A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago
In 1921, Ben Hecht began writing a daily column for the Chicago Daily News, called “1001 Afternoons in Chicago“, which were fictive sketches of Chicago’s bustling urban landscape of that time. A year later, 64 of these columns were compiled in a book with the same title.
Why did Fanny do this? The judge would like to know. The judge would like to help her. The judge says: “Now, Fanny, tell me all about it.”
All about it, all about it! Fanny’s stoical face stares at the floor. If Fanny had words. But Fanny has no words. Something heavy in her heart, something vague and heavy in her thought—these are all that Fanny has.
Let the policewoman’s records show. Three years ago Fanny came to Chicago from a place called Plano. Red-cheeked and black-haired, vivid-eyed and like an ear of ripe corn dropped in the middle of State and Madison streets, Fanny came to the city.
Ah, the lonely city, with its crowds and its lonely lights. The lonely buildings busy with a thousand lonelinesses. People laughing and hurrying along, people eager-eyed for something; summer parks and streets white with snow, the city moon like a distant window, pretty gewgaws in the stores—these are a part of Fanny’s story.
The judge wants to know. Fanny’s eyes look up. A dog takes a kick like this, with eyes like this, large, dumb and brimming with pathos. The dog’s master is a mysterious and inexplicable dispenser of joys and sorrows. His caresses and his beatings are alike mysterious; their reasons seldom to be discerned, never fully understood.
Sometimes in this court where the sinners are haled, where “poised and prim and particular, society stately sits,” his honor has a moment of confusion. Eyes lift themselves to him, eyes dumb and brimming with pathos. Eyes stare out of sordid faces, evil faces, wasted faces and say something not admissible as evidence. Eyes say: “I don’t know, I don’t know. What is it all about?”
These are not to be confused with the eyes that plead shrewdly for mercy, with eyes that feign dramatic naïvetés and offer themselves like primping little penitents to his honor. His honor knows them fairly well. And understands them. They are eyes still bargaining with life.
But Fanny’s eyes. Yes, the judge would like to know. A vagueness comes into his precise mind. He half-hears the familiar accusation that the policeman drones, a terribly matter-of-fact drone.
Another raid on a suspected flat. Routine, routine. Evil has its eternal root in the cities. A tireless Satan, bored with the monotony of his rôle; a tireless Justice, bored with the routine of tears and pleadings, lies and guilt.
There is no story in all this. Once his honor, walking home from a banquet, looked up and noticed the stars. Meaningless, immutable stars. There was nothing to be seen by looking at them. They were mysteries to be dismissed. Like the mystery of Fanny’s eyes. Meaningless, immutable eyes. They do not bargain. Yet the world stares out of them. The face looks dumbly up at a judge.
No defense. The policeman’s drone has ended and Fanny says nothing. This is difficult. Because his honor knows suddenly there is a defense. A monstrous defense. Since there are always two sides to everything. Yes, what is the other side? His honor would like to know. Tell it, Fanny. About the crowds, streets, buildings, lights, about the whirligig of loneliness, about the humpty-dumpty clutter of longings. And then explain about the summer parks and the white snow and the moon window in the sky. Throw in a poignantly ironical dissertation on life, on its uncharted aimlessness, and speak like Sherwood Anderson about the desires that stir in the heart. Speak like Remy de Gourmont and Dostoevsky and Stevie Crane, like Schopenhauer and Dreiser and Isaiah; speak like all the great questioners whose tongues have wagged and whose hearts have burned with questions. His honor will listen bewilderedly and, perhaps, only perhaps, understand for a moment the dumb pathos of your eyes.
As it is, you were found, as the copper who reads the newspapers puts it, in a suspected flat. A violation of section 2012 of the City Code. Thirty days in the Bastile, Fanny. Unless his honor is feeling good.
These eyes lifted to him will ask him questions on his way home from a banquet some night.
“How old are you?”
“Make it twenty-two,” his honor smiles. “And you have nothing to say? About how you happened to get into this sort of thing? You look like a good girl. Although looks are often deceiving.”
“I went there with him,” says Fanny. And she points to a beetle-browed citizen with an unshaven face. A quaint Don Juan, indeed.
“Ever see him before?”
A shake of the head. Plain case. And yet his honor hesitates. His honor feels something expand in his breast. Perhaps he would like to rise and holding forth his hand utter a famous plagiarism—”Go and sin no more.” He chews a pen and sighs, instead.
“I’ll give you another chance,” he says. “The next time it’ll be jail. Keep this in mind. If you’re brought in again, no excuses will go. Call the next case.”
Now one can follow Fanny. She walks out of the courtroom. The street swallows her. Nobody in the crowds knows what has happened. Fanny is anybody now. Still, one may follow. Perhaps something will reveal itself, something will add an illuminating touch to the incident of the courtroom.
There is only this. Fanny pauses in front of a drug-store window. The crowds clutter by. Fanny stands looking, without interest, into the window. There is a little mirror inside. The city tumbles by. The city is interested in something vastly complicated.
Staring into the little mirror, Fanny sighs and—powders her nose.
THE AUCTIONEER’S WIFE
An auctioneer must have a compelling manner. He must be gabby and stentorian, witheringly sarcastic and plaintively cajoling. He must be able to detect the faintest symptoms of avarice and desire in the blink of an eyelid, in the tilt of a head. Behind his sing-song of patter as he knocks down a piece of useless bric-a-brac he must be able to remain cool, remain calculating, remain like a hawk prepared to pounce upon his prey. Passion for him must be no more than a mask; anger, sorrow, despair, ecstasy no more than the devices of salesmanship.
But more than all this, an auctioneer must know the magic password into the heart of the professional or amateur collector. He must know the glittering phrases that are the keys to their hobbies. The words that bring a gleam to the eye of the Oriental rug collector. The words that fire the china collector. The stamp collector. The period furniture collector. The tapestry enthusiast. The first edition fan. And so on.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I desire your expert attention for a moment. I have here a curious little thing of exquisite workmanship said to be from the famous collection of Count Valentine of Florence. This delicately molded, beautifully painted candelabra has illuminated the feasts of the old Florentines, twinkled amid the gay, courtly rioting of a time that is no more. Before the bidding for this priceless souvenir is opened I desire, ladies and gentlemen, to state briefly——”
* * * * *
Nathan Ludlow is an auctioneer who knows all the things an auctioneer must know. His eye is piercing. His tongue can roll and rattle for twelve hours at a stretch. His voice is the voice of the tempter, myriad-toned and irresistible.
It was evening. An auspicious evening. It was the evening of Mr. Ludlow’s divorce. And Mr. Ludlow sat in his room at the Morrison Hotel, a decanter of juniper juice at his elbow. And while he sat he talked. The subjects varied. There were tales of Ming vases and Satsuma bargains, of porcelains and rugs. And finally Mr. Ludlow arrived at the subject of audiences. And from this subject he progressed with the aid of the juniper juice to the subject of wives. And from the subject of wives he stepped casually into the sad story of his life.
“I’ll tell you,” said Mr. Ludlow. “Tonight I’m a free man. Judge Pam gave me, or gave her, rather, the divorce. I guess he did well. Maybe she was entitled to it. Desertion and cruelty were the charges. But they don’t mean anything. The chief complaint she had against me was that I was an auctioneer.”
Mr. Ludlow sighed and ran his long, artist’s fingers over his eagle features and brushed back a Byronic lock of hair from his forehead.
“It was four years ago we met,” he resumed, “in the Wabash Avenue place. I noticed her when the bidding on a rocking chair started. A pretty girl. And as is often the case among women who attend auctions—a bug, a fan, a fish. You know, the kind that stiffen up when they get excited. The kind that hang on your words and breathe hard while you cut loose with the patter, and lose their heads when you swing into the going-going-gone finale.
“Well, she didn’t get the rocking chair. But she was game and came back on a Chinese rug. I began to notice her considerably. My words seemed to have an unusual effect on her. Then I could see that she was not only the kind of fish that lose their heads at auctions, but the terrible kind that believe everything the auctioneer says. You know, they believe that the Oriental rugs really came from the harem of the caliph and that the antique bed really was the one in which DuBarry slept and that the Elizabethan tablecloth really was an Elizabethan tablecloth. They are kind of goofily romantic and they fall hard for everything and they spend their last penny on a lot of truck, you know. Not bad stuff and probably a good deal more useful and lasting than the originals would have been.”
* * * * *
Mr. Ludlow smiled a bit apologetically. “I’m not confessing anything you don’t know, I hope,” he said. “Well, to go on about the missus. I knew I had her from that first day. I wasn’t vitally interested, but when she returned six days in succession it got kind of flattering. And the way she looked at me and listened to me when I pulled my stuff—say, I could have knocked down a bouquet of paper roses for the original wreath worn by Venus, I felt so good. That’s how I began to think that she was an inspiration to me and how I figured that if I could have somebody like her around I’d soon have them all pocketed as auctioneers.
“I forget just how it was we met, but we did. And I swear, the way she flattered me would have been enough to turn the head of a guy ten times smarter than me and forty times as old. So we got married. That’s skipping a lot. But, you know, what’s it all amount to, the courting and the things you say and do before you get married? So we got married and then the fun started.
“At first I could hardly believe what the drift of it was. But I hope to die if she wasn’t sincere in her ideas about me as an auctioneer. I didn’t get it, as I say, and that’s where I made my big mistake. I let her come to the auctions and told her not to bid. But when I’d start my patter on some useless piece of 5-and l0-cent store bric-a-brac and give it an identity and hint at Count Rudolph’s collection and so on, she was off like a two-year-old down a morning track.
“I didn’t know how to fix it or how to head her out of it. For a month I didn’t have the heart to disillusion her. I let her buy. Damn it, I never saw such an absolute boob as she was. She’d pick out the most worthless junk I was knocking down and go mad over it and buy it with my good money. It got so that I realized I was slipping. I’d get a promise from her that she wouldn’t come into the auction, but I never could be sure. And if I felt like cutting loose on some piece of junk and knocking it down with a lot of flourishes I knew sure as fate that the missus would be there and that she would be the fish that caught fire first and most and that I’d be selling the thing to myself.
“Well, after the first two months of my married life I realized that I’d have to talk turkey to the missus. She was costing me my last nickel at these auctions and the better auctioneer I was the more money I lost, on account of her being so susceptible to my line of stuff. It sounds funny, but it’s a fact. So I told her. I made a clean breast. I told her what a liar I was and how all the stuff I pulled from the auction stand was the bunk and how she was a boob for falling for it. And so on and so on. Say, I sold myself to her as the world’s greatest, all around, low down, hideous liar that ever walked in shoe leather. And that’s how it started. This divorce today is kind of an anti-climax. We ain’t had much to do with each other ever since that confession.”
Mr. Ludlow stared sorrowfully into the remains of a glass of juniper juice.
“I’ll never marry again,” he moaned. “I ain’t the kind that makes a good husband. A good husband is a man who is just an ordinary liar. And me? Well, I’m an auctioneer.”