One Lump or Two - Chapter Three

Back in Penelope’s room at the boarding house, things were far from quiet. Penelope had taken to brainstorming her ideas for the new home while standing on top of the flimsy cot on which she slept, and Zara smuggled Paolo into the dwelling through a second-story window. The jazz-loving flapper blared Duke Ellington at decibels of which Mrs. Prescott would surely disapprove if she were home which, mercifully, she was not. Paolo prepared cocktails and struck Charles Atlas style poses as Zara used her long cigarette holder to direct him. In her reverie, Penelope failed to comment on the illegality of having either a male or alcoholic beverages in her bedchamber.
The room shook with a brief jolt, causing the three revelers to freeze. “P, kill the music,” Zara said.
Penelope’s mind raced to recall from her youth what to do in case of earthquake.
“Paolo, under the bed, now!” Zara said, pushing him down to the ground.
“Actually, I think you’re supposed to stand under a doorway when there’s an earthquake,” Penelope said, opening the door and surprised to find Mrs. Prescott standing before it. “Mrs. Prescott, ehrm good afternoon.”
“Miss Price, was that loud music I heard coming from your window as I walked up?”
“I’m afraid so, Mrs. Prescott. It was my fault,” Zara said, penitently approaching Mrs. Prescott and standing with her hands folded like a virtuous schoolgirl. “When I turned the Victrola on, I didn’t realize how loud it would be. I was unable to find a volume lever so I turned it off completely.”
“And you are …?” Mrs. Prescott said, sizing up Zara with an experienced eye.
“Minnie Clark,” Zara returned, adopting an air of innocence.
At hearing Zara’s real name, Paolo emitted a brief chortle from his hiding place beneath the bed in front of which Penelope stood. Penelope let out a small cough to cover up his laugh.
“You’re not coming down with a cold, are you, Miss Price? Come to my room and I’ll dose you with some castor oil. Can’t afford to infect the whole of the boarding house, now can we?”
“No, ma’am,” Penelope said, scratching her cheek to disguise the wince she felt coming on at the thought of the castor oil.
“Really, I’m surprised at you, Miss Price. I believe I was quite clear about our policy on guests. All must be approved prior to ascending to the dormitory level.”
“I … ehr …” Penelope stammered.
“No exceptions,” Mrs. Prescott added, a look of sadistic satisfaction taking hold of her features as she watched Penelope squirm.
“Mrs. Prescott, Penelope—I mean Miss Price—and I are childhood friends, and after hearing her praise your hostel so highly, I begged to view it for myself. You see, I’m new in town and looking for lodgings,” Zara said, winning over Mrs. Prescott with ease.
“Oh … well … that’s different. I require two months payment up front,” Mrs. Prescott said, eyeing Zara as a tiger does its prey.
“Two? Huh, I planned for three. All the better,” Zara said, toying with the avaricious housekeeper. “Shall we, Penelope? Miss Price is going to show me the town. I should really freshen up first. Delightful to meet you at last, Mrs. Prescott. I see everything Penelope said about you is true. Now if you’ll excuse me … all those hours on the road … the water closet calls. Which way is it, Penelope?”
“Oh, uh, down the hall on the left,” Penelope answered, struggling to comprehend what had just happened while maintaining Zara’s ruse.
Zara strode down the hall with Mrs. Prescott hard on her heels.
“Three months would be fine too,” Mrs. Prescott called, running to catch up to Zara.
Zara stopped at the lavatory door and turned to face Mrs. Prescott. “Thank you, Mrs. Prescott. I think I can handle things on my own from here.” She cocked her head, smiled broadly, and closed the door, humming as she ran the water in the sink.
Mrs. Prescott retreated slowly down the hall, her fingers calculating what she could do with Zara’s three month’s rent. Fortunately, Penelope found the presence of mind to send Paolo out the window. He dropped silently to the ground with catlike agility, and after looking around to make sure no one had witnessed his escape, he returned to the Duesenberg. A moment later, Penelope caught sight of the half-full magnum of champagne that sat open next to the bed. Panicked, she prepared to pour it out the window, but just as she began to tilt the bottle over the ledge, she noticed two girls from the boarding house approaching.
“Lovely evening, Penelope,” one of them called up to her.
She smiled and waved, unsure of what to do with the incriminating evidence. Just then, a knock came at the door.
“Oh, Miss Price,” Mrs. Prescott called.
“Uh, umm, I’m just dressing. I’ll be right there,” Penelope called back.
She quickly looked around the room in search of a suitable hiding place to stash the sloshing, capless container—a hiding place beyond the detection of her ever-suspicious landlady. With nowhere to dispose of the drink, the intrepid teetotaler downed the lot of it, gulping it as quickly as she could and stowing the bottle in her stocking drawer. She hiccupped, causing her corset to constrict her breathing again, and was certain she was going to faint. She quickly grabbed a hat and gloves and opened the door.
“I thought you said you were dressing. Isn’t that what you were already wearing?” Mrs. Prescott said.
“Uh … yes … I changed, but I didn’t care for the ensemble, so I changed back again,” Penelope fibbed.
Mrs. Prescott pursed her lips and looked Penelope up and down. “You girls, so fickle these days. In my day there was no choice. We had one dress and that was all. Why, I—”
“Was there something you wanted to tell me, Mrs. Prescott?” Penelope said, doing her utmost not to belch. “I don’t want to keep Zar … Miss Clark waiting.”
“Yes, about Miss Clark, I think she would make a fine addition to the S.A. Virgin boarding house. Don’t you?”
“Oh, yes, quite.”
“And a single lady able to pay three months in advance, most impressive. What does Miss Clark do for income, may I ask?”
“Nothing. She’s rich,” Penelope said, quickly putting on her gloves. She dared not look the lady in the eye lest she be caught in her lie.
The corners of Penelope’s mouth began to turn up involuntarily as she heard Mrs. Prescott gurgle the words, “She’s rich.”
Penelope put a hand on the doorknob. “And now I really must go. Good day, Mrs. Prescott.”
“It is a good day indeed,” Mrs. Prescott said to herself, rejoicing over her perceived good fortune. “And you’ll encourage our Miss Clark, of course, won’t you?” she asked Penelope.
“Of course. Ahh, here she comes now. Ready, Minnie?”
Zara lowered her eyes, detesting the sound of her given name. “I don’t know, are we?” she asked, looking around the room for Paolo.
“We are indeed. Here are your hat and gloves. Shall we?”
Penelope shooed Zara and Mrs. Prescott out the door and locked it. After taking a few steps, Penelope announced, “Silly me. I forgot my bag. You two go on without me.” She then returned to the room and closed the door, making sure to lock it. She opened her stocking drawer and retrieved the empty bottle of brut, placing it in her enormous bag and burying it deep within the gallimaufry. She then exited and locked the door once more.
When she caught up to Zara, she found Mrs. Prescott extolling the merits of the boarding house and her strict policies, all designed to produce exemplary women with pristine morals. To her dismay, Penelope noticed Zara slowly inching her skirt up to reveal the hip flask concealed in the top of her stocking. Zara batted her eyes at Penelope. Penelope simply shook her head no. Mrs. Prescott was happy to walk the girls to their car, and Penelope did her best to prevent the champagne bottle from clanking with the noise-making contents of her carryall.
When they reached the Duesenberg, Mrs. Prescott let out a squeak of surprise upon finding a man behind the wheel. “Oh … I didn’t realize …”
“Mrs. Prescott, may I present my driver, Paolo?”
Paolo alighted from the vehicle, reached for Mrs. Prescott’s hand, and slowly kissed it. She stood speechless.
“I don’t believe women should drive themselves, do you, Mrs. Prescott?” Zara said.
“Indeed, no,” the woman responded, gawking at Paolo.
“Piacere, signora,” Paolo said smoothly, never taking his eyes off of those of Mrs. Prescott.”
“Wha … What did he say?” Mrs. Prescott tittered, her face instantly flushing in cerise blotches.
“He said, ‘pleasure,’ Mrs. Prescott … as in it is a pleasure to meet you,” Zara replied to calculated effect.
“Pleasure, you say?” Mrs. Prescott said, unwittingly caressing the hand that had just been kissed.
“And now we really must be off. So many things to do for a fledgling shopkeeper like Penelope. I’m sure you’ll have many tips for her, as a successful businesswoman yourself,” Zara said, landing the final blow that would ingratiate both Penelope and herself to Mrs. Prescott. “Paolo?”
Paolo opened the grand automobile’s door for Zara who slid into the seat with regal grace. Penelope followed her, albeit less gracefully, as she labored to load her bag into the car without drawing Mrs. Prescott’s attention, even as she swayed under the effects of the guzzled champagne. Fortunately, Mrs. Prescott was aware of nothing other than Paolo.
Paolo donned a driver’s cap, clicked his heels and said, “Ciao, Signora,” to Mrs. Prescott.
“Ciao!” Zara called out, smiling and waving at Mrs. Prescott as the automobile pulled away.
“Ciao,” Mrs. Prescott returned dreamily, having no idea what she was saying.
Once the car had rounded the corner, Penelope dared to speak. “I knew you were good, Z, but jeepers, that was some show you put on.”
“Comes with the territory,” Zara replied off-handedly. “Now, what the devil are you trying to hide in that abyss of chaos you call a handbag.”
“This,” Penelope said, squelching a burp and producing the contraband bottle.
“But where did you pour the contents? Shame to let such a banner vintage go to waste.”
“It didn’t … I drank it,” Penelope said, her eyelids beginning to lower of their own volition.
Zara sat for a moment staring in amazement at her friend, then burst into hearty laughter. “I believe there’s hope for you yet, P.”
Penelope opened her mouth to respond, but what came out was a long, low, robust combination hiccup and rumbling eructation. Zara gave in to more laughter causing Penelope to laugh in turn and in so doing, experience yet even more hiccups. This sent Zara into a fit of jocularity that saw her rolling on the floor of the car, holding her abdomen, and kicking her feet wildly in the air.
When the shenanigans had subsided, Paolo got a word in. “Dove?”
“Pardon, Paolo?” Penelope replied, happy to move on from the embarrassment.
“He wants to know where we want to go next,” Zara said, blinking tears of laughter from her eyes and working to catch her breath.
Penelope breathed in the convertible’s fresh air in an effort to sober up. “I didn’t know you spoke Italian, Z.”
“Just a little. Paolo’s been teaching me. And I’ve taught him a thing or two as well,” she said, running her hand through the back of Paolo’s hair.
He growled seductively in response. Penelope grunted in mild disgust, then continued breathing deeply to regain sobriety.
“Signorina Penelope?” Paolo prompted.
“Yes? … Oh, yes, where to? Well, I suppose we need furnishings and basic housewares. The shop next door to mine is a general store, I believe. We’re sure to find some staples there. And giving them our business would show goodwill as neighbors,” Penelope said, reasoning her way through her words.
“Why, Penelope Price!” Zara exclaimed.
“Oh no, what did I do now?” Penelope asked in the preliminary stage of panic, assuming she’d committed some sort of faux pas.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re beginning to talk like a bona fide woman of business!”
Penelope smiled, her cheeks turning pink owing to the compliment, along with the champagne.
“Paolo, il negozio di Penelope!” Zara called out enthusiastically.
“Si, signorina!” Paolo cheered in response, releasing the parking break and driving toward the antiques store.
“What did you say?” Penelope asked.
“I think I said, ‘Penelope’s store’—at least I hope I did.”
As the Duesenberg headed to the shop, the ladies began a rapid-fire verbal list of all the things they’d need for the house. Penelope’s list tended to favor the practical, whereas Zara’s favored illegal substances and practices.
* * * *
“There it is! Allen’s General Store,” Penelope said.
We’ve got it all in Allen’s,” Zara added, reading the sign on the store’s window.
Paolo turned off the motor and pulled his driver’s cap over his eyes, settling in for a nap in anticipation of a long shopping spree.
“Paolo!” Zara admonished.
He groaned, pushed his cap back up, got out of the car, and sluggishly opened the car door. Zara emerged from the Duesenberg as if she were a motion picture star arriving at a premiere. Penelope backed out unceremoniously, her posterior leading the way as she battled to extricate her carpetbag from the car.
“Not this time, P. Just take your coin purse.”
Penelope looked lost at the idea of being separated from the pit of no return, Zara’s preferred term for Penelope’s mammoth tote. Penelope stood clutching her coin purse, turning it this way and that and trying to work out what to do with the palm-sized pouch. Zara wrested it from her hands and tucked it in her own décolleté. Penelope gasped at the sight as Zara slid her arm through Penelope’s and tramped through Allen’s door.
“Good afteernoon, ladiz. How may I beh of asseestance?” Hubert Allen said, slithering out from behind the front counter and admiring Zara.
“How do you do? Mr. Allen, I presume?” Zara said coolly.
“Een thee fleesh,” he replied, not bothering to regard Penelope.
“It’s a real pleasure to meet you. I’m Miss Price, Penelope Price.”
“Dellighteed,” Hubert said in a perfunctory tone, lavishing all of his attention on Zara. “And you are?” he asked, taking Zara’s hand in his.
“Zara,” Zara replied, pulling him into her web.
“Zara …?” he prodded.
“Just Zara,” she replied, meeting his gaze with bewitching eyes.
“Eez theer something een parteekular you are looking for today, Mees Zara?” he asked, still grasping her hand.
“A good many things, I should think,” Zara said, looking him up and down for his benefit. “My friend, Miss Price, and I are setting up house and need … Well, I suppose we should defer to you to tell us what we need.”
“Right thees way,” he said, taking the liberty of putting his hand on Zara’s back to lead her through the emporium.
Comprised of three rooms, the store was well stocked, and its items tastefully displayed. Hubert led them out of the foyer—a room with gleaming windows that featured a sales counter and assortment of novelty, impulse-buy gadgets—into a generous space lined with shelves brimming with housewares organized according to the rooms found in the average household.
“Wow,” Penelope whispered in raptured awe as Hubert escorted them into a large warehouse filled with furniture arranged in attractive tableaux.
“I thinnk you weell find our seeleection to beh vast, and our pricees to beh far more rezzonable than that of Mr. Holman and heez so-called Popular Dry Good Store. Our seerveece eez behyond compare … so I’ve behn told.”
“I see you’re very well equipped,” Zara said, twirling a lock of hair between her gloved fingers and parting her lips.
“That I am … ehr, weh are,” he said, gobbling up Zara’s verbal bait. “Now, leet’s start in thee parlor arehya and work our way to … thee boudoir.”
“I like how you think,” Zara replied.
“Do you plan to do much eenteertaining?” he asked, parading her around the perimeter of the room.
“Oh yes,” Zara said. “No, not really,” Penelope responded in unison.
“And who are you, aggehn?” Hubert said, turning to Penelope and taking note of her for the first time.
“Miss Price … your new business neighbor,” she added with a wasted smile.
“New …” he said, his eyes glancing about as he tried to sort out her answer. “Do I take you to minn you are Mees Tate’s niss?” he asked.
“I am indeed,” she said, forcing another smile. “I’m looking forward to working alongside you, Mr. Allen. You have such an interesting accent, may I ask where you’re from?”
“From? I’ll have you know I’m a Paceefeec Grove nateev. Peerhaps our way of spikking is foreen to confeedeerates like you, Mees Price, who eez, I beelivv, from San Peddro.”
Penelope stood agog, unsure how to respond, and quite sure she’d not heard anyone from Northern California—or anywhere else for that matter—speak in such an unusual dialect.
“Shall we continue?” Zara said, taking Hubert’s arm.
Ninety minutes later, the ladies exited Allen’s General Store. Paolo looked up to see Penelope massaging one of her temples with her knuckle, her countenance that of one who’d seen a ghost. Zara’s demeanor was cool and confident, as was so often the case when she’d charmed a new male acquaintance.
“I’ll have Dan Coopeer, our uteeleetteh man, start moving your thinns een tomorrow morninn,” Hubert said. “And wheere shall I seend heem?”
“The corner of Oceanview Boulevard and Fifth Street,” Penelope chirped.
“Ah, thee old Lacy house. Some steel call it Iveh Teerrace Hall, the name geeveen to thee home by eets last reeseedeent. Judge Weelbur of Pasadenna. An eexceeleent choice, Mees Zara,” he said, ignoring Penelope.
“I’ll have my man, Paolo, assist your Mr. Cooper,” Zara said, waving daintily at Paolo who sat up when he heard his name mentioned.
“You have a man, Mees Zara?” Hubert said, prying in his oily manner.
“What a leading question, Mr. Allen,” she returned flirtatiously.
“Thank you, Mr. Allen. We’ll be going now,” Penelope said, taking Zara’s arm to pull her away.
“Unteel tomorrow,” Hubert said to Zara.
“Until tomorrow,” she replied, turning on her heel and returning to the car, her hips drawing figure eights as she walked.
“Oh, brother, what was that?” Penelope asked once they were sequestered in the Duesenberg.
“Goodwill insurance, P. Goodwill. Oh, and Paolo, darling, will you be a love and assist with some lifting tomorrow morning?”
Come?” Paolo said, his brow furrowed in confusion.
Zara pantomimed the act of moving furniture.
“Si,” Paolo said with a smile.
“I think you just gave him the impression he will be lifting weights at the gymnasium,” Penelope said.
“Close enough, he’ll be exercising,” Zara said, flipping up her skirt to reach her flask. “Alla Del Monte Hotel, Paolo … We’re taking off, P. See ya tomorrow … P? …” Zara said, nodding toward the car door.
“Huh?! Oh!” Penelope said, exiting the Duesenberg and dragging the pit of no return behind her.
“Don’t forget this!” Zara said, producing Penelope’s coin purse.
Penelope dropped the petite bag into its cavernous counterpart and waved goodbye as Zara and Paolo pulled away. She then got into her Model T and conducted her usual series of steps and safety procedures in preparation of driving. After checking the mirrors several times, she paused, turned off the motor, and dived with both hands into her monstrous portmanteau where she quickly found her shop keys to which she’d attached her car keys. She then opened the car door, got out, took an authoritative breath, straightened her posture, and marched with uncharacteristic deliberateness to the front door of her new shop.
Once inside, she locked the door behind her and collapsed onto the red velvet doughnut settee. She peered around for some minutes then fell into a brief crying jag, her way of dealing with the abrupt and unexpected changes in her life.
“Auntie Dee, what have you gotten me into?” she whispered aloud.
She then stood and wandered around the sales room, marveling at the diversity and intricacy of the various relics, most of which were foreign to her. She made a point to look for furnishings from the shop that she could take home to fill in the gaps where Hubert Allen’s goods left off. A gold-fringed, brown velvet chaise—what her mother would have called a fainting couch—caught her eye, along with a few Tiffany lamps, and several ornate mirrors. She put the items aside as best she could in the crowded shop area, then absentmindedly walked into her grandaunt’s quarters, pulled down the Murphy bed, and dropped onto it, asleep in seconds.