The Great Pen Robbery
“Shhhhhh,” Nancy would say as she opened the front door of her apartment.
“Okay,” I would whisper loudly although I knew no one was ever home.
“Come in,” she continued to whisper as she closed the door behind me, pressing it silently into place with both hands.
In the dark hallway there was a light perpetually but weakly shining behind a red-fringed lampshade. The shade seemed to float above an ornately carved side table which was placed solidly in front of a tall hall mirror. It showed us pink as we flitted past: one thin, swaggering ghost wearing an off-the-shoulder peasant blouse, green and white camp shorts and sneakers and the other, more stocky apparition who always followed and usually wore a striped and dirty tee shirt, Sears dungarees and brown tied shoes “with support”.
We went straight to her older sister Diane’s room to try on the “Fire and Ice” lipstick.
“How do I look?” Nancy asked as she pinned a plastic palm tree on the neckline of her blouse and pulled a lock of wavy black hair over one of her big hazel eyes.
I thought the pin hid the jelly stains nicely and said, “Fine. When will Diane be home?”
“Before dinner, after beauty culture school is over. She’s learning hair coloring. It’s an art.”
“Oh,” I said.
At ten years old I was one of the youngest kids in the neighborhood and glad to be of interest to Nancy Canape who was two years older. The Canape family lived in the same apartment building as we did and made up a household that even I could recognize as unorthodox. Nancy would regularly appear in the back yard with a black eye or pink welts on her pale skin which were explained by stories of severe beatings. Overwhelming and usually inappropriate treats (movies on a school night, ice cream for diner, a trip to Yonkers Raceway) always followed and her tales made her a respected if not envied personage in our neighborhood world. A vague but long-time affiliation with show business added to Nancy’s aura. She was a student of the dance – Stardust Studios, Getty Square, downtown Yonkers. Tap-dancing was her specialty and every June she would get to dance in the annual recital. The costumes from this production, with their “strobe-light” green and pink fabrics, satin insets and sequin trim, remained the property of the students after the show and served as the basis for our fondest fantasies. They represented the closest I would ever hope to come to what Nancy termed “that Great White Way”; something I had assumed had some obscure connection with the Hayden Planetarium.
The Canape’s family life was one in which no one was ever around to enforce the rigid rules laid down as if from Sinai. The members included the mysterious Diane, who had bleached her hair and had been to the Copacabana (I had assumed, until I knew better, that this was a Catskill’s resort) in a pink, fish-net evening gown. There was a parrot named Polly and a Doberman pinscher named Fritzie who bit me one day as a group of us were running past him but whom I forgave almost immediately. My father, a recent World War II veteran, fairly fresh from his engagement as a Jew on the German front during liberation, was not so forgiving. His memories of vicious Nazi dogs were Dobermans I learned from the movies. The Canape’s two horses were boarded at a nearby stable. They might have been boarded at home for all the equestrian equipment lying around and for the way the apartment usually smelled.
But it was always with excitement that I entered the dimly lit hallway just inside the Canape’s front door and that day I was to be honorably rewarded. Nancy had conceived the idea of my initiation into the neighborhood gang as it was Nancy who formed the gang in the first place. After carefully replacing Diane’s makeup, we sat in the Canape’s kitchen, over cokes, Mallowmars and potato chips. I listened to Nancy’s plan and agreed to follow her instructions verbatim.
“We’ll all stand outside and wait for you, right on Broadway,” she said to reassure me. “It’s just dark in there, that’s all.”
I was to be sent in to ask the owner of the local pool hall if I could have the bottle caps that fell into the pockets underneath the brass bottle openers built into the mahogany sides of the tables. There was rumored to be a star stamped on the metal underneath the cork circle of a certain bottle cap. No one knew the brand, or the prize for that matter.
“At least $500 for that star,” Nancy crowed, “and if I get the star, Fritzie and I are going to Hollywood.”
It might have been to the moon with Dumbo the Flying Elephant but it was an impressive thought: Nancy and Fritzie, his new diamond collar sparkling in the sun, at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. It could happen, I thought. So the next day, propelled by Nancy’s shove, I descended the glittery cement stairs into the cool dark of the below-the-ground pool hall and walked over to Mr. Gennaro who, as usual, had a cigar hanging from the very edge of his fat, purple lower lip. I couldn’t take my eyes off that cigar with the dampness from his mouth creeping toward the gray ash about an inch away.
”What’d you say? I can’t hear ya,” he said, the cigar bobbing in time to his words, not a single ash dropping from the long, swollen, gray tip.
“Could we have your extra bottle caps,” I said, a little bit louder.
“What?” he boomed, taking the cigar from his mouth and now spraying ashes down the front of his white-on-white shirt.
He leaned forward, face on a level with mine and I could see the purple splotches on either side of his round nose. He’s got little black pimples all over his face, I thought. I now saw a veritable kaleidoscope of pustules, crevices and bumps. There was also a brownish birthmark the size of a dime on his left cheek with two long curly hairs growing out of its center. A black widow spider bite, I thought, as a took a step backward,
“Could we have your extra bottle caps?” I yelled. “Please?” He was a grownup and with them please always seemed to work. He straightened up, rested a hand on the small of his back and frowned. His birthmark shifted its position slightly.
“What’d you want ‘em for?”
“Well,” I remembered to yell, ”whoever finds the star inside gets a prize,” I was starting to enjoy my new sound level and at the same time was wondering why he didn’t go through the bottle caps he had himself. With four pool tables he had a gold mine right under his multicolored nose.
“Well,” he paused, “I guess you can have ‘em. I’ll get a bag.”
With that Mr. Gennaro disappeared behind the glass door with the gold O*F*F*I*C*E written on it. In a minute he was back with a dirty white cloth sack into which he dropped the contents of the bottle cap holders and handed them to me.
As I thanked him I automatically curtsied, Nancy’s instructions remembered, and I turned to go. Halfway to the door I heard him call,
“If you win the prize, I get half.”
“Okay,” I yelled and, not turning around, ran up the stairs into the sunlight.
After that, the final initiation step, running into the neighborhood bar further down the block and yelling “Drinks on the house” was easy. I did spoil a perfectly good source for more bottle caps that way though.
As the summer went on the gang’s attrition rate rose and, by August, Nancy and I were the only members left in town and not in day camp. I was surprised to find myself an object of her interest and what I offered her, besides an adoring soul to manipulate, still escapes me. The first phone call I ever got was from her. As usual my mother answered the phone, wiping her hands on her apron before picking up the receiver.
“It’s for you,” she solemnly offered me the phone and stood there watching me as I put the slightly damp receiver to my ear.
“Hello?” I said, turning my back to concentrate.
“Hi, you want to meet tomorrow?”
“Okay.” I knew it was Nancy because I heard Polly yelling her usual, “Down the Hatch” in the background.
“At 12:30. On the front steps,” she instructed.
“Bring your allowance.”
“That was Nancy Canape,” I told my mother who was still standing there drying her hands on her apron and looking at me.
The following day was hot and as we walked the deserted noontime street to John’s Candy Store, Nancy pulled a five-dollar bill from her pocket.
“How much allowance do you get?” she asked.
“You have to do anything for it?” she asked.
“Nope, that’s separate.”
“I don’t get an allowance. My mother puts money on the hall table when she leaves. I can spend it any way I like,” she said.
I paid for the coke we split, racing each other to the bottom with two straws. She broke her five-dollar bill with the purchase of a Mary Jane bar and a pink plastic comb that fit perfectly into the back pocket of her shorts. We then reeled out into the glare of Broadway, behind two frail old ladies who strolled unsteadily down the street. In unspoken agreement we decided to follow them into Woolworth’s, the 5 & 10 cent store where they seemed to make an almost daily excursion. A thin but steady stream of old ladies, transporting themselves as gently as cracked eggs that could, at any moment, drop to the pavement and smash into smithereens. Once inside they would slowly price talcum powder, finger lace handkerchiefs and check the African violets. They then would pass it all, saving their money for a lunch of egg salad sandwiches and iced tea at the counter.
We entered in an unlikely group, the glass door creating a draft to compete with the noisy fan placed high on a side wall. The papers advertising daily specials on the mirrors behind the lunch counter fluttered and I noticed that, except for the two old ladies, it was empty except for Mr. Studley, the young, earnest manager and his oldest employee, Gladis, who probably had come to work years before Mr. Studley was born.
The florescent lighting created the same light level no matter what time of day or night and in the familiar setting I noted that Nancy’s laugh was the only sound I heard. I looked at her and saw that she had tucked her white blouse into her rumpled shorts and was pulling her stomach in, thrusting out what I suddenly realized was her chest. Two breasts. She even had a brassiere on, as my mother called it.
Wow, I thought, and I watched as Nancy swayed, hand on one hip, toward Mr. Studley who, as usual, was standing in the back, by the fish tank next to his office door. His arms were crossed in front of him and while he watched Nancy coming towards him his face got redder and redder. His ears, which I had never noticed before, stuck out at a funny angle, emphasized by his fresh crew cut and their strange shade of purple.
I was too far away to hear what they were talking about and, losing interest, I turned my attention to the counter I was standing near.
“If I could buy anything I want….” I started that old game, greedily surveying the roseate palate of nail polishes before me.
“There must be a hundred different shades here,” I said to myself as Nancy appeared next to me and whispered in my ear,
“I got his attention.”
Startled, I looked at her saying, “Why?”
“I’m going back to talk to him when he gets off the phone. In the meantime…”, she looked at the nail polish display and, eyes fixed to it, continued, “I need some polish.”
Her hand darted out with the speed of a rattle snake attacking its victim in one of the MGM cowboy movies we saw every Saturday at the Park Hill Theater. It happened so quickly that I thought I must have made a mistake.
“Did you take that nail [polish?” I whispered.
“Yes, dummy, and when I go back to talk to him, you can get something too.”
I was stunned. “But that’s stealing.” A vision floated before me. It was of a little old lady counting out pennies from a twisted, knotted handkerchief to pay for her egg salad sandwich.
“Who says?” laughed Nancy, “Your grandmother?”
With perfect aim, Nancy had scored. My protest seemed childish and, supported by her hurried instructions, I reconnoitered the counter top. Did I want to be alluring, luscious or odor-free – all for free. I was not ready to make that decision and with some fleeting idea that Nancy would approve my choice, I focused on a small ball point pen.
It was gold, about two inches long with a small chain made of tiny golden balls threaded through a loop on the pen’s top. And between this top and the ball point was a casing of gold filigree, set with red, blue and green rhinestones. Were it Tiffany’s I could not have desired it more. It was exquisite and the fact that it rested in a glass-sided bin on top of about fifty other identical pens did not take one degree of specialness away from it. I could belong to me in spite of the fact t that it was tagged with a gummed sticker marked F.W. Woolworth – 59 cents. I could remove the sticker, no one would know.
My hand could also dart and dart it did. Nancy reappeared, magically, and asked in a hoarse whisper,
“Did you get anything?”
“No,” I yelled at her and together we turned and hurried, spines rigid, straight for the front door. Safe outside, she demanded to see what I had gotten. I pulled the pen from my pocket and brushed off the lint that had already collected on its ball point. I saw from the ink on my hand that the point was already starting to leak its dark blue blood
“That’s nice,” she said, without interest.
I felt sick to my stomach and shoved the pen back into my pocket. Without thinking I turned up Broadway, yelling to her over my shoulder as I walked away, “I gotta go, see you tomorrow.”
I almost didn’t hear her as she mumbled, “Yeah,” but I knew that she was busy removing the F.W. Woolworth price sticker from her bottle of nail polish and had not even looked up
About the Author: Rosanne Ehrlich
My novel Attack was published by Ballantine Books under the pen name Collis Ehrlich. Flash pieces have been published in Persimmon Tree and Panoply. Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review has published four of my poems, a short non-fiction piece has been published in Metafore Magazine and a fiction piece in Antirrhinum Journal. I have also written several television documentaries for The Great Ships series on The History Channel.