Henrietta stole another look at her compact before she snapped it shut and hurried out from behind the bar. The gilding around the edge was worn from overuse, but Henrietta didn’t mind. It still did its job, and, anyway, it had been a gift from one of the regulars in lieu of a tip, an old-timer whose wife had died several years back. It was obvious that the compact had been hers, but Henrietta had accepted it gratefully, gently squeezing the old man’s hand in payment when he had offered it, milky-eyed and shaking, happy that someone seemed to want it at last.
She weaved her way gingerly now through the tables where the crowd—mostly men—sat at low, battered tables throwing dice. The next round was starting, and as the house twenty-six girl she was supposed to not only keep score but to encourage drinks as the night wore on and inhibitions lowered.
“Who needs a refill before the next round starts?” she called out. Several men at the back table put up a thick, callused finger to indicate they were ready for another, Henrietta pulling out a tiny pencil from behind her ear and scribbling down their orders in a small notebook she kept in the front pocket of the worn, faded blue dress she always wore to work.
“What about you, Mr. Welters?” she asked, coming up behind an older man with snow-white hair, though he was probably not yet fifty. “Care for another?” she asked with her familiar smile.
“When you gonna call me Welty, like everyone else?” he said with false petulance.
“Just doesn’t seem right somehow,” she teased, “you being my elder, you see.”
Mr. Welters laughed out loud until it ended in a coughing fit. “You’re a little fox, that’s what you are,” he said clearing his throat. “A real vixen! Go on, then, I’ll have another. But don’t think I don’t know what you’re doin’.”
“Course you do!” she called out agreeably as she made her way back to the bar to give the order to Mr. Hennessey, the sole bartender as well as the proud owner of Poor Pete’s, the establishment in which they both currently toiled.
Mr. Hennessey winked at her as he patiently pulled the Pabst tap and adroitly poured whiskeys as the pints filled. Henrietta leaned against the dark walnut bar, waiting for the drinks, her eyes straying for a moment to the bank calendar hanging just above Mr. Hennessey’s head on the far wall, squeezed in between a rack of peanuts on one side and a crowded shelf of genuine German beer steins on the other. The calendar read January 1935, but it was hard to believe a new year had begun. It seemed like only yesterday that she had been helping Mr. Hennessey hang a few strands of Christmas garland and some rather thin sprigs of holly between the bottles of booze on the top shelf, which, being expensive, usually lay undisturbed for most of the year, anyway.
“Not too many tonight, is there?” Henrietta asked him with a shrug. “Think people are taking a break after the holidays?”
“Naw. It’s the damn coppers. Pardon my French,” Mr. Hennessey said with a nod of deference. “You know how it is. Cops come in, break up the twenty-six. People stay away for a while, but then they finally come back. Just a matter of waitin’ it out.”
“Yes, but the last time they were here was right around St. Nicholas Day, I think. It’s January now!”
“Well, you know,” he shrugged apologetically, “it’s been cold.” He looked out the tavern’s little window at the snow softly falling. It made a pretty picture despite the iron bars that ran across the window. “Here, get these out now, girl,” he said, hurriedly putting the last glass of beer on her tray. “Almost time to score.”
Henrietta quickly delivered the drinks and then rifled through her pocket for her notebook. “All right, then!” she called out. “Table one, what’s everyone got?” she asked and methodically worked her way around the room until she had recorded everyone’s score.
“Ooh! Mr. Mentz! That’s your second one!” she said enthusiastically to a middle-aged man in the corner, who had just declared that he had gotten a perfect twenty-six. “You’re hot tonight!”
“Always am when you’re here, Henrietta!” he shouted back, beaming and looking around at the crowd for acknowledgement of his high score. Only Mr. Welters blearily raised his glass in salute.
“Anyone else?” Henrietta called out.
Disgruntled mumblings were the only response.
“Okay, then, Mr. Mentz, that’s a free drink for you; what’ll it be?”
“Schlitz!” he answered. “Make it strong!”
The crowd snickered at his joke, as only beer or wine, not hard liquor, were offered as the prize for throwing a perfect twenty-six with the allotted ten dice. Almost any corner bar in Chicago offered a game of twenty-six, though sometimes a game could be found at the back of a cigar store as well as a quick alternative. It had been just over six years since the crash, but people were still struggling, and a game of twenty-six made for a cheap form of entertainment among working people—those who had a little bit of cash to spare for a drink and a laugh, as it cost only a quarter a game to get in.
Somehow, though, the police had gotten it into their heads that it was illegal—which it wasn’t, everyone knew—but they broke it up from time to time anyway, saying it amounted to gambling and possibly racketeering with possible links to the mob. It infuriated Henrietta whenever they busted it up at Poor Pete’s, as Mr. Hennessy ran a straight establishment, though she suspected he had been approached more than once to become a part of a bigger network. He would have none of it, though, and was determined to stay independent. Henrietta was proud of him for it, though she could see by the bags under his eyes from time to time that it worried him, especially when particularly unsavory types wandered in for a “little chat” about expanding his horizons, extra protection, and various other shady prospects.
Mr. Hennessey was an older man in his fifties or maybe even sixties. Henrietta wasn’t sure exactly; she was notoriously bad at guessing ages. He had graying hair that he wore in a crew cut and a thick gray mustache to match his thick, round body. He was married, of course, and had children, but they were all grown up now. Henrietta didn’t know much about them except that his daughter lived out east somewhere and one of his sons had died in the war. He never spoke much about his other son, and Henrietta did not like to ask. All in all, he was well liked, and Henrietta thought him a good businessman. He could be harsh with the occasional customer who got out of hand, though his sleepy corner bar was not the type of place that usually attracted young hotheads. But he had a softer side, too, especially when it came to Henrietta.
He had hired her when she was just fourteen to scrub the floors before Poor Pete’s opened each day at noon. It had been a favor, as he had known her father, that is, before he had killed himself just about four years ago now. Mr. Von Harmon had been a regular customer, and Mr. Hennessey felt it was the least he could do to help out the wife and the large family he had left behind. Not long after the “accident,” Henrietta had turned up out of the blue, asking if he had any work.
“You’re Les Von Harmon’s kid, aren’t you?” he had asked as he wiped his hands on the dirty towel hanging from his belt loop.
Henrietta merely nodded. She had come to the back door, and Mr. Hennessey had let her come in, though he suspected she was probably underage.
“How old are you?” he asked, peering down at her.
“Sweet Jesus,” Mr. Hennessey had whistled. “That all?” Mr. Hennessey had let his eyes briefly, albeit uncomfortably, travel over her body and knew in that moment that this girl’s life was either going to be a heaven or it was going to be a hell, for he had not seen this kind of beauty more than a couple of times in his whole life. She had long, thick auburn hair, which she wore loosely tied up; a heart-shaped face with perfect alabaster skin; full, pink lips; blue eyes that seemed to light up each time she spoke; and an already fully developed body with ample breasts and a slight swell at the hips. She had been dressed plainly in a cotton dress, but her beauty radiated nonetheless. She had the body of a woman that men look back twice at, a body that even made women comment.
“I know I’m young,” she said in a cheerful, pleasing sort of voice that oddly mesmerized him, “but I’m a real good cleaner, Mr. Hennessey. Please, I . . . we . . . need the money. I’ll clean the bathroom, too. You don’t want to be bothering with that, now do you? Let me do it for you . . . please . . . ”
“Well, I don’t know,” he said, scratching his head. His wife would be upset if he took on another employee, but he felt he owed it to poor Les. He had been drinking at Poor Pete’s that night. “I suppose we could try you out.”
“Oh, thanks, Mr. Hennessey!” she had said, two dimples magically appearing as she shyly smiled at him. Mr. Hennessey felt himself unwittingly blush.
“You come ‘round about ten each morning and get everything ship-shape. How’s that sound?”
“Oh, thanks, Mr. Hennessey! Want me to start now?” she asked, eagerly looking around.
“No, come back tomorrow,” he said hurriedly, shooing her out the door, knowing his wife was due any moment.
Henrietta came back promptly the very next day and every day after that for the next two years as the bar’s cleaner, Mr. Hennessey’s wife eventually coming around to the idea and actually becoming fond of Henrietta, too. In time, as she grew older, Henrietta naturally progressed to being a waitress, and then Mr. Hennessey had allowed her to try her hand at being a twenty-six girl, for which she was very grateful, as it meant more money that she could then hand over to her mother. As a twenty-six girl she got a percentage of the house’s profits for the night as well as any side tips she collected. Mr. Hennessey was happy to share the profits, as he knew it was Henrietta who had slowly boosted his clientele, word of the pretty twenty-six girl at Poor Pete’s getting around. Many men showed up each week just to be the object of her smile or the receiver of a little wink before they trudged home to their own wives or lonely beds. There were only a few times that anyone had tried an advance on Henrietta, having drunk a bit too much, and then Mr. Hennessey had thrown them out without a moment’s hesitation. In truth, a caress on the arm or a pat on the bottom never really bothered Henrietta that much, but Mr. Hennessey objected in the strongest of language, having grown fiercely protective of her as time had worn on, like the father she no longer had. Henrietta, in turn, trusted him completely. He was one of the few men who never tried to take advantage, never looked at her in a suggestive way, never let his fingers stray.
She had grown used to men staring at her, not that she particularly enjoyed it, but she did enjoy the doors it seemed to open, to the great annoyance of her mother, who preferred what hard work could get you in this world rather than what usually came from having a pretty face. Henrietta, too, would have preferred to get by on her wits alone, but times were hard, and she figured that she had to use what she had been given. Her mother seemed to resent her good looks, however, perhaps because they reminded her too much of her father, Henrietta reasoned. She missed him terribly, but they weren’t allowed to talk about him; her mother forbade it.
Though her mother might think otherwise, Henrietta was no stranger to hard work, often taking the morning shift as a waitress at various restaurants—although she had lost count of how many—before reporting to Poor Pete’s each night. The problem was not in procuring a job, which seemed to plague the rest of the country; it was in keeping the job. No sooner had she learned the ropes somewhere than she would inevitably be fired for slapping some greasy owner or telling off the cook for pinning her up against a wall for a “little smooch” when he thought no one was looking. Inevitably, then, when she turned up back at home before she was due, her mother would moan, “Oh, Hen, not again! What’d you do this time? Why can’t you ever just get along? A girl like you should be able to keep a job!” and before Henrietta could explain fully, her mother would hand her one of the crying twins while she went to tend to the other one.
But that was just the problem, Henrietta would sigh resignedly to herself as she awkwardly attempted to rock the crying baby in her arms. She wasn’t that kind of girl. Several times she had tried to explain to Ma that men had tried to take advantage . . . but her mother usually responded with something like, “Well, Hen, that’s the way of the world; better get used to it.” This always left Henrietta somewhat confused. Surely her mother wasn’t advocating that she be a “loose” woman, that she let men get away with fondling her; after all, she was always going on about women who had lost their virtue. But then why the disappointment when she took the moral high ground? What did she really expect of her? Whatever incoherent message Henrietta got from her mother, she decided early on of her own accord that she would try to remain “good.” Isn’t that what her father would have wanted as well? And if she didn’t, what lay ahead of her? No decent man would take her then, she guessed, and in her heart that was what she wanted, though she didn’t exactly want to become her mother, either, trapped in a little apartment with eight kids to take care of. No, she resolved, she would not just “get used to it,” as her mother suggested, and would instead let the chips fall where they may.
Mr. Hennessey was always so much more understanding. “Lose another one, did you, girl?” he would ask if she showed up earlier than usual for her shift. “Ah, well, Henrietta. You stick to your guns! Something else will turn up. You wait and see. You’ve always got a place here, you know.”
Henrietta would sadly smile her thanks while she got out the bucket to start the floors. “Yes, I know, Mr. Hennessey,” she would say wistfully, wishing her mother would adopt the same attitude. Her mother had never been the same after her father died, and it was almost as if Henrietta had lost two parents that awful night.
Her father had been employed at Arnold, Schwinn & Company on Courtland and Lawndale. He had worked on the line making their world-class Excelsior-Henderson motorcycles, but after the big stock market crash in ’29, the dice seemed loaded for him. Two years after the crash, in 1931, with the company dragging along, Frank Schwinn had called together his department heads and coolly announced that they were closing the motorcycle line and focusing only on bicycles for the foreseeable future, effective immediately. Les Von Harmon, along with 452 other men, lost his job that day, and rumor had it that Les, impossibly in debt from gambling, had stood outside the Schwinn mansion on Humboldt and Palmer for hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of Frank Schwinn to beg for his job, any job. After hours of waiting, he apparently gave up and made his way to Poor Pete’s, where he drank himself to near-unconsciousness and then stumbled back to the factory and hung himself in the maintenance shed.
Father Finnegan at St. Sylvester’s had been surprisingly very kind, recording Les’s death in the parish record book as heart failure and allowing him to be buried with full rites in the cemetery as a favor to Ma. He and several ladies from the bereavement committee had often visited Martha Von Harmon after that, offering what help they could, but Ma was fiercely independent and refused their prayers and sympathy, though she was forced from sheer desperation to take the collection they had brought. They had likewise received a note of condolence from Arnold, Schwinn & Company, but nothing else. Ma had thrown it into the fire. While her father had been alive, they had at least enjoyed a certain level of respectability, living in the company apartment building on Humboldt in Logan Square on Chicago’s northwest side, not too far from California and Milwaukee. It was a unique neighborhood in that it was the quite-sought-after address of some of the city’s more wealthy, with their large mansions surrounding Palmer Square proper, and yet it was also home to various poor immigrants and laborers living in the surrounding streets.
Though the Von Harmons themselves were working-class, Les Von Harmon had often entertained his brood with stories of how, back in the old country, somewhere called Alsace-Lorraine, the Von Harmons had been part of the landed class, the “gentry,” as he called them. In fact, he had delighted to tell them, they were almost a part of what one could call the ruling class and had enjoyed a sophisticated existence. Les frequently regaled them, as they ate their meager suppers, with stories of their lost wealth and the luxury they had once enjoyed . . . that is, until Les’s great grandfather had thrown it all away, so the story went, when he fell in love with an American woman whom he met while she traveled through the Alps with her family. The young couple, unable to live without each other, had eloped and ended up in Chicago, attempting to create a new life, which had been difficult without any money or family to speak of. But they had toiled on, happy at least in their love, until the present-day Von Harmons had taken the stage, though Les and Martha’s union was perhaps not so romantic as their predecessors’. Ma had usually rolled her eyes whenever Pa told the story of their aristocratic roots, but Les had taken great pride in it, which was why it seemed all the more tragic somehow when that pride wasn’t enough to sustain him at his own moment of crisis. Les, it seemed, had perhaps taken after his great-grandfather more than he realized and had chosen to escape, desperate, from the only world he knew, to the great sorrow of those left behind.
After Les’s death, the Von Harmons had been consequently reduced to extreme poverty and had had to move to a smaller apartment on Armitage with just four rooms. At least the ladies from St. Sylvester’s left them alone now, Ma had said. She possessed a stubborn pride of her own, though she never spoke that much about her own family, saying that it really didn’t matter where she was from. Something always told Henrietta, though, that perhaps she had once come from money. Just the way she held herself and the way she spoke certain phrases seemed different somehow from their neighbors, as if she were from another world, too.
When Les died, Martha was just one month pregnant with the twins, never having had the chance to even tell him she was expecting. Unable to go out to work after they were born early, whimpering into the world, she had taken in mending and washing and had instead sent Henrietta out to be a cleaner, at least to begin with. Elsie, Henrietta’s younger sister by two years, left school as well and managed to get a job sewing at Dubala’s Tailor Shop around the corner. Eugene, just eleven at the time, was still in school, as were Eddie and Herbert, while Jimmy and the twins, Doris and Donny, were still at home with Ma.
Henrietta, being the eldest, was of course the one upon whom Ma relied the most for their meager income and to go down to the armory each month on North and Kedzie to stand in line for the free food given out by government agents to the city’s masses after the country had plunged into the Depression. Ma just couldn’t bear to hold her hand out, but she compromised with her better feelings and allowed Henrietta to go in her place. Henrietta didn’t really mind. In fact, she could never understand why her mother balked so at getting free food—all the neighbors did—and it was a chance, as they all stood in the long lines, to exchange goods or strands of gossip while they waited, though it had admittedly been difficult at first. Though only young when she first started going, Henrietta had quickly become aware of a certain stigma that seemed to have attached itself to them in reference to her father’s suicide. As time went on, she had learned to ignore any whispered murmurings in the armory line, brushing them off with the appearance of nonchalance. She never mentioned the stares and the whispers to her mother, however, who would not have failed to see the ridiculous irony in the situation, the supposedly once-great Von Harmons brought low by the selfishness of a weak man. Somehow, though, Ma seemed aware of the stigma anyway, which perhaps was a reason for her predilection for staying indoors, a habit over the subsequent years that began to border on reclusiveness.
The assumed attitude of indifference that the young Henrietta had developed, combined with her natural flair for the dramatic, proved rather helpful for her, however, in the various jobs she seemed to find, or, rather, which seemed to find her. Two summers ago, for instance, she had worked during the day for a Dutch rubber company at their booth at the World’s Fair before her shift began at Poor Pete’s. All that was required of her was to wear a Dutch Girl costume and hand out neatly printed fliers extolling the virtues of said rubber company. It was wonderfully easy, though it took an age to get down there on the streetcar as well as to braid up her hair and tie it in loops. It was worth it, though, as she had gotten to see the whole fair on her lunch breaks and because it had led to yet another job.
As the fair was winding down at the end of the season, a man had approached her as she stood handing out fliers and had asked if she would come work for him at Marshall Field’s as a curler girl. Henrietta had been hesitant at first, not knowing what a “curler girl” was, but in the end she had agreed to come on a Wednesday morning, the one day she had off each week from the fair, to investigate. She was immediately put at her ease as the job itself seemed innocent enough. All she had to do was look pretty and demonstrate to customers how to apply Baldwin’s new hair curlers on a willing assistant. Her model, it turned out, was a girl named Polly, who luckily—but unbeknownst to the customers—already had naturally curly hair. Henrietta loved performing in front of this built-in audience and found that she had a bit of talent for the stage, never mind that she wasn’t particularly skilled as a hair stylist, and Polly became what Henrietta never seemed to have time for, a friend. Henrietta still worked there on Saturdays, actually, before heading over to Poor Pete’s, and it was Polly who was now encouraging her to try being a taxi dancer with her instead of working at Poor Pete’s as a twenty-six girl.
Henrietta considered this prospect yet again as she carried out the second round of drinks, glancing back at Mr. Hennessey as she did so. She couldn’t imagine leaving him after all he had done for her, and yet it was hard to ignore the money Polly claimed to make.
“You do as you like,” Polly had said about a month ago as they shared a seat on the elevated train headed north from State Street, where Marshall Field’s flagship was anchored, “but I don’t know how long you’re going to waste your life in that dump.”
“Polly!” Henrietta said with mock irritation. “It’s not a dump! It’s quite charming, actually!”
Polly grinned as she blew her cigarette smoke straight up above them. Polly reminded Henrietta of a pixie of sorts . . . petite, with blond curly hair cut short just above her shoulders, and with fine, delicate features, not unlike Carole Lombard. She wore heavy mascara, which made her lashes look unusually long and accented her big brown eyes perfectly. “Really? News to me! Even the name’s awful. Poor Pete’s? Come on, Hen! Come to the Promenade with me. The music’s swell, and Mama Leone’s always looking for new girls; you’d be perfect. You’ll make loads more money . . . isn’t that what you’re always on about?”
“But I’ve told you, I can’t . . .”
“Yes, yes, I know. You can’t dance very well. But it’s like I’ve said, it hardly matters. It’s not Buckingham Palace. Most of the clods that come in there just want to hold a pretty girl in their arms for a few minutes. Nothing to it!”
“Yes, but . . . Mr. Hennessey . . . I just don’t know . . . ”
“Look, doll,” Polly said, getting serious. “You’ve got to look out for yourself, you know. You don’t worry about Mr. Hennessey; he can look after himself. You worry about you and all those brothers and sisters of yours.”
Unfortunately, she had a point. “Maybe. I’ll think about it . . .”
“Well, don’t think too long; you don’t know when a good thing might pass you by,” Polly said, standing up to get off at her stop in Lincoln Park. “See you next Saturday, then,” she added, giving a quick wave before stepping off the train. Henrietta watched her blend into the crowd before the train pulled away, heading north toward Logan Square. She envied Polly sometimes, living alone in her own rooms, with apparently no family or cares to weigh her down. She was her own woman, it seemed, able to come and go as she pleased. Henrietta had sighed as the train lurched forward. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t dance well or that she didn’t want to be unfair to Mr. Hennessey, though both of those things were true; it was that she wasn’t sure she wanted to go down the road of being a taxi dancer. Wasn’t there something wrong with dancing with men for money? Mightn’t it lead to more unsavory things?
She had put Polly off for weeks now, but as Mr. Hennessey counted out the night’s takings on the bar after the last man had stumbled out, she winced at her little pile and knew that Ma would be disappointed tomorrow. She had made a few dollars in tips, but it wasn’t much.
“Sorry, girl,” Mr. Hennessey said as he slid his pile of change off the bar and plopped it into the hulking black cash register at the end of it. “It’ll pick up. Just gotta give it some time. Just gotta wait for the cops to back off.”
Henrietta felt a burst of anger as she slipped her share of the money into her dress pocket next to her notebook. Didn’t the cops have anything else to do? Shouldn’t they be out catching gangsters or some such people instead of breaking up twenty-six games in corner bars on side streets? It just seemed unfair, wrong somehow.
“I know, Mr. Hennessey,” she said, giving him a weak smile as she slipped on her coat and wrapped a scarf knitted by Elsie around her neck. “See you tomorrow.”
As she walked home in the freezing January night, however, she ruminated on what Polly had said. Perhaps she should listen to her. Christmas had been terrible this year. Not only were there no presents except a bar of chocolate and an orange in each of their stockings, which she herself had insisted on buying, but the flu had hit them hard. Herbert had nearly slipped away from them to join Pa in his bed in the graveyard, and Eugene was still very weak. He had also quit school this year, but had so far only found work as a box burner behind some of the shops along Milwaukee. He had been hoping to get on at Sulzer’s, the electrics factory on Western, but each time he inquired, he was told there was nothing yet. Ma kept urging him to ask for a job at Schwinn, seeing as it was the least they could do, but Eugene always refused. He was generally quiet, but he could be stubborn as well. So far the twins had escaped the flu, but when Henrietta had left for work tonight Ma was fussing over them because she thought they might have a low fever. Henrietta prayed it was nothing serious and resolved to stop by Gorski’s tomorrow to see if they had any beef soup bones so that Ma could make them a beef tea. The money in her pocket wouldn’t go far, though. She sighed and remembered that their charge bill at Schneider’s was higher than it had ever been. The last time she had been in, Mr. Schneider had given her a look, something between frustration and pity, as he agreed to put the small pile of things she had set on the counter on their tab once again. She could kick herself now for buying the oranges; she should have gotten them each just a chocolate bar for Christmas. Ma had told her at the time that she was being extravagant, but she hadn’t listened. As she turned the corner onto Armitage, Henrietta decided reluctantly that she simply couldn’t wait any longer for business to pick up at Poor Pete’s; she was going to have to put her reservations aside and go see about the taxi dancer job. The problem was what to do about Ma.