by Mary Miley
During the final days of 1924, our neighborhood greengrocer fell down his basement stairs and broke his neck, a tragedy that left his family without a breadwinner. He was a nasty man, violent when drunk, and because he drank most of the time, his wife and children mourned only the loss of his earnings. Some neighbors wondered if he had been pushed; none wondered aloud. After the funeral, the widow was surprised to discover an enormous cache of liquor squirreled away in the basement, enough to last a lifetime and beyond, and all of it perfectly legal because federal law had provided for a one-year grace period starting in 1919 where folks could lay in as much alcohol as they wanted before Prohibition took effect.
The greengrocer’s widow, a far-thinking woman named Mrs. Ward, decided against selling the liquor case by case or even bottle by bottle. She realized that more money could be made by selling it glass by glass, so she turned her basement into a cozy speakeasy. Everyone knew her liquor was honest—none of that bathtub gin made with embalming fluid or poisonous wood alcohol. Her oldest, fourteen-year-old Dan, left school to run the place while she took over the grocery upstairs. Customers came and went discreetly through the store, usually picking up a head of lettuce or sack of potatoes as they left. Both businesses prospered.
The speakeasy, predictably called the Greengrocer’s by locals, was located at the corner of my street, half a block from our house in Chicago’s Near West Side. I went there three or four times a week, sometimes after a séance if it wasn’t too late, sometimes during the afternoon while Baby Tommy napped and I wanted a little company. Baby Tommy and I had lived at Madame Carlotta Romany’s house only a few months, but I had come to know some of our neighbors and made a few friends. It was a nice neighborhood with honest, hard-working people doing their darndest to keep heads above water. There was always someone I knew at the Greengrocer’s.
One windy Saturday afternoon in August, I came to the grocer’s for cherries. Carlotta had heard Mrs. Ward say she was expecting a crate of fresh cherries and had got it in her head to make a pie. Tommy was napping, so I popped across the street to get them.
The shop bell tinkled. “Leave the door open, Maddie, dear,” called Mrs. Ward from behind the counter. “The breeze is welcome.”
“I hope the cherries came in,” I said, pushing a brick against the door with my foot so it wouldn’t slam shut. “Carlotta’s already made pie crust.”
Her hands full, Mrs. Ward gestured with her elbow to the corner where two crates of bright red cherries sat one atop the other. I filled my basket with what looked like a pie’s worth and handed it to her to weigh. Sounds coming from below my feet reminded me of the basement speakeasy. Someone had turned the radio up quite loud. “Who’s downstairs?”
“Josephine and Dizzy. Mary Lou and her mom. Sandra Baker brought a gentleman friend, Marcus What’s-His-Name from around the corner. Unless one of them slipped out while I was in the back room. Go on down. My boy Dan’s made a batch of lemonade that goes nice with gin.”
The basement steps were steep and the treads narrow. Thoughts of the late Mr. Ward and his accidental tumble made me place my feet cautiously. Basements can be dreary, damp places, but Mrs. Ward had rigged out the place with easy chairs and checkered tablecloths so it felt more like a comfortable home than a cellar. A few well-placed lamps augmented what little natural light filtered through the high windows, and scented candles cut the cigarette smoke. Mrs. Ward didn’t permit cigars.
Mary Lou waved me over. I’d met her mother last March when she moved in with her daughter’s family after her home was destroyed in that monster tornado that swept through southern Illinois, flattening whole towns and killing near a thousand people. Young Dan Ward nodded at me from behind the bar. “Can I get you something, Mrs. Pastore?”
“Your lemonade, please, Dan.”
“Gin or no?”
“Gin, yes. Please.”
“Is Freddy busy tonight? I haven’t seen him in a few days.”
Carlotta had more or less adopted Freddy, a street-wise orphan boy, when she moved into her house two years ago. He turned out to be very useful, handling the spooky effects for Carlotta’s séances—mysterious noises, thumps, flames extinguished—her “spiritual enhancements” as she called them. If she didn’t need me to act as a shill at a particular séance, I usually helped him.
“He’s been spending lots of time at that chess bar lately.” I told Dan. The fancy chess set I’d given him for Christmas had captivated Freddy, as I had hoped, and he spent hours every week at Carl’s, an unusual sort of speakeasy where chess outranked booze. “You should take up the game, Dan. There are fellas at Carl’s who’d like nothing more than to teach you.”
The radio man was going on about the Scopes monkey trial down in Tennessee, and we sipped our drinks while we listened to the report and speculated as to whether we were descended from apes or not. The radio had been an inspired addition to the speakeasy. It was a real draw—no one in our neighborhood could afford to splash out a hundred bucks for such a contraption. When the news ended and the music resumed, we began gossiping about a local woman who had been summoned for jury duty.
“She’s the first I’ve heard of,” said Mary Lou. “I’m glad it wasn’t me.”
“Why?” I wondered. “Wouldn’t you want to serve on a jury? You wouldn’t be afraid, would you?”
“Heck no!” said Mary Lou. “I’m glad the law was changed so that women can be called up. I just don’t want it to be me. Not until I see how it goes. You know what I heard? That there’s a woman who’s just been elected governor out West.”
“No fooling?” said her mother.
“Wyoming, I believe it was. Can’t remember her name.”
“I think jury duty sounds fascinating,” I said. “Imagine listening to the testimonies and hearing all the details about the crime. I’d be proud to serve.”
“I think it would be exciting too,” said Mary Lou’s mother. “I’d go in a flash if I was called up, I would. Why should men have the only say in who’s guilty or who’s not? Besides, when it comes to judging character, women do it better than men.” We could all agree with that.
When it turned out that the women’s vote didn’t destroy American democracy, as so many men had predicted, opportunities for women continued to grow. Cook County, the largest county in Illinois because it included America’s second largest city, had recently passed a law allowing women to serve on juries. Our neighbor had been the first we knew of to be summoned. Summoned, and actually seated.
“Juries are corrupt,” said Mary Lou. “They’re paid off by thugs from the Outfit or the North Side Gang or the Gennas. The lawyers are bribed. Or the judges. Or the cops. Or all of ‘em. Everything’s a racket nowadays since Prohibition started. I don’t want anything to do with it. A plague on all their houses, that’s what I say.”
Footsteps on the stair turned heads. Boris Jankowski, a longshoreman who lived one street over, came into view.
“Anybody want tickets to tonight’s show at Early’s? It’s the early show at 10:00. Get it? The early show at Early’s? Ha ha! I got two tickets but the missus is taken with one of her headaches. We can’t use ‘em. Free, did I say?”
That was the key word, for me anyway. After several seconds of silence, I spoke up. “If no one else wants them, I do.”
There being no other takers, Boris handed over the pair. “Enjoy the show, Mrs. Pastore.”
“Thank you kindly. I hope Mrs. Jankowski is feeling better soon.”
“Aw, she will by tomorrow. Poor girl. These headaches come over her now and then, no rhyme or reason to ‘em.”
“I have a friend who gets fierce headaches. Migraines. Has your wife tried Bayer aspirin?” asked Mary Lou’s mother.
“Aspirin, cold compresses, and a dark room does her best. Good day, ladies.”
I followed him out a few minutes later, carrying my basket of cherries and a bunch of fat carrots. When I got home, Carlotta wasn’t in the kitchen. I called her name.
“In the parlor, Maddie, with Officer O’Rourke. I mean, Detective O’Rourke,” she corrected herself with a giggle.
Officer Kevin O’Rourke had been promoted to detective the month before, owing to his success in solving two or three murders, success due in large part to me. He got all the credit for bringing the guilty to justice, and I was happy for it to be like that. No way did I want anyone knowing what part my investigations had played, not even O’Rourke. O’Rourke believed that it was Carlotta’s mystical connections to the Great Beyond that brought most of the information we were able to share with him, but really, it was all my doing. He’d come to Carlotta last autumn after she and I had solved the Weidemann murders, asking for her psychic help with future cases.
“Maddie, dear,” began Carlotta. She patted the space beside her on the sofa and I sat. “Detective O’Rourke has some disturbing news.”
He cleared he throat. “Yes, Mrs. Pastore. There has been a vicious attack. An elderly woman who lived on the South Side was stabbed and her jewelry and money stolen.”
“Was she killed?” I asked.
“Thankfully no. She’s in the hospital now but I hear she’ll survive.”
“And you want our help solving this attack?”
He shook his head. “It’s outside our district. Far outside. What concerned me was the fact that she was a Spiritualist. A medium, like Madame Carlotta here. Her attacker was a male client. Have you ever—? I mean, I know you’ve had a couple of violent incidents at your séances and I wanted to warn you about this, in case, well, in case one of your clients became dissatisfied. You could be in danger too.”
It was Carlotta’s turn to shake her head. “That woman may have called herself a medium, but I don’t imagine she was anything like me. I can’t think I’m in any danger, detective. All my bangles are tin and paste, and anyone is welcome to the few dollars I have in the sugar bowl. As you know, I don’t charge my clients like other mediums do, and I don’t cheat them out of their money. Everyone knows there’s nothing here to steal.”
It was true. Carlotta didn’t charge clients. There was no law against holding séances or telling fortunes; there were, however, laws about bilking people out of their dough, so she made sure she never charged for her services. She accepted donations. One of my duties as her shill was to encourage donations by putting a ten-dollar bill in the basket as people left. It worked pretty well.
O’Rourke stood to take his leave. “Well, consider this visit a warning. Have a care when choosing your clients. You’ve no man in the house to protect you.”
“There’s Freddy,” I protested.
Carlotta had happened upon Freddy when she was moving into her house. He was hanging around and she needed help carrying boxes, so she offered him a ham sandwich and a quarter for a few hours of his time. He proved a good worker, so she asked him to return the next day. When she found the boy later that night shivering behind a pile of bricks in the alley beside her house, she fashioned a pallet on the floor in an upstairs room. He was still there.
O’Rourke smiled. “That kid? What is he? Fifteen, sixteen? He can’t weigh more than ninety pounds. A good lad, I’m sure, but it pays to be cautious. Prohibition laws have made Chicago more dangerous than ever.” And with that warning, he took his leave.
By this time, I’d been working for Madame Carlotta for nearly a year, if “work” you could call it. I’d run across her in the Maxwell Street Market last summer when I was down to my last dollar, a just widowed brand-new mother with no family except my two-week-old baby. Though I hadn’t seen her for a decade, I recognized her right away: Myrtle Burkholtzer, mother of my schoolfriend Alice who had long ago married and moved to southern California. Marriage had changed my name, and Mrs. Burkholtzer had changed hers too, but not through marriage.
“I go by a name from one of my earlier lives,” she’d explained to me that day. “I’m Carlotta Romany now. That was my name a hundred and twenty years ago when I was a gypsy queen in Austria-Hungary. Isn’t that amazing? Knowing about that past life explained so much! It freed me from the iron bonds holding me back from my true vocation. I’ve always had the gift of spiritual connection, you know—or maybe you didn’t know, but ever since I was a child, I’ve had strong feelings about the Far Beyond. And when I met my spiritual guide, the archangel Michael, bless him, I was able to unlock the door to my true essence and begin using my unique gifts to help others. When I was poor Mrs. Burkholtzer, I was a lonely, unhappy woman, not much use to anybody, but Madame Carlotta Romany welcomes clients who are despondent, confused, or grieving and helps them move on with lives. It is so fulfilling!”
She paid me a dollar that night just for showing up at her séance, posing as a grieving widow (which I certainly was), and pretending to reach my late husband’s spirit (which I certainly didn’t), thus encouraging the others at the table to believe her powers were genuine. I was a shill, something common in olden days. Traveling snake-oil salesmen always planted one or two in their crowds to drink some of the elixir and boast of their miraculous cure. Magicians relied on shills in the audience to help certain tricks. Auctioneers used them to bid up the price of the item on the block. It may not have been an honorable occupation, but it was an ancient one.
In no time I’d expanded my duties. With facts gathered from investigating the wills, obituaries, graveyards, neighbors, and homes of the deceased, I could feed Carlotta the sort of details “no one could have known,” details that made her séances eerily accurate, convincing clients that she was indeed the Real McCoy. I wasn’t exactly proud of what I did, but I was proud of how well I did it. And it beat selling myself on the street or to Al Capone and his Outfit.
I’d first met Capone at my husband’s funeral. He gave me a wad of bills and promised to avenge Tommy’s death. Of course I’d known that Tommy drove a delivery truck for the Outfit. Heck, half of Chicago was involved in the illegal liquor business in some way, so his job was nothing to raise eyebrows. What Tommy hadn’t told me was that he’d been promoted to handling more than simple runs. When thugs from the rival North Side Gang swiped one of the Outfit’s trucks, Tommy and some Outfit boys went to get it back. During the fight, a bullet found Tommy’s forehead and there I was, a widow with a baby on the way. Within a week, I went from my comfortable house and a bulging bank account to begging for a temporary bed at Hull House, the Jane Addams settlement home for immigrants, thanks to the conniving trollop who claimed to be Tommy’s legal wife and who took every dime we had. Mrs. Burkholtzer—ahem, Madame Carlotta—saved me and Baby Tommy. She was more a mother to me than my own mother had ever been. I owed her everything.
The Early tickets slipped my mind until just as Carlotta, Freddy, and I were sitting down to dinner. Little Tommy was safe in his kiddie coop and I was looking forward to boiled ham and potatoes and a slice of warm cherry pie.
“Oh, Carlotta, I have a nice surprise for you tonight. Somebody at the Greengrocer’s had extra tickets to Early’s floor show this evening—free! I thought you and Freddy would like to go. It’s for the first show at 10:00.” Freddy frowned. He’d never heard of the place. “It’s a night club on our side of town. I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard of it. It should be a quick trip on the L.”
“Don’t you want to go, Maddie?” Carlotta asked.
“Not really. I’ll stay home with Tommy and finish my library book. You and Freddy deserve a night out.”
“I’ll stay home with the baby, Maddie. You and Freddy go.”
After a bit of back-and-forth, she convinced me she was serious, so I changed into my gray, knee-length dress with all the bugle beads, a left-over from the days when I was married and could afford nice clothes from Marshall Field’s. Hemlines had risen a bit since then, hovering now just above the knee, but this dress had been a favorite of my late husband’s. He said the silvery bugle beads made him think of glittering icicles. A wintery image for this summery night.
And so we went to the early show at Early’s, Freddy and me, him wearing his one dark suit and me in my glad rags and coral lipstick, for what I expected would be an uneventful night of musical entertainment.