Updated (added Chapter 2) on 10-10-11
AUTHOR: Frederick Fuller
TITLE: “For the Heart’s Treasure”
GENRE: Romantic Adult Contemporary
SYNOPSIS: What if a damaged woman marries a man who is sweet, kind and a Lothario? Themes: Extreme opposites, love against backdrop of Great Depression. Hook: sex!
For the Heart’s Treasure
a novel (partial) by Frederick Fuller
Eva Conner took a flipper from her apron pocket, wiped it on a napkin, and placed it in her mouth. She hated the thing, but it was better than the gaping hole revealed when she smiled. She promised herself a permanent bridge as soon as she could afford, but it was it fun to play with at times, especially around children like her 10-year-old sister, Maddy. With her tongue, Eva could make it swing up and down like a tiny door, or lay it on her lower lip with her mouth closed and create a witch’s tooth. She’d cross her eyes and send Maddy into shrieks of eardrum ripping laughter.
It was six in the morning, and she was at work at Gus Stamos’s Coffee Shop. Glancing at the large front window she noticed ice forming on the glass inside from the steam in the kitchen.
Twelve below zero in Chicago is colder than twelve below zero anywhere else on Earth, Eva thought, especially in February.
She came to work at five to help George Chu prep for breakfast, listening to his complaints and tales of woe, in accented English and Chinese. George was a small man, and Eva was always amused at how swallowed up he looked in a chef’s coat and toque. But the kitchen was his domain; even Gus entered cautiously. George liked to laugh and Eva liked that.
The ice patterns on the window created a kaleidoscopic effect and made objects appear broken and misaligned. Turgid black clouds resembled mixed mortar, and cars chugging along Halsted Street were jig jagged like audio equalizers. Steam hissed from grates in the sidewalk, becoming wavy ghosts. Engrossed in the scene, she scraped at the ice with a thumbnail without realizing it. She sighed. “Depressing as hell,” she muttered. “Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone. Happy, happy, happy.” She blew her nose and stuffed the tissue in her apron pocket. “All right, Eva, stop it. You’re a lot better off than a lot of people.”
She returned to filling salt and pepper shakers, her last chore of the morning. Her first task as soon as she arrived was to start two 50-cup coffee urns. Next came filling endless creamers, tiny glass jugs in which one ounce of cream was deposited one plop at a time from a stainless steel dispenser. Butter chips followed, little saucers the size of silver dollars on which a pat of butter was placed, endless like the creamers.
Dozens of sweet rolls were plated and placed in the pie case where they remained until pie replaced them at lunch. From blocks of ice delivered earlier that morning she chipped hunks and filled the ice chest, and then rolled over a hundred service sets in paper napkins, storing them on trays under the counter. By the time she got the restaurant ready for business she felt ready for a nap.
Gus’s restaurant was in a blue-collar neighborhood near the Illinois Central Railroad yard, but it was not a greasy spoon. Considered by many an institution on Halsted Street it was a haven for lovers of Greek cuisine. One sniff upon opening the door attested to its ethnicity: odors of oregano, basil, tomatoes, the milky, subtle odor of feta cheese and the muskiness olives, mingled with the anise of ouzo. If anyone doubted they were entering a Greek place, a picture of a line of male dancers in full Foustanella, reminiscent of Gus’s native Thrace, greeted patrons.
For Eva it was a blast working there. The people she worked with were great, and the patrons were fascinating. In Chicago’s Greek town is was hard to get a job if you weren’t Greek, so she was grateful. She got the job because of Gus’s niece, Foula, whom met in a speakeasy on Clark Street one Friday night. They hit it off right away. When Eva mentioned she was looking for a waitress job, Foula told her to show up at Gus’s Monday morning. Eva found that Foula worked breakfast and was hostess for the dinner turn. She’d been there almost a year. It was mindless work, but it numbed her so she didn’t have to think much.
For breakfast prep Foula took care of replenishing sugar and condiments and checking juice—lots of orange and tomato—and wiping down the tables, chairs, stools and counter. They enjoyed each other’s company. Eva never felt like an outsider just because Foula was part of Gus’s family; Gus yelled at them both constantly to get busy, keep busy and stop talking so much.
Eva looked up from filling the salt. “Soko’s here,” she yelled toward the kitchen. She filled a cup with coffee, placed a creamer on the saucer, grabbed a service, and took them to the counter, placing them in front of the last stool from the door, next to the small dining room.
“Kalimera, Soko,” Foula called as he entered.
Soko smiled, nodded his head slightly. “Kalimera sas,” he answered in a soft high-pitched voice, and went to his seat. Eva placed a glass of orange juice beside the coffee. Soko dumped the cream into the coffee, stirred, and sipped. He smiled up at Eva and winked. It was a ritual exactly at 6:15 every morning, and if it didn’t happen, Gus would go look for Soko.
Soko was short for Sokrotes, just like the hemlock-sipping philosopher, and from the way he looked, he might have known the ancient sage: his face looked like a raisin with lines and wrinkles in his olive brown complexion. Under a Cubs baseball cap he crammed a mass of snowy hair, complementing a huge mustache dyed deep yellow by cigarette smoke from his ample nose. On cold days like this one he bundled in a parka that looked like it belonged on the Iditarod trail. Soko spoke very little English, talking mostly to Gus in Greek. Some said Soko had sponsored Gus when he came over from Greece in 1919. His reward for the sponsorship, apparently, was free meals because Soko never paid.
“Up!” George shouted and lobbed a plate on the order counter.
Eva took it to Soko, who smiled again, winked and began eating: two eggs folded over a generous slab of feta cheese, three strips of bacon and two pieces of wheat toast, no butter, a little jelly. When he reached for a piece of toast, Eva watched his hands: small, delicate and perfectly manicured. It fascinated her that a man his age would care for his hands so well.
The door opened and Gus along with a blast of cold air rushed in. Gus flung his coat at the rack and missed.
“Did you hear?” he shouted and ran over to Soko.
“Hear what?” Foula asked.
“’Bout last night. Big, big murder, on Clark. Bunch of gangsters shot. I think seven guys, maybe eight, shot with machine guns.” He translated what he’d said for Soko who looked puzzled by Gus’s exuberance. Gus’s brown eyes were large and sparkling like a kid who’d won a prize, and his face was smeared with an immense, yellow-toothed grin. He fired a few more sentences to Soko, and then continued in English. “They say dead guys Bugs Moran boys. They say Capone did it.”
Gus was tall, broad-shouldered and bald. At sixty-five his long face was smooth and tight except for laugh lines at his mouth. Busy all the time, he was regularly excited about something and boisterous to a point that Eva often put her fingers in her ears to lower the decibels. But she found him fun to be around, despite his tirades about the restaurant not being clean enough, or about some city politician sticking it to the little guy, or his favorite about why Greeks were superior to any other nationality.
“They’ll find it hard to prove Capone did it,” Eva said, putting Gus’s grey tweed overcoat on a hook. “He owns this town and every crooked official in it. And they’re all crooked. How’d you find out?”
“I run into Frank, the cop. You know, he come for lunch sometime. He say they find these guys this morning in garage on Clark St. owned by some cartridge company.”
“Cartridge company?” Eva said.
“Ne. Cartridge. What wrong?”
“You might mean cartage. Cartridges are bullets. Did they make bullets there?”
“No, they shoot bullets, not make,” Gus said and laughed, looking around to see if anyone else got the joke. “How the hell I know? Cartridge or, what you say?”
“Cartage. I don’t know word. Frank say one guy live, a Jew, Gusenberg. But he die at hospital, Frank say.” Gus paused and looked at everyone, including George who peeked through the kitchen doors. His eyes still sparkling, the grin still spread broad across his face, Gus shouted and clapped his hands, “So, let’s get ready breakfast. I think we have lots customers today, maybe.” He turned to Soko and spoke rapidly in Greek, performing his words with hand gestures, facial expressions, and dancing. Soko bobbed his head to let Gus know he understood, but he continued to eat.
A man and a woman came in mid a gust of cold, damp air, followed by a tall, husky fellow carrying a large leather duffle bag. Eva looked at the two men, both wearing black Kromer hats, earflaps down, heavy denim jumper coats, bib overalls with grey sweatshirts, and red bandanas snuggled around their necks, and knew they were railroaders. Notwithstanding attire, their faces stained black with coal soot pinpointed their occupation.
The woman wore a stocking cap pulled down and a scarf wrapped around her mouth. All Eva could see were the woman’s eyes as she watched the couple sit at a table by the window and shiver enough to sweat. Tall-and-husky mounted a stool at the counter and placed his duffle on the floor next to him.
Eva carried two cups, creamers and a pot of coffee to the table. “Looks like you need this,” she said as she filled their cups and placed a service by each. With a trembling laugh, the woman held the cup close to her chest as if it would keep her from freezing to death. The man grunted and slurped the coffee.
She put menus in front of them and said, “I’ll give you a few minutes.”
When she replaced the carafe under the urn, she noticed Foula had already served coffee to the big fellow at the counter, who was smoking and preparing his coffee. She watched as he stirred in two teaspoons of sugar, tested it by sipping a spoonful, added more sugar, tested once more, then took the cup and drank. Persnickety, aren’t we, Eva thought. She glanced at the couple.
Having removed her stocking cap and come out from behind her scarf, Eva saw that her brown hair was bobbed and that she was about twenty-five, and very pretty. Eva studied faces of women who came into the restaurant, particularly young women, because she was self-conscious of the scar on her forehead and of her crooked jaws, both from a car accident. Though only twenty-four, Eva thought she looked forty.
“Can I have some more coffee?” It was Mr. Persnickety, as Eva had dubbed him. She filled his cup and sat a creamer next to it. “Really cold out there,” he said.
“Yeah, twelve below I heard.” She looked at him closely. Under the coal soot was a strong face with a square dimpled chin. Eva loved dimpled chins. His light blue eyes made him look kind and gentle, and when he smiled, his eyes smiled, too, and she felt warm. She also felt stupid, like a high school girl ogling a cute guy in the hall.
“My name’s Jack,” he said.
“Oh, shit.” Eva heard herself say. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that. It just came out. I apologize.”
“It’s okay,” Jack responded, but looked puzzled.
“I’m sorry. That’s my ex-husband’s name, and he was, let’s say, a bad person. I just sort of get sick when I hear it.” Eva frowned and shook her head. “Why am I telling you this? I don’t know you.”
“That’s all right. I won’t tell. But is Oh Shit your first name or last?’
Eva looked at him and laughed. “You and I are not going to get along, are we?”
Pretending seriousness, he said, “Now, you can never tell. Would you prefer John? That’s my real name.”
“Yeah, well, his real name was John, too. No help.” Jack continued to smile and sip coffee, never taking his eyes off hers.
“My name’s Eva.” Now why did I tell him that?
“Two up.” George yelled. Eva turned and went to get the orders.
Eva enjoyed working breakfast. She loved the morning smells: coffee, frying bacon and eggs, pancakes, waffles and toast; the earthy scent of hash brown potatoes blended with the Greek bouquet of Mediterranean herbs, spices, oils and cheeses that George combined to make treasures like dolmades, those wonderful rice-filled grape leaves, luscious tiropites, tissue thin phyllo-wrapped nuggets of feta cheese, eggs, butter and a secret flavoring known only to Greek grandmothers. Eva devoured tiropites; they crunched like fresh crackers.
George made all the Greek delicacies Gus featured: mousaka, pastitsio, avgolemono soup, baklava, karidopita, a special cake made of walnut flour and drenched in butter and rum, and anything else Gus ordered. Sometimes, on a slow night Foula or Gus would make real Greek coffee, so black and strong that inhaling the vapors caused a caffeine high.
“I good Gleek cook,” George would say, and they all agreed that he had become very adept. Gus joked that at first George’s dishes tasted slightly Asian with soy sauce and sesame oil, but it didn’t last long. George called himself Chinese Gleek.
As Gus predicted, the place filled up by seven that morning, and the dominant topic of conversation was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, as dubbed by news jockeys everywhere in the city. Newspapers flew headlines above the fold that bellowed “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” or “Capone Decimates Bugsy Moran’s Gang!” Capone, of course, was in Florida, sucking a Cuban Presidento, saying he never heard of any Bugsy Moran and he’d been in Florida forever.
“They say a hundred people were killed.”
“Come on,” someone yelled. “The news said seven guys, including some doctor who was in the wrong place and the wrong time.”
“Who the hell cares how many? Seven gangsters or a hundred, they’re all one big sack a shit,” said a guy with a White Sox symbol on his cap.
“Yeah, well, it’s a matter of the clean-up after, right?” someone commented from down the counter. “Less blood with seven.” Everyone laughed.
Eva, Foula and Gus ran to keep up with orders while George hurled angry phases in Chinese. Old Soko had left, but Jack was still there. By now he’d shed his coat and Kromer, and had had some eggs and bacon. He was munching a Danish when Eva bent down to get some service.
“Not busy, are you?” he said.
Laughing, she answered, “Oh, no, we do this for fun. Can’t you see how much fun we’re having? You should see us when we are busy.” She ran off to a table where three men were sitting.
Jack pulled a watch from the top pocket of his bib overalls and checked it. Seven thirty. If I get up at four this afternoon, he thought, I’d have plenty of time to have a little fun before morning.
Jack glanced at Eva as she wrote orders for the three men. Maybe she’d like to have some fun, too. She wasn’t the prettiest girl he’d ever seen; she was homely in fact. But she was put together nicely. Petit and shapely, and she had pretty eyes. He wondered where she got the scar on her forehead. Finishing his coffee in a gulp and stubbing out his cigarette, he got up and arranged his coat and hat for the three-block walk to the hotel. Eva walked toward him as he started to leave.
“Yeah, uh, . . .I can’t say your name. Sorry.”
“What time is dinner?”
“Yeah, what time do you start dinner around here? And would you join me?”
“Join you? Dinner? Here?” She squinted her eyes and looked at him closely.
“Eva, if I’m confusing you, or something, I . . .”
She cut him off. “Uh, what’d you say your last name was?”
‘I didn’t, but it’s Stewart.”
“Okay, umm, Mr. Stewart. Dinner here starts at six o’clock. And I’ll be working dinner. I work all the time, every day, and I do not join some . . . strange guy for dinner anywhere.” She stared up at him with small hazel eyes out of which it seemed to him an inch fire shot. Her scar appeared to pulsate.
“Should I dress for dinner?” Jack asked.
“You should leave me alone.” Jack felt ice in her voice.
“Okay, then. I guess I’ll see you later.” He smiled, touched the bill of his cap, and left.
Although insulted by his boldness and angry that he thought she was just some kind of chippie, Eva felt flattered, too. After the car accident, she was positive no guy would ever glance at her again, and few had. Jack, she pondered. Why couldn’t his name be Joe?
Anything but Jack.
Jack found his room at the Illinois Hotel, a huge place owned by the Blue Island Railroad. He sat down on the single bed, dropped his duffle bag on the floor, and removed his boots and socks first thing. He caught a whiff of his feet.
“Oh, my god,” He immediately lit a cigarette.
He hung his coat in the small wardrobe, went to the sink, and looked at himself in the mirror.
“Face looks like a jigaboo, and you smell worse than one. You need a shower, Jack. You need a shower bad.” No wonder Eva didn’t want any part of you, he thought.
He padded across to the bed again, removed all his clothes, and stowed them on the floor of the wardrobe. He hung his Kromer on a hook next to his coat. There were clean towels on the bed, so he wrapped himself in one, grabbed his soap, and headed to the gang shower adjacent to the urinals and commode stalls.
No one was around so took he long time washing and letting the warm water splash over him. Having spent countless nights in hotels, Jack knew it was unusual to have lots of hot water. But the Illinois was owned by a railroad that believed nothing was too good for their men.
He got back to the room and put on a pair of white boxers. He was beat. He’d tired up in Chicago that morning around four o’clock, and although the run from Louisville had been without incident, being a fireman meant he had to work all the way. He’d kept the water tanks full, the fire stoked, awakened the engineer when they were near a stop, and generally made sure the monster ran without incident. He’d been up all night.
When he and the engineer, Stormy Cromer, arrived, the dispatcher told them they were stuck in Chicago for a while. Both were on the extra board, and the run back to Louisville had been cancelled. That meant they’d have to wait for however long it took to be assigned a run back. Could be tomorrow, could be next week.
For Jack it was a holiday. At twenty-eight and single he relished the idea of being on the loose in Chicago. He was in amazing physical shape, having pulled race boats in the Navy after his stint in the army, which he served in Paris in 1918. Wanting to make the Navy his career, Jack worked hard aboard his ship, the U.S.S. Arizona, to make first-class gunner’s mate, and for kicks he joined the ship’s race boat team with its rigorous training and weekly completion against teams from other ships, resulting in his developing the physique of a world-class body builder.
He loved the Navy. It cared for him, giving food, clothes and shelter while taking him all over the world. He spent a year in Hawaii, eating, drinking, and copulating. Best of all he didn’t have to think; the Navy told him what to think, how to think, and when to stop. All he had to do was obey: “Aye, aye, sir.” And life was sweet.
But a Navy career was not to be for Jack. His father’s unexpected death in 1927, forced the Navy to discharge him as the only surviving son of his family. Added to the heartache of his father’s death was his feeling abandoned by the Navy. Deeply depressed, he confessed to his sisters that he was scared, that he didn’t know where to go, what to do, and, worst of all, he didn’t know how to do anything, except take orders, swim and pull a race boat. Susan, his oldest sister, dated a guy who worked for the L&N Railroad, and told him about her brother. He suggested Jack apply and that he would put in a good word. Jack was hired, and thus began his career as a fireman.
“So I’m was stuck in Chicago for a few days. Gee, what a shame,” he told his engineer, Stormy, with a wide smile.
Somewhat like the Navy, the L&N Railroad would shelter and feed him while there, and no one controlled what he did on his own time.
“Look out Chicago, Jack Stewart’s on the prowl,” he hollered and clapped Stormy on the back.
“Sure as hell glad I’m as old as I am,” Stormy said as he watched Jack hop around like a kid. “I’m goin’ to bed.”
Knowing he had to have energy to prowl, Jack wanted sleep, too. He looked at his clock and saw it was 8:20, and figured by four that afternoon he’d have eight hours.
“More’n enough time to raise hell from one end of the city to another,” he mumbled as he flipped out the lamp and snuggled down into the covers. He’d set the alarm for four that afternoon, and as he drifted off he thought of Eva and smiled. “How I’d love a bite of her, even if I don’t know why.” It was his last thought as sleep swallowed him whole.