One evening in one of those Over-the-Rhine cafés which were plentiful along Vine Street of the Cincinnati of the nineties, a traveling salesman leaned across his stein of Moerlein’s Extra Light and openly accused Ray Schmidt of being innocent.
“I know! You’re one of those cheating girls who act fly but aren’t. You’ll lead a man on, but you won’t go all the way.”
At the implication and all that went with it, Ray’s hand flew to her tippet, color ran beneath her tan pallor, and as usual when under stress, she rolled her eyes and became flippant.
“Try me,” was what she said, with little sense of the outrageousness of such a remark.
“That’s exactly what I have been trying to do all evening,” said the traveling salesman who, having exhibited what was for him an unprecedented astuteness in his summary of Ray Schmidt, now leaned to pinch her knee softly underneath the table.
Ray was forever being pinched underneath tables. As far back as she could remember, as a child and then as a girl growing up on Baymiller Street, boys had been fond of pinching and pulling her toward them for kisses.
“Spooning” was not unpleasant, particularly in the evening, when somehow the boys’ faces receded out of a pimply reality into the velvet tunnels of Cincinnati’s low kind of darkness. With the boys whose faces persisted in jutting lumpily, even out of cover of nighttime, Ray simply had not the heart to follow the slightly disgusted impulse to push them away.
One “spooned” to be kind. It gave you the reputation of being “fly,” no doubt of that, particularly if, like Ray, you were endowed with that subtle womanish dimension known as “style.” Ray had that. When she even so much as walked past the Stag Hotel, skirts held up off the sidewalk with that ineffable turn of wrist which again denoted “style,” there was that in her demeanor which caused each male head and eye to turn.
Sometimes they made kissing sounds with their lips, past which she sailed with her head high.
But the fact was that more usually than not Ray had attired herself, at length and with great detail, for this rapid sail past the Stag Hotel. The turning of the heads set agog within her a sense of excitement. It made life seem to quicken, as she felt the eyes burn along her well-corseted back. It was as if she could feel, with the very taper of her torso into a waistline that two ordinary hands could come within an inch of spanning, the rhythm of being well-proportioned. Nor was she above straining her ears from beneath their pompadour for the bits of applause that were sometimes carried along to her.
“You’d look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two!”
“Sweet Marie, come to me!”
“She’s a daisy!”
Ray’s longish eyelids would properly drop like two slow fans, and she would remark, if her stepsister Freda happened to be along, “See anything green?” But deep within her would begin to run the stirring saps of her body. The contour of her breasts, flung high by corsets, felt beautiful, and so did the movement of her flaring hips and the strength in the calves of her legs as, beneath two petticoats and a Spanish-flounced skirt, they hurried her along in their strong black cotton stockings.
Privately her own as were these sensations that lay warmly in her body, the bold fact was that the eyes of the men seemed to bring them pleasantly awake. It was a greater treat to the senses, even more thoroughly delighting, than to indulge in her favorite habit of lying back in a warm bath with a copy of The Wages of Sin, by Lucas Malet, held open to its place and tied with twine to the faucet to facilitate page turnings.
These Narcissus-like delights of hers branded the daughter of old Adolph Schmidt, during the various stages of her girlhood, as boy-crazy, fly, swift, fresh, shady, gay, and even fast.
Men laid hands too readily on Ray Schmidt. She was not past slapping them off her thighs or the slim ledge of her hip, but the smile belied the fake anger in her gray eyes.
“Ray lets the boys get fresh with her,” was the sotto voce indictment of Baymiller Street, even back in the days before she had lengthened her skirts, put up her hair, and developed to its fullest sense that promise of “style” which had already characterized her as a child.
It was well-known along Baymiller that Schmidt did not even try to keep (much less succeed in keeping) his daughter off the streets—that he let her run wild, as the saying went—that it was not unusual, indeed habitual, for her, at fifteen, to remain out on the stoop with two, three, and sometimes one of the boys; and more than one head in curlpapers, popping out of a window after ten, had beheld her kissing good nights, “spooning.”
Boys carried home Ray’s schoolbooks for her, just the ordinary boys who ran shouting about the streets after school, and stood for as long as an hour at the iron front gate, jiggling about in the spotty conversation of adolescence and ending with last-tag bouts and much body-mauling of Ray.
A fresh child.
When she was only thirteen, Bertha Auth, a neighboring child of a prosperous local builder, had already been forbidden to play with her because Ray kissed boys.
That hurt her, terribly. Bertha, forbidden, made Ray feel dirty and contaminating. You kissed boys, well, chiefly because you happened to be the sort of girl the boys wanted to kiss. True, the way it made you feel reminded you of the ice in the gutters when it began to thaw in spring and started to flow with that beautiful spiral glassy sound. The best part of it all though was the fact that the boys wanted to kiss you and got pleasure. They didn’t clamor for the osculatory favors of Bertha or, for that matter, Freda Tagenhorst, who was prettier than Ray, and who at fourteen was to become Freda Schmidt by virtue of her mother’s marriage to Ray’s father.
This impulse to please was part of the very texture of Ray. It pleased the boys to kiss and fondle her. They breathed hard and were eager. Even when they had pimply faces, which offended her, and crusty hands from after-school chores and skating bare-handed on the canal, she bore with their embraces for the apparent ecstasy it was hers to bestow upon just an ordinary schoolboy of shuffling feet, unkempt hair, and ill-hung clothes.
It was not nice, and she knew it; and she suffered when the sweet and acquiescing friendship of Bertha was withdrawn, or when her stepmother bawled reprimands. But just the same, at nineteen, it was as characteristic of her as it had been at fourteen, that a traveling salesman, in the very act of making so acute an observation as, “You’re one of those girls who act fly but aren’t,” should, unreprimanded, pinch her knee under the table.
How dared he? Why was she so acquiescent? Why, in the language of her stepmother, did she not “haul off” and slap the face of any man who dared get fresh with her? A man expected it. A man respected you if you did. Went on getting fresher if you didn’t.
Ray knew that. She knew it as well as she knew she was sitting in a hall, Over-the-Rhine, being pinched on the knee by a traveling salesman who was no more to her than the ten or twenty others who streamed through her father’s store each year.
This one’s name was Michel Prothero, and he lived on Staten Island, New York, and was a married man, quite pretentiously so, and carried a photograph of his wife, with her two children’s arms about her neck, in the lid of his watch. He represented a dress-lining concern with which Adolph Schmidt had carried modest account for over twenty years. The skirt in which Ray sat being pinched was lined in that firm’s excellent grade of Frostilla sateen.
“If I was a married man, Prothero,” she rebuked him softly, “it seems to me I would have something better to do than to try to get fresh with a respectable girl in her hometown.”
He was not an unintelligent fellow. He was in love, after a fashion, with his wife, pompous and vainglorious about his children, and yet every time he came to Cincinnati he found himself admitting that here was the one girl who could bring him to the point of infidelity. Not that he ever thought much about her in the six-month intervals between his semiannual trips to the Middle West: it was her nearness that seemed to scoop him into a sense of security such as he had never known.
Great girl to bother about a fellow. She cared. It was pleasant to have a stunning, up-to-the-minute-looking girl like Ray Schmidt walk into a Vine Street restaurant with you and see her order, with one eye to a fellow’s digestion and the other to keeping the check down. Sort of like having your cake and eating it too. Where could you find a girl of Ray’s general layout who wasn’t either a chippie or, as the saying went, all bound round with a woolen string? Ray was neither. She was one of the girls who would run around town all hours not bothering about the looks of the thing (Prothero would “break her neck” if he ever caught one of his own girls at the like of it); but, on the other hand, she wasn’t out-and-out fast. Father one of the old-fashioned and respected merchants of the town. Small fry, but Schmidt’s “Trimmings, Veilings, Dress Linings, and Buckram” was second only to Caldwell’s, and, in lesser fashion, as much a part of staple Cincinnati as Rookwood Pottery, or Alms and Doepke, or the old canal itself.
Married man might do worse than be seen spending an evening with Ray Schmidt. Wife of a married man could thank her stars it was Ray Schmidt instead of a chippie. The difference between a fly girl and a fast woman was all the difference in the world.
“Yes, siree—you’re just one of those girls who act fly and aren’t.”
She did quizzical things with her eyes and lips after the manner of one trying to appear enigmatic. It must be conceded that she succeeded. In her large pompadour hat, trimmed in two great panne-velvet splotches, one fuchsia, one purple, her gray eyes shadowed by black lashes, and a face veil with chenille dots, Ray Schmidt was sufficiently provocative of Vine Street’s surmisings about her.
“A man like you, Prothero,” said Ray, resting her chin in the palm of her hand and gazing at him across her glass of Moerlein’s and one of Wielert’s excellent tongue sandwiches embellished with cottage cheese, “divides his world into two parts—the half where he would take his wife and the half where he wouldn’t.”
“Nonsense. I’d bring my wife here to Wielert’s any night in the week before eleven.”
She consulted the silver watch held in place on her fine bosom by a garnet crescent.
“It’s just eleven-forty-five. That’s me.”
“You’re the darnedest!” he said, admiring her with his eyes where the watch rose and fell to her breathing.
“Darnedest what, Prothero?”
“Darned if I know. Man like me comes to your town once or twice a year, year after year, sees you sprouting up from just a youngster around your father’s place after school hours, into about the toniest girl in town, but darned if I know any more about you now than I did when I used to pull your braids. A man, if he’s any kind of a man a-tall, likes to know where he gets off with a fine girl like you. Not human if he doesn’t. Hm?”
“I’m just about as you see me, Prothero. The kind of a girl you fellows get as fresh with as you dare,” she said, without withdrawing her knee from the pressing palm of his hand.
“Well, that’s just what I am trying to get at, Ray. How fresh dast he? How far dast he go?”
Strangely, this narrow, not unintelligent little traveling salesman, guilty, for the first time in an orderly married life of sixteen years, of the impulse to commit adultery, caught his breath from an inability to quite finish this sentence, because of an excitement almost more than he could bear.
How desirable she was, with all the stylish attributes of the toniest girl in town, and yet right down at rock bottom one of those girls you could talk to, straight from the heart! Not above a game of hazard in the back room of Chick and George’s, long after the chairs were piled on the table in the outer room and the family element had retired to respectability and discretion, and yet, withal, a girl with whom you could discuss the homely eventualities. Life insurance. The wife’s erysipelas. Business ambitions. Baseball. The youngest child’s shoulder-braces. A girl who would take your measurements and have you a chamois waistcoat made by a wholesale firm that favored her, and think nothing of coming to your hotel to administer a hot mustard foot bath for a cold contracted in an overheated Pullman car. A girl who would jump on a train as quick as you could say cock robin, and take a twenty-five-mile ride up to Hamilton, and sit in Stengel’s, nibbling pretzels and drinking beer, while you called on the trade, and yet—why, a man would turn to Ray Schmidt if he were in trouble.
As a matter of fact, two years previous something horrible had threatened the equanimity of this narrow little salesman for ladies’ findings and dress linings. He had tinkered with his firm’s funds. So close to the bitter edge of tragedy had he faltered that he was on the verge of being apprehended on a matter pertaining to five hundred dollars, which if discovered would have meant ruin and disgrace to the brood in the small house in the small street on Staten Island.
There had been one night, as he lay beside his plump little snoring wife in the neat bedroom of their neat home, when the idea of suicide had resolutely turned itself over in Prothero’s mind. Nowhere to turn—and suddenly out of his chaos had shot the idea of this gemütlich girl in Cincinnati. The one who had once given him a hot mustard foot bath the time he came down in the middle of his trip with the grippe. The one who straightened his muffler when he came into her father’s ladies’-dress-findings emporium. The one who let him kiss her and pinch her on her pretty, slender thighs, and was willing, even at seventeen, to go over to Wielert’s with him, where Helene Mora, the girl with the baritone voice, sang “Comrades,” there to drink beer with him until mid-Victorian dudes climbed upon the tables and with glasses held aloft sang “Little Annie Rooney” and “Down Went McGinty to the Bottom of the Sea.”
How she had happened to pop into his mind in the midst of a duress that was threatening to submerge him in the lethal waters of suicide, was forever to remain a mystery to the small salesman who paid pew dues and recorded the births of his children in a Testament which his wife kept wrapped in a bureau drawer in a silk handkerchief. But pop she did into the whirligig of what threatened to be disintegration of his little life.
Ray Schmidt, that half-fast little near-chippie out in Cincinnati, would care enough to bother to find him a lifeline! She was like that. Cared like the dickens about folks. Not about him in particular. Didn’t flatter himself. That was precisely the point. She just naturally bothered about a man’s muffler, if he was subject to sore throat. Nothing extraordinary about that in a wife. But somehow—didn’t expect it from a girl that fly. Cared about keeping a dinner check down just as if a fellow were her husband. Talked to a man about the value of endowment policy and nest egg as if she were the one to profit by it.
And so into the hour of his shameful crisis had walked the figure of this Ray whom he had not seen a dozen times in his life, and then for only a sporadic evening in a Vine Street café, concert hall or Heuck’s Theatre for a melodrama.
She had actually responded with a money order for half the amount he had so frenziedly requested and a promise of the additional within sixty days. That had been two years ago, and Prothero had all but paid her back in small monthly instalments.
Fine gal. No questions. No pressing. Fly? Yes. Had to admit it. Did the things he would break his own daughter’s neck for. But levelheaded as a wife, and a darned sight better looking than the run-of-the-mill of wives. (Not that he had any kick coming.) A girl with a nest egg in her sock. Never mind where she got it.
Saved it, no doubt. Leave it to those Cincinnati sauerkraut eaters. Girl like that working in her father’s little concern—solid as Gibraltar—small credit, but never tell a thing about those thrifty Germans—salted away—well, never mind all that. Where the dickens though, did a man get off with her? Say, she was swell. If a girl like Ray would go the limit—say, would she? Had she? Say, had she? Of course she had, and would. But had she? Darned if a fellow could tell. Darned if I know. Darned if anybody seems to know. Every once in a while some fellow at the Stag or Gibson House seemed on to a lot about the real truth concerning this girl and what she was—but usually you had the feeling that the fellow was spinning a yarn out of a half truth. Didn’t know any more than you knew before. Just how far . . .
Just how far?
She darted her eyes, she nodded her head, she tilted her neck, and took a sip of beer through her veil, with her eyes continuing to roll above the rim of her glass.
The wife regarded drinking through the mesh of a veil as vile. What a girl. What a seductive feeling it gave you to see the veiling suck in against her lips that way. What a darned good-looker. Gray eyes. What made them so nice were the lashes. Black! Rather big, strong-boned face, as a matter of fact, but just downright the kind that brought you to your toes. The way those eyes were cut in. Couldn’t exactly describe it, but it was a tasty face. The way olives and caviar and sardelles were supposed to be tasty.
Yessir, a darned good-looker. Style. Why, the girls in the East were just beginning to wear those light-tan box coats with the mandolin sleeves. And leave it to Ray to be among the first to venture one of those short-back sailor effects that were worn tilted to the angle of a toboggan-slide. Darn it all, when a girl answered a man’s question, as to just how far he dared go with her, with all that rolling motion of her face and body, a fellow would be plumb crazy not to take his cue.
“Tell you how I feel about this thing called life, Ray.”
They all began more or less that way.
“Sure is, Prothero.”
“The Lord gives us all sorts of ways to enjoy happiness. I mean to do the right thing by the wife. That’s me. And then in a class all by itself love another gal in those ways where the wife don’t quite fill the bill. Sabe?”
“Yes, I sabe, Prothero. It’s n. g. If you don’t believe me, go over to any of the tables you see round here and put it up to the upholstered mamas you see there.”
In the warm beer-scented security of Wielert’s first-class family resort, the heavy harmonies of a full reed band, playing Wagner, Beethoven, “Ach, du lieber Augustin,” “The Boat Is Coming Around the Bend, Good-By, My Lover, Good-By,” flowed over table after table of Cincinnati’s High-German, solid-as-Gibraltar citizenry, dipping mustachios into foam-crested mugs.
Into this old-world atmosphere of cream-colored walls, inscribed with German mottoes of epicurean source, there gathered, evening after evening, around the solid-mahogany tables, the firmly hewn bourgeoisie of this Munich-on-the-Ohio. Wielert’s—“the true family resort in every respect.”
Surrounding the table where Prothero and Ray were letting the foam on their glasses blink out sud by sud, were gathered the spine of the community. Sons and daughters of the Rhine, who could date their invasion back to that historic day when citizen Nicholas Longworth had first conceived the idea of transplanting his countrymen from the sunkissed vineyards of the Rhineland to these similar bland hills of Cincinnati, whither he had migrated and prospered.
The vineyards did not quite come off; the transplantation did. Evidences of it and its progeny were everywhere in Wielert’s. Families that dined out once a week. Sturdy, unstylish women with enormous busts, who ate and drank with relish but knew, to the penny, for how much less they could spread their groaning home tables with these luxuries of Schmierkäse and Schnittlauch, Bratwurst that had been fried without a prong of the exploring fork puncturing the sausage casing for loss of juice. Solid, thrifty men, in gates-ajar collars and congress shoes, to whom the Turnverein and Sangverein, the right lager, the virtuous wife, the virgin daughter, the respecting son, the well-tended business, were universe.
Yes, siree, it was possible, all right, sitting there in the pretentious early-evening respectability of Wielert’s pavilion, while a man in short pants, with braid running down the side seams, knee-shy stockings, and a small green hat with a brush in it, yodeled, to feel a little mad over the desirability of Ray. One tony girl.
And where there was smoke there must be fire. Ray Schmidt was to be had for the asking all right, if you knew how to ask. Girls simply did not run around that way, dressed to knock out a fellow’s eye, unless—unless—
“How long is it, Ray, since I’ve known you?”
“More years than I’m going to admit, Prothero, that I’ve been gadding about with you boys as you come to town.”
“I remember taking you to a baseball game in a feather boa that was one of the first I ever clapped eyes on. Remember, you helped me shop for one for the wife?”
“Yes, it was purple. Got it at Pogue’s.”
“All those years ago, and darned if I know one bit more about you now than I ever did, Ray. Good company. Girl, if ever there was one, that a fellow can turn to in a pinch; and yet—darned if I know. . . .”
“If I didn’t know you for what I know you to be, I’d think you were trying to propose to me, or something.”
“I am, Ray, trying to propose something.”
“What’s on your mind, Prothero?”
“Ray—would you sleep with a fellow—with me—”
For answer, she drew back her hand slowly, without surprise, and swung it with a hollow-sounding bang against the narrow cheek of the narrow Mr. Prothero.
Excerpted from Back Street by Fannie Hurst. Copyright © 2014 by Fannie Hurst. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.