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  • by Janet St. John

Art & Soul Short #42

Winter Scene in Moonlight. Henry Farrer (American, London 1844–1903 New York). 1869 Watercolor and gouache on white wove paper. 11 7/8 x 15 3/16 in. (30.2 x 38.6 cm). Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art open access.


It’s risky meeting on a full moon winter night, Max thinks. Frigid. Half past one. The man he waits for is almost fifteen minutes late. But Max is sure he’ll show up. He has to, if he wants his money. He did a job. He deserves it. Max wonders if the person who lost his life really deserved it. Max’s boss said he did, said he was a “no good swindler,” a thief, an embezzler, a guy who smiled and shook with one hand while pick-pocketing with the other. The boss doesn’t like liars.

Max knew when he took the job that it wasn’t on the up and up. But what’s a guy to do when he has mouths to feed? Two boys and a girl, a wife. Once crammed in a one-bedroom apartment, the five of them now live in a safer neighborhood, a quick drive to meet the boss and take whatever has to be delivered to whoever is waiting for it. The boys have their own room now, the girl too. Max and his wife have privacy, and for that Max is more than grateful. His wife is a real looker. Max wonders what she saw in him when they met at that high school dance. He was only there to help a buddy who had a crush on his now-wife’s best friend. Darla and Dan dated for a few blocks. Sylvie and Max walked the wedding mile with rings, photos, and all the rest.

Max shivers, sees shadow movement across the snow, a figure rising over the hill that obliterates his view to the cemetery. Max doesn’t know the man’s name or what he looks like. Max was warned not to even glance at the guy. The man will say the secret word. Max will take the thick, money-filled envelope from his overcoat’s inside pocket and hand it to him. Not say a word. Not walk away until the man has walked away. The man is walking the park path toward Max. He is large like a boxer Max once saw beat the pulp out of another guy in a ring one Friday night when Max and Dan had too many drinks and witnessing contained violence seemed a good idea. Dan got hooked on boxing, and betting. Max never saw a match again.

He got a job in the mailroom of a big New York publisher. He took the train to and from his family’s one-bedroom apartment. Then the Great Depression. Max and so many others left unemployed. But Dan had a job doing god knows what for the boss. Max still isn’t sure what Dan does. He was always good with numbers, and money. Eventually, Dan got Max in, got him hired. Max was grateful.

Come to think of it, Max considers while watching the tall man approach, I haven't heard from Dan this week. Weren’t we on for a poker night on Friday? That’s tomorrow.

Max looks down, averts his eyes. In crisp moonlight Max can clearly see the dirty hem of the man’s sharp-creased slacks, his scuffed black shoes. Sure needs a shine, Max thinks, wishing he could recommend one. Max takes prodigious care of his dress shoes, polishing and buffing them several times a week. The boss has complimented him about it.

The man’s shadow is like the big pine tree’s on the hill, blocking moonlight. “Newsreel,” the man says. Max retrieves the envelop without looking up, wondering why he didn’t see Dan at the counter when he passed Dan’s usual Monday morning coffee shop. Dan never misses poker night, probably because he always wins so many hands.

Max gives the man the envelope. The man doesn’t open it or count the bills. He slips it in the side pocket of his long black overcoat, turns, walks in the opposite direction. When the man is far enough away that Max feels safe, he looks up and around the snow-covered park. Skeletal trees, ghost clouds in moonlit sky. He stomps his feet to get blood flowing. Right now, he’d like to climb back into his warm bed, curl against Sylvie. Maybe take a peek first in his kids’ rooms. He loves seeing their angelic faces as they sleep. Christmas in a few weeks. No wonder they’ve been on their best behavior.

Max starts walking toward the car the boss bought him. He parked it blocks away, as directed. He scans the street, keeps an eye out for coppers, anyone following. He walks fast. It seems colder than an hour ago. His warm bed, the sheets smelling faintly of Sylvie’s Tabu perfume, and the house still carrying the scent of roasted meat, potatoes, carrots. Max is proud he can afford that now. He’s grateful to Dan for getting him work. Max reminds himself to get on the horn with Dan in the morning, find out if they're still on for poker. At the Studebaker, Max rubs his cold gloved hands together, climbs in. Key in ignition, the engine begins to purr, ready for a short drive home on icy streets.

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