hoisting up her dressing gown and walking to the front door, the broom handle waving beneath her arm and narrowly missing Penelope’s chin.
“Yes, ma’am,” Penelope said, wanting nothing more than to crawl into bed and forget all about curfews and boarding houses and shops and business—at least until morning.
* * * *
Her sleep was sound and dreamless, and she didn’t wake until the noise of bedroom doors in the hallway alerted her to the fact it was time to get up and get going.
She looked at her watch and calculated she had just ten minutes to get down to breakfast before Mrs. Prescott stopped serving. She desperately needed to bathe, but chose rankness over hunger, and simply splashed her face with water from the room’s basin, smoothed her hair, replaced a few bobby pins, dabbed her neck and wrists with a bit of Après L'Ondée, chewed a breath mint, jumped back into her clothes from the day before, slid into her shoes, and made a beeline for the dining room with only a few minutes to spare.
“Lost track of time again?” Mrs. Prescott said with a forced frown that belied the kind of smug smile one wears when they believe they’ve been vindicated in some way. She then handed Penelope a pitcher of just-squeezed orange juice. “Toast, Miss Price?”
“Yes, please, ma’am,” she said, still in a state of frazzlement.
The dormitory matron carved two slices from a large loaf of fresh-baked soda bread and deposited them in the toaster on the sideboard. “When might we have the pleasure of seeing Miss Clark again?” Mrs. Prescott said, her tone abnormally sweet and lilting.
“Oh, uh, we’ll be working at the shop today, so …” Penelope took a swig of orange juice to avoid fully answering the question.
“Let her know I send my regards?” Mrs. Prescott said, carrying a tray of breakfast things back to the kitchen. “She’d make a fine Virgin girl, to be sure.”
Penelope partially spit out her orange juice. Fortunately, there was no one to witness the gaffe since she was the only one left at the table. “I certainly will, Mrs. Prescott,” she gasped.
A moment later, Mrs. Prescott returned to the dining room just as the toaster popped. Penelope was nowhere to be seen.
* * * *
Penelope was thankful to be ahead of schedule once she arrived at her new house. It would be an hour or two before the moving men would pull up to begin unloading. She toured the abode several times, plotting what furnishings would go where, bickering with herself as she was wont to do when figuring out any sort of puzzle. She was keen to have refreshments awaiting the movers, but hadn’t anything to serve them, let alone the means with which to do so. In a flash of inspiration, she drove down Oceanview Boulevard in search of take-away food.
After a short drive, she came upon the Butterfly Café, the lunchroom where she and Zara had dined less than twenty-four hours prior, though it seemed weeks ago to Penelope given all that had transpired. When she entered the restaurant, the same waitress who had served them previously recognized her.
“Back so soon? Where’s that choice bit of calico you came in with yesterday? You two make a hotsy-totsy pair.”
“Oh, uh, do you mean Zara? She’s on her way to the new house right now actually.”
“Zara, what a name. It suits her. And what’s your name, Miss …”
“Price … Penelope.”
“I’m Ruby. What can I get for ya today, ‘Price … Penelope?’”
“Umm, we have some movers who will be working at the house—fatigued and sweaty, I’m guessing. Can you recommend something nice for them to snack on?”
“Absolutely. It’s all the rage. Key lime pie!”
“I’m afraid I’ve never heard of it. Is it like lemon chiffon?”
“It’s like nothing you’ve ever had—an old recipe from the sponge fisherman down Key West way in Florida. Ya don’t even cook it!”
“Why ever not?”
“’Cause fishermen on boats don’t have ovens to bake in! They just throw together pelican eggs and sweet canned milk and these key limes while they’re out at sea, and the whole thing sort of cooks itself!”
“Is it any good?”
“Any good?! Criminy, it’s the bee’s knees!”
“And that’s good?”
“That’s tops! We make ours the ‘Aunt Sally’ way with a graham cracker crust and dollops of fresh whipped cream. Trust me, your gang will go mad for it.”
“Well then, one key lime pie …”
“Make it two.”
“Two key lime pies then, and a pair of large thermoses of coffee, please. Also, by any chance, may I borrow some plates and cups and utensils? Ours haven’t arrived yet.”
“Sure thing!” said Ruby as she bounced away to fetch the pie and eating-ware.
As Penelope stood waiting for her order, she sensed a pair of eyes burrowing into the back of her head. She turned around to see the rough and ready female line-cook staring at her with a knowing smirk. Penelope gasped and immediately set off to promenade around the room, whistling and feigning intense interest in the bottles of condiments sitting on each table. Just when Penelope felt she would have to run from the café screaming in discomfort, Ruby returned.
“Don’t take any wooden nickels!” the girl said, handing Penelope a large basket. “And come back soon with that sheba of yours!”
Penelope stuttered in an attempt to answer that Zara was not her sweetheart, but decided the correction wasn’t worth the effort, so pre-occupied was she with the events of the last twenty-four hours, let alone those to come.
As she drove back toward the house, she made a point to take in the panoramic picture of the Pacific Ocean. Thus far, she’d neglected to pay any attention to the beauty of her new surrounds. “Breathtaking,” she said aloud. The jagged shoreline with its wildflowers and lapping waves filled her with a contentment she’d rarely felt. Something was shifting within her psyche—something she was aware of only in a peripheral way.
Back at the Victorian, she arranged the plates, napkins, silverware, and pie on one side of the sink, and the coffee cups and thermos on the other, along with a jug of milk and bowl of sugar provided by Ruby. She’d never done much in the way of entertaining and had never cooked for anyone, not that she’d baked the key lime pie or even made the coffee herself. But suddenly, she felt a yearning to engage in hospitality. Perhaps it comes with being a homeowner, she reasoned.
After making the rounds through the house a few more times, she heard the rumble of a large truck coming up the lane. She ran downstairs and out the front door to find her tufted Victorian sofa being carried toward the house, a smiling Zara lounging atop it, posed like Cleopatra being conveyed to Caesar.
Penelope whisked back to the kitchen to fetch a clipboard bearing lists and charts, a pencil tied to the board’s metal clamp lest the pencil go missing.
“I have no idea where all of this will go,” Zara said, alighting from the sofa.
“I know exactly,” Penelope said, directing Paolo and Hubert Allen’s utility man Dan Cooper with a confidence and decisiveness Zara had never witnessed in her friend.
Dan unloaded the truck with a smile and a song. Paolo just glared and cursed the ladies under his breath. He may have been a muscular bodybuilder, but he loathed manual labor. Then again, he loathed most labor.
In under an hour, the entire contents of the immense moving truck had been emptied, thanks in great part to Dan. When Penelope offered the workmen some refreshment, they, along with Zara, were delightfully surprised to find the key lime pie and coffee waiting in the kitchen.
“I believe Emily Post would give you top marks,” Zara said, referring to the famed etiquette expert of the day.
Penelope smiled bashfully. “You’ll have to eat it all, gentleman. I’m afraid the icebox doesn’t work.”
“That’s because the electricity is off, Miss Price,” Dan noted. “You’ll need to get it turned back on down at City Hall. If you’d like, I can remove this old icebox and install your new Kelvinator tomorrow while you’re downtown.”
“That’s awfully nice of you, Dan,” Zara said, impressed with his magnanimity.
“Thank you, Dan. That would be … the bee’s knees,” Penelope said with a shy smile.
Zara giggled.
Dan Cooper was what most in town considered a tragic figure. He’d run a booming business at the Half-Way House Saloon just outside of Pacific Grove’s ‘dry city’ limits until the Eighteenth Amendment put an end to his livelihood. Since then, he’d fallen on hard times. He had to sell his saloon furnishings for pennies on the dollar and was forced to dispense with all his costly alcohol without remuneration.
With four young children and a wife, he’d taken to accepting any odd job he could find in order to provide for the family. Whereas just a year ago he was looked to as a pillar of the community, now he was little more than a charity case. He’d become gaunt and haggard, often going without meals to ensure his offspring had sufficient nutrition. He did not wear his newfound poverty well, and was at turns desperate and withdrawn since his financial woes began.
He’d married his high school sweetheart, Lillian Michaels, before shipping off to the war, and he was devoted to her and their children in every way imaginable. Lily had a promising career as a concert harpist that was cut short when she proved to be uncommonly fertile, producing four heirs in just as many years.
During the glory days of the Half-Way House—a name chosen based on its New Monterey location mid-way between Pacific Grove and Monterey—Dan earned a reputation for liberality and compassion, never pestering patrons to pay off their tabs, often driving inebriates home if they were in no state to travel on their own. The Half-Way House was the most popular watering hole in the area with live music on weekends and a hearty Sunday Supper served weekly to those who had no family with whom to dine. Dan himself was an accomplished musician, skilled at trumpet, clarinet and piano. Nearly every night at the saloon someone cajoled Dan to come out from behind the bar and play with the given night’s band.
Recently, Dan’s only performances involved the performing of random jobs for Hubert Allen, and Dan was always grateful for the extra work. His only goal was the welfare and happiness of his family, but he feared if his financial situation didn’t improve, he could very well lose guardianship of his children.
Penelope was tickled to see with what zeal he gobbled down his pie and coffee. When she offered him a second piece, he eagerly accepted—same when she offered him a third. It was then she sensed that he was a soul in need. When Paolo refused a second helping, patting his waste to indicate he was watching his physique, Penelope asked Dan if he’d mind taking the rest of the pie home since she didn’t have a working icebox. He was delighted to help her out. She was overjoyed to provide him with food.
As Dan and Paolo boarded the truck to return to Allen’s General Store, Penelope asked Dan if he’d be available for some extra work. “I can pay you a dollar fifty per hour, if that’s all right,” Penelope offered.
“If that’s all right?!” Dan gushed, overwhelmed at the amount that was fifty percent more than he was accustomed to earning. “When do I start?” he cried.
“Tomorrow morning, if you’re able. Nine o’clock sharp at Aunt Dee’s antiques shop,” Penelope said.
“Oh that’s right. Dorothea was your great aunt. My condolences, Miss Price.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cooper. Aunt Dee lived a full and thrilling life, as I’m beginning to learn. I look forward to finding out more about her from all of you who worked and lived here in town with her.”
“Your great aunt and I spent many nights together at the saloon into the wee hours. The secrets we shared,” he said with a chuckle.
Zara’s eyes widened in fascination. Paolo huffed his disinterest in the conversation and closed his eyes to snooze.
“Well … thank you again for taking the pie off my hands. We’ll see you in the morning then,” Penelope said, sensing Paolo’s impatience.
“Good day, Miss Price, Miss Zara,” Dan said, tipping his cap.
“Good day, Dan,” Zara returned, smiling compassionately. “Poor man,” she said to Penelope once the truck was out of sight.
“You sensed it too?” Penelope asked, walking back into the house.
Zara nodded. “Something about him … he seems like a broken man … and yet, a very good man.”
“I agree. It’s hard to see a person with so much promise brought so low. You and I are both so fortunate that we’re prospering as we are,” Penelope said, taking a seat on her new sofa and spreading her arms out wide.
Just then Zara shivered involuntarily, a pall coming over her usually radiant face.
Penelope put her hands in her lap and sat up. “What is it, Z? Did I say something to upset you? Golly, that was the furthest thing—”
“No, it’s not you, P … it’s me …” Zara said as she took a seat in one of Penelope’s new tufted armchairs. “Actually, it’s Costas … was Costas.”
“Your former … ehrm … paramour?”
“Patron would be the more apt term.”
“Why exactly did you leave him, Z? I thought you really cared for him.”
“I did. You know how I used to scorn those chump women who fell in love with their patrons and even believed that baloney about their lovers leaving their wives for them?”
“Well I became one of those chumps,” Zara said, her eyes welling. “I made the ultimate mistake and fell in love with my lover. When I told Costas—when I bared my heart to him—he tenderly kissed me and told me he could bear to live without me as his wife no longer. He proposed on the spot. We even chose a date for the ceremony! That night we made love as never before.”
“So romantic,” Penelope whispered, resting her chin and hands on the arm of the sofa as she hung on Zara’s every word.
“Is it?” Zara said, forcing a smile and looking at Penelope with doleful, probing eyes. Her facial expression hardened as she continued, “The next morning I received a formal letter from his lawyer warning me to refrain from ever making contact with Costas again. The letter was delivered by a page and came with a large check.”
Penelope sat silent for a moment, concentrating to grasp the import of what Zara had shared. “What did you do?” she quietly asked.
“I ripped it up of course!”
“The check or the letter?”
Penelope felt a lump filling her throat. She’d never known Zara to have a care in the world. Penelope realized Zara may have had many cares, but just never let on about them. “Good for you, Z,” she cheered as enthusiastically as she could. “That showed him you didn’t need him or his filthy money.”
“That showed him all right,” Zara said, putting her head in her hands and breaking down in a torrent of tears.
“Oh no! Is it something I said again? I always say the wrong thing. I’m sorry, Z,” Penelope said, hastening over to the armchair to embrace and comfort her dearest friend, a friend Penelope viewed as her own family.
“I’m so ashamed,” Zara sobbed.
“Of what, Z? Being a courtesan? You’re not the first to—”
“No, it’s not that … the check … I tried to put it back together!” she wailed.
Penelope sat on the floor next to Zara’s chair, unsure as to what to say next. “Oh … well … bully for you! You earned that money! I’m glad you kept it.”
“But, P, I couldn’t put it back together and had to beg the lawyer for a new one,” she said, her reddened eyes pleading. “When I did, he just sneered at me and instructed the doorman to escort me out. You must think me a pathetic wretch,” she said, sobbing anew.
“I think no such thing!” Penelope declared, shaking Zara’s knee to emphasize her point. “I think you are the most beautiful, cultivated lady I’ve ever met and the best friend a girl could ask for. I’ve never been anything but proud of you.”
Zara glanced into Penelope’s eyes and her anxiety-ridden features once again softened. “Thanks, P. It means the world to me … truly.”
Penelope put her head on Zara’s knee and the two sat in silence for several minutes.
“Do you mind if I stay here tonight?” Zara asked. “I’m nearly out of money and need to vacate the hotel.”
“Mind? I insist! Besides, you told me you were moving in with me, remember?” Penelope said with a hopeful smile.
Zara returned the smile. “That’s true. In that case, I think I’ll go to my room and lie down for a while. Wake me up for dinner?”
Penelope nodded. “While you nap, I’m going to take a long hot bath. These clothes are on the verge of becoming permanently attached to my skin!”
Much to her relief, Penelope found the hot water heater was working, thanks to Dan lighting its pilot light. The cares of the day seemed to evaporate with the steam rising from the tub as she stepped into the soothing soak. When the water began to cool, she wrapped herself in a pair of new over-sized bath towels, and tiptoed to Zara’s room, trying hard to prevent the wooden floor from creaking.
She thought Zara looked like an innocent angel when sleeping, nothing like the formidable vamp Zara played when awake. Penelope crept to her own room and decided to try out her new canopy bed. She didn’t intend to doze, just get off her feet for a few minutes.