“What do I have to lose?” Petra said, tossing a nickel on the roulette table, red 26.
“Your last nickel,” said a deep voice behind her and higher than her head,by a great distance. She knew the drill, and was used to taking care of herself.She was glib and smart in the way that many college–educated girls know how to be. But it was more than that. She had lost so much, in the United States of America, on the dime of the American Fund for Czechoslovakia, and then a certain Mr. Perkins whom she met after she got to Chicago via Ellis Island, N.Y. and her Aunt Sadie. Mr. Perkins married the young girl of 22 and gave her new hats and shoes to prove his worth. She could live with that for a little while. Only stipulation: she had to do everything he said. She knew that some day she would grow tired of that.
Her shoulders were straight as she watched the wheel go around.
‘Black, 12, 12 black.”
She turned around, not wanting to watch the coin vanish as the dealer swept the table. She faced a massive chest, well suited, and looked up to a fine chin and the usual fedora. This one was well dressed, better than most, with an expensive Homburg. Her father would have given anything to be seen in a hat like that. But she was orphaned now and didn’t let herself think about such things. She lost too much to count them daily. Living at Aunt Sadie’s helped her keep a hold on her family. Or it did, before auntie cut her off. She didn’t think much of Petra’s habits at the casino and the pubs. On the other hand, Mr. Perkins was ecstatic to find someone with as few scruples as he had.
“Excuse me,” she said, and slipped around him in the way someone with straight hips and young legs can do, much like a snake. She walked toward the exit of the casino. After she had reached the revolving door, and it deposited her onto the sidewalk, she was standing next to the man who had stood behind her at the roulette table. He lit a cigarette and offered her one.
“Oh, American cigarettes, thank you,” she said politely, and waited for him to light it.
“I hate to drink alone,” he said in the way that men who usually get their way would say.
“I don’t think that you would want to drink where I drink,” she answered back, giving away that her fine shoes and hat, with that ridiculous ostrich feather hanging half over one eye, were not indicative of her standard of living. In that same look she gave him a once over of appraisal. She already had him pigeon-holed.
“Take me where you drink,” he directed her.
She paused. Looked a unsure. Bit her lip. Looked up at him from under that feather.
“Smitty’s on Wabash.”
He put two fingertips to his lips and whistled for a cab. In ten minutes, they were at the curb in front of Smitty’s. He was a gentleman on his side of the back seat of the cab, and paid the driver without comment. Walking into Smitty’s, his hand was at the small of her back, that show of territory as they passed the row of penguins just inside the door. Even in a neighborhood bar, there was a proper way to dress in the evening, though at Smitty’s after a while, the jacket would come off, and the shirtsleeves rolled up to just under the elbows. ‘Penguin’ was Petra’s name for every man in the same suit and hat that she had seen everywhere since she got to Chicago. She did not allow herself the indulgence of missing simple times at home, in Czechoslovakia.
Over the following two hours, Petra found out his name was Robert and Robert saw her up real close. Even in the dim light he took in the chipped nails, the scuff on her shoe she had painted over and the whiff of mothballs on a borrowed hat. The rush of want in him to take care of her was great, even on this first meeting. He could picture a house with a sunny kitchen, and Petra in a ruffled apron, making him goulash and doing dishes in the new shoes he would buy for her.
They stayed until Smitty’s closed and she refused his every attempt to give her money or ask about her family other than her childhood abroad, and her traveling to the states after the war. Between heated kisses in the cab ride back and whispers he managed to press a bill in to her hand. But, he held back saying those words. The new women after the war wanted to be independent. But he knew better. He would woo her and take care of her. It would fill the void between the office and the golf course, and memories of his wife who had been too frail to make it through 1945. Three years alone later, there was something sweet about the way Petra’s lipstick smeared at the corners of her lips, and how she would look down and blush if he said anything remotely course. He was entranced.
Back at the corner where he had met her he payed the cab driver to be quiet and let them sit for five minutes. Then he paid him more to go around the block a few times, then down Lake Shore Drive where the reflection of the moon on the water might put a seal on their unspoken bargain. Somewhere around four a.m. she agreed to see him again, and he took her home to her aunt’s in the cab.
A replay and edit of a serial novel I wrote between 2014-2015.