Pinky DeVroom, in his cups, stared into his brandy. His lips appeared to be having a complex argument, flexing and jutting without a clear rhythm. The argument’s fulcrum was the removal of his characteristic sneer from those lips, but the pivot came to rest: the sneer won.
The sneer had never been shy of like company on Pinky’s face. But he had to try, didn’t he? You have to practice something to get good at it, correct? So, he’d been practicing various smiles—a winsome grin, a lopsided smirk, a publicity-shot starburst—for the past hour at the bar, but every effort made his face feel like a thing possessed. Blessedly, The Shrub had no mirror behind the bar—Pinky was sure his conjured rictuses made him look like he was being garroted with piano wire.
Pinky shot a glance around at the other patrons of The Shrub. Even though the groaning arm of Prohibition had snaked its clutching fingers around many a bottle, there were still many establishments willing to play for pay behind the drawn shade. Particularly when the monitoring authorities might be swizzling a tipple themselves, thought Pinky, seeing that a lieutenant from District D-3 was sitting at a table along with a big palooka with a three-jointed nose. Maybe a boxer. The big guy had five or six empty mugs of beer in front of him, with the lieutenant keeping pace with some undoubtedly sour gin.
Pinky swiveled. There were a couple of Boston’s toffs ensconced at another table, slumming it in the lowly journalist’s bar that was The Shrub, but so lightly ensconced that their silk cravats screamed that they’d be leaving for higher callings soon. A heavily flapperized member of the demimonde atop a stool to his right, slanting on her way off said stool, her bobbed hair nearly longer than the short, glittery-gauzy red dress, she one more martini away from ruin. A man with gruesomely pomaded hair stood to her right, leaning toward her with large lips rubbery enough to lift her glass, with her holding it, from the counter.
Pinky shifted fully around to take in the whole of The Shrub’s barroom. The dark walls with their faded varnish, the once-elegant leather banquettes, the herringbone-patterned parquet floor, insulted by thousands of hardy souls with hard soles for sixty years. The crowd tonight was pretty composed, though it was early. He saw a couple of other newspapermen he knew, and gave them a tilt of his brandy glass. Paper pimps, he thought. And what does that make me?
He’d been the society columnist at the Herald for almost nine years. Boston had oodles of society. In Pinky’s time, he’d covered upcoming socialites, downgraded socialites, the charitable rich, the irritable rich, marriages made in heaven and marriages made on the rings of Saturn. He’d quoted viscounts at funerals, covered discounts at art auctions, and exposed miscounts of inherited riches. He’d newsprinted the highest levels of the social ladder, and the airy, netless heights of social climbing when the ladder fell away.
He felt soiled.
Not that he thought his novel would cleanse him, no. But at least it wasn’t his smothered little column in the Herald, three times a week, the cock crowing about the crowned (and empty) heads. That world was crabbed and stifling, glitter on rancid meat. The novel was a different world, where Pinky breathed a little easier.
His protagonist, the sensationally unreliable Malacong Dall, was an amateur pianist in Trieste. But his profession was burglary, at which he was woefully inept. Pinky rather admired thieves, but only those of some accomplishment, thus his ofttimes shabby treatment of Dall in the book. But Dall had a salesman’s smile, generous and easy. Pinky had selected a series of victims of that smile to people the book. Love came more naturally to Dall than burglary.
Pinky’s man Dall regularly fell down metaphorical elevator shafts, but always bounced. Pinky’s life needed some bounce.
Pinky often sought a bit of bounce in a bit of booze, but since he was going to have his first face-to-face meeting with his agent in less than an hour, the administration of another brandy might result in him crawling around on her office floor, or getting into an argument about Sacco and Vanzetti, or baying at her mooncalf face. Not that he knew if she had a mooncalf face. They’d only spoken over the phone, though it had been more than a few times. She was the fourth agent to whom he’d sent the manuscript, from one of the city’s most respectable agencies: Eckleburg’s, which had been shepherding pages between authors and publishing houses since Dickens’s time.
But what kind of shepherding could come from a woman named Elfred Norcross? Elfred? Was that a father dispiritedly dubbing his newborn “Elfred” because he’d wanted a boy named Alfred? But she’d sounded very collected on the phone, with nary a misplaced fred in her discussion. Mislaid monikers aside, the meat of the matter was this: Apparently, after casting their line into many parts of the stream, Miss Norcross and Eckleburg’s had gotten a fish to bite. Some publisher was interested in doing what they do best: publishing. But not publishing in some neutral, objective sense, no: this discussion centered on publishing Pinky’s book. Gadzooks.
It was for Norcross, dear Elfred, that Pinky had been practicing his smile. Dismal business. But he’d have to make a go of it. He could be half-human when he pulled upon his resources, especially when he’d baptized his brain with brandy. At this point in Pinky’s life, a little fortification was mandatory when he had to muster up a public face. Muster he did.
Pinky had only a passing acquaintance with optimism, but this was a special occasion. The holidays were nigh—and a book, his book, might be published.
No doubt, 1930 was sure to be a banner year.