Monday, August 8, 2011

22. "Nolan"

by Horace P. Sternwall

edited by Dan Leo *

illustrated by rhoda penmarq, konrad kraus and roy dismas

*Ass’t Professor of Classics and Erudition, Olney Community College; editor of Reveille at Midnight: Selected Poems and Stories of Horace P. Sternwall (1942-1945); Olney Community College Press.

click here for previous episode, here to begin at the beginning

Francis J. Nolan had spent thirty years in the New York City Police Department, and, having served the last twelve years of his service at the rank of Detective First-Grade, he retired gladly at the age of fifty-one.

He had been shot at on several occasions and wounded by gunfire twice, once in the left thigh and once above his right lung. He had also been clubbed, sapped, tackled and punched on dozens of occasions.

He had dealt with thousands of battered and bleeding people, and he had examined hundreds of dead men as well as women and children and infants; he had heard every type of scream and ungodly howl the human voice was capable of producing, and now upon his retirement he looked forward to a life of peace and tranquility.

All but three of his nine children were grown and out of the sprawling rent-controlled apartment in Washington Heights, and the three girls who remained -- Maureen, Kathleen, and Mary Margaret -- left early each morning for Mother Cabrini High School, returned for supper and to bathe and change, and then quickly went away again somewhere, every night.

The only one who was really around the house all day and every day was Mrs. Nolan, who had been young and vivacious when Nolan had married her but who was now middle-aged, nervous, and very religious. Nearly every day she had priests over, “visiting”. The priests would come by for lunch, for tea, for dinner. Often they would stay after dinner to say the rosary. Sometimes they would stay after the rosary to listen to Father Sheen’s radio program, “The Catholic Hour”, which Nolan mentally referred to as “The Catholic Endless Hour”.

After a few months of this Nolan realized that if he was to keep his sanity he needed to get out of the house. He made some inquiries through his friends from the force and found out about the opening at the St Crispian.

The previous house detective at the St Crispian -- a corrupt rotund former army MP named O’Toole -- had broken his neck falling drunk down the mezzanine stairs, and the hotel’s manager, Mr. Bernstein, had been delighted at such a qualified applicant for the vacant post. Nolan after all was the man who had dispatched the mad dog gunman “Goon” McMullin with a single bullet in the forehead, the man who had cracked the Princess Maximissima kidnapping case, the man who had broken up “Ma” Baxter’s purse-snatching mob.

Mr. Bernstein explained somewhat sheepishly that the chief house detective at the St Crispian was traditionally required to reside at the hotel, so as to be available in case of any unforeseen emergency or contingency seven days a week (minus two weeks paid vacation, when his place would be taken by the two or three policeman who worked part-time at the hotel).

“You see, Mr. Nolan, the guests, especially our residential guests, take comfort from seeing the same man around every night -- a ‘presence’ shall we say. However, seeing as how you’re a family man, Mr. Nolan, I think we could break with tradition a bit. We can always hire another part-time fellow, and this way you could work a five-day week and go home to your family each night and on Mondays and Tuesdays say.”

“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Bernstein,” said Nolan. “If I’m going to take this job I’m going to do it right. And I think that requires my being as you say a ‘presence’ here.”

“Well, all right then,” said Mr. Bernstein. “When are you able to start?”

“Immediately,” said Nolan.

These past eight years at the St Crispian had been the happiest of Nolan’s life. Most nights he slept in his comfortable room on the mezzanine. After breakfast in the coffee shop he would take the A train home to the apartment on Riverside Drive to check on his mail and spend some time with his wife, who more often than not was entertaining one of those freeloader priests from the parish. Nolan would sit and read the New York Times while his wife and the priest chatted. After lunch -- after the priest had refused a third slice of his wife’s apple pie or chocolate cake -- Nolan would push his chair back, rise, and say, “Well, father, duty calls.”

Then he would shake hands with the priest, kiss his wife on the cheek, pick up his newspaper, and leave. He took a leisurely and healthful walk to the subway stop at 181st Street and Fort Washington, and by the time he had finished the Times crossword puzzle he was at the West 4th Street stop. Another brief and healthful walk and he was back at the St Crispian, where he assumed his usual comfortable leather chair, from which vantage he could see all the comings and goings of the hotel lobby. He would light up a cigar and sigh with relief. He was home.

The St Crispian was a quiet place by and large. Oh, sure, the Prince Hal room drew its share of gamblers and touts and gentlemen and ladies of fortune, but there was rarely any trouble here. Those of a criminal mind who passed through the St Crispian respected the place, and to a large extent they policed themselves. They didn’t want a beef here. Probably the best of the lot had been Stan Slade. Sure, he was a thief, but he was a gentleman, and as far as Nolan knew he had never harmed a living soul except of course to deprive some rich woman of her jewelry which was always insured anyway.

Nolan had been sorry to see Slade sent away. The man had stopped at the hotel off and on for four or five years, and in all that time he had never caused the least bit of trouble. He never passed by without a pleasant word, and at Christmas and Hanukkah every bellhop and chambermaid, every bartender and waiter and doorman in the hotel received a plain envelope from Stanley Slade with a fifty-dollar bill in it. The man was a thief, but he was a generous thief.

And now Stanley Slade was an escaped convict. Well, personally, Nolan wished Slade the best of luck, and he only hoped the man had enough sense not to turn up at the St Crispian. Nolan would hate to put the pinch on him, but he had his professional pride and he would do it if he had to.

One fine evening he was sitting in his usual chair being bored by Mr. Phineas “Farmer” Brown, one of the residential guests of the hotel, a middle-aged remittance man from the midwest and a professional loafer, when Mr. Bernstein came over.

“I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation, Mr. Nolan.”

“Oh, don’t be sorry, Mr. Bernstein. May I help you?”

“It’s about Jake, the bellhop.”

“What’s that character done now, Mr. Bernstein?”

“Well, it’s not so much what he’s done but what he hasn’t done. He seems to have gone missing.”

“Gone missing?” said Nolan.

“Oh, good,” said Farmer Brown. “A mystery!”

chapter 23: the conspirators

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I used to wonder what the priests and my friends' mothers, who entertained them talked about. It wasn't the rosary, although I knew one family (13 kids) who said the rosary together before every meal.
When my dad had his hip replaced, I read him G.K. Chesterton short stories, which were mostly about parish priests squabbling or silently plotting against each other. (G.K.Chesteron was greatly admired by Flannery O'Connor.)