This is my third book.  The original title was "Texas Jews."  It is the one book that I do not completely stand behind; it suffers from its origins as a screenplay (about my family). I dread to reread it, but offer it to completists. 

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Texas Jews

or

The Millionaire in the Top Bunk

a novel by

Gary Walkow

DRAFT 2 -- 12/8/98 (file date)

     As Dorothy drove East in her powder-blue Thunderbird, she could still see the casino signs in her rearview mirror.  They looked so forlorn in the harsh morning light.  Her vision got blurry with tears; after blotting her eyes there were mascara stains on her palm.  She knew that she must look awful but didn't care to tilt the mirror to see just how awful.

     Dorothy didn't want to leave Las Vegas.  It wasn't her fault, not even a little bit--it was all Max's fault.  He'd taken one two many bites from the apple and now she was getting thrown out of paradise.  But she couldn't tell Max just how angry she felt this morning.

     Because Max was dead.

     Max was dead because he was dumb, dumb enough to get caught stealing from the wrong people.

     "Don't worry, we'll pay all of your moving expenses," Leo had told her at the funeral home.

     "I'm not planning on moving."

     "I think you'll be happier back home.  I really do," Leo had quietly insisted.

     Ahead, the desert was so big and brown and empty it made her want to cry again.  It was a long drive back to Houston, but if Dorothy had to start all over, there was no place like home.

     As the Thunderbird crested a hill, the casino signs vanished from the rearview mirror.  Las Vegas had been a perfect home.  Except for Max.  And Leo. 

     Her eyes got blurry again, but she was determined to stop all this crying.  There was no point in dwelling.  After all, tomorrow was another day.

Christmas Eve, 1973

     Harold stood at the white Formica cashier island like an admiral on the bridge, surveying the store with his arms folded, sensitive to every nuance in the brightly lit room.  He had to notice everything because no one else did, certainly not Milton.  Nineteen years ago Dad had drawn the names out of the hat and Harold's it had been.  Well, if the store had been named Milton's, he was sure that he would still be working just as hard. 

     Harold was well-dressed and well-tanned.  He was thirty-five years old and he worked on his tan.  He worked at keeping his hair just so, getting it barbered twice a week to keep it from getting too curly.  Harold worked hard at looking great.  He worked hard, period.     

     Faye, the cashier, stood behind Harold busily ringing up a sale, not a frosted hair out of place, her red lipstick looking quite seasonable tonight.  Faye had taken it upon herself to be the store's hot number, and the holiday season meant that she could wear her favorite color every day--flaming red.

     Harold pulled back his cuffed sleeve and checked his watch.  He secretly turned on the little G.E. TV on the counter, keeping the sound low.  Harold couldn't help but smile; regular as clockwork, there he was, on the little black and white screen, bigger than life.

     "Hi, I'm Harold.  I dress seventy, I talk eighty, and I shoot ninety--when my putter's hot.  Y'all come down to Harold's in the Heights.  We've got everything from three-piece suits to three-par golf slacks, a big man's shop, and western wear.  Right, Willie?"

     Willie, the Oilers' star halfback, stepped on screen beside Harold and smiled painfully, as if facing the Steelers' front line.  "That's right, Harold."

     "We'll be looking for you at Harold's this holiday season."

     Harold nodded agreeably to himself and turned the little TV off.  He wondered if he had looked a little stiff.  Maybe it was just the TV set.  And Harold knew that he could be overly critical about himself.

     "I think you look cute on TV," Faye whispered.

     Harold nodded, bolstered by her compliment.

        Milton was sitting stocking-footed behind his massive and neatly organized oak desk, in a high-backed leather chair.  His office was upstairs; through a one-way mirror on the door to let Milton see the comings and goings in the tailor shop.

     His jacket was off, but there was nothing casual about his appearance.  Milton's Oxford-cloth shirt was freshly pressed and a Tiffany tie clasp anchored his Countess Mara tie in place.  Milton was thirty-eight, three years older than Harold, though he looked more youthful.  His skin was much paler than Harold's--Harold was a sun worshipper, but Milton was a night person.  Milton worked hard too, but took pains to make working hard look easy. 

     On the credenza behind the desk was a photograph of Milton shaking hands with Richard Nixon.  Two closed-circuit monitors let Milton keep tabs on the goings on down in the store.  On one of the monitors he saw Harold put away the TV set now that his commercial was over.

     Milton got out his long-handled chrome-and-leather shoe horn.  He thought it was time to put his tasseled loafers back on and put in an appearance downstairs, but he lost interest before he had the first shoe on.  He opened up his credenza.  Inside was a phone tap box that he had secretly installed four years ago.  Milton put on the pair of Koss Headphones and flipped a switch.  His eyes narrowed as he listened, idly glancing at the photograph of himself and ex-President Nixon as he tried various lines looking for an informing or at least an entertaining phone call.  Milton put his stocking feet up on the desk and leaned back in his leather chair, at peace with himself this Christmas Eve as he listened.  "Silent Night" was playing over the store's Muzak system.  Now that was funny, Milton thought, but it wasn't a joke that he could share.

     Harold's eyes narrowed unhappily, creating tanned crow's feet, when he saw the three off-duty cops come in.

     "Merry Christmas, Harold."

     "Merry Christmas, y'all."  With a pained smile Harold looked around and saw One Iron saying good-bye to a customer.  "One Iron, you help these boys here with some of the special Van Heusens.  You boys have a good one."    

     Tall and thin, One Iron looked good in the golf clothes that were one of the store's specialties.  No one at the store played the game, but One Iron looked like a golfer and did pretty well selling the golf clothes.  Milton had given him the nickname, and Milton had never held a club in his hand, except for a putter.  "The Van Heusens?" he asked Harold.

     "Yes, the sharp-looking high tabs for our friends in blue,"  Harold said with a tight smile. 

     He walked stiffly through the shoe department and into the back office.  Even with a window overlooking the parking lot, the office always felt dark and cramped compared to the rest of the store.  His smile gone, he marched over to Lillian's desk.

     Lillian was on the phone, smoking a cigarette.  Her hair and make-up were casual and unfussy; Lillian wasn't as vain about her looks as Harold.  She totaled up a line of numbers and passed the sheet of figures across the desk to Jolene.  Lillian was Harold's older sister, with paler skin but a sunnier personality.  Though Harold was always upbeat with customers and strangers, Lillian knew that he was a brooder, prone to worry about any and all things.

     Jolene, pleasantly overweight, sat in awe of Lillian.  She had taken to eating Baby Ruth candy bars to give her the energy to keep up. 

     Tim Stugeon had commandeered Jolene's phone and smiled blandly back at her dirty looks.  He was a short man who always seemed to be on the phone.  A salesman who specialized in western wear, Stugeon was dressed in a western-style suit, ostrich-skin boots, a black Stetson tilted on the back of his head. 

     "Those goddamn goniffs came in," Harold announced as soon as Lillian had hung up the telephone.

     Lillian cradled the phone against her shoulder. "What?"

     "The goniff cops.  I gave them the high collared Van Heusens that no one wants."

     Lillian lit a fresh cigarette, taking a moment to straighten up a batch of invoices while she soothed her little brother's latest worry.  "Why are you so worked up?  Big deal, they want a little hand-out.  When was the last time you were robbed?  When was the last time?"

     Harold frowned.  Even though he was thirty-five years old, and Lillian was forty-two, Harold always felt like a little boy whenever his older sister questioned him.

     "When was the last time?" Lillian repeated.

     "Never," Harold wearily answered.

     "That's right, never was the last time, so you give the goniffs some shirts that no one else wants and don't get so agitated."

     "That's easy for you to say..."

     "Because I do the books, I know how well the store's doing.  You're a millionaire, Harold.  You can afford to give a couple of shirts away."

     Harold nodded to himself, but looked unconvinced.  Stugeon finished his phone call and was sidling out of the room as Faye came in with a deposit bag.  Stugeon gave her a friendly pat on the ass in passing, which Lillian wondered if Harold even noticed.

     "I swear to god, Stugeon spends half his time on the phone."

     "So what?  He's on commission, he makes his sales.  And he provides a service."

     "I never thought we'd have a goddamn bookie at the store."  Harold shook his head and walked woefully back out on the floor.

     In the evening sky enormous clouds were blowing in from the Gulf.  The curling red letters of the Harold's sign glowed against the last of the twilight.  The parking lot was almost empty.  Three of Detroit's finest were parked under a custom fiberglass awning: a Lincoln Continental, a Cadillac Seville, and a Buick Electra.  Inside the store, lights winked out; Ernie the Cop was locking up the store for the night. 

     Milton took Jolene aside and walked her to her Plymouth Duster.  "You know we've got a policy about personal calls, Jolene."

     Jolene blushed and stammered.  She had suspected that Milton listened in on phone calls; now she was certain.  Others in the store had heard mysterious clicks on the line and had compared notes.  Milton knew things that were otherwise impossible to know.  "Yes, Milton.  I'm sorry."

     Milton touched her arm to reassure her.  "Don't worry about it.  Have a happy holiday.  Are you ready, One Iron?"

     "Sure thing." One Iron unlocked the Continental and slid behind the wheel.  Milton center-folded his sport coat and got in the passenger side.  "A merry Christmas to all and to all a good night," Milton said cheerily as they drove away.

     Harold frowned as he unlocked his Cadillac and got behind the wheel.  Why couldn't Milton drive him own damn car?

     Harold brooded as he drove home down Buffalo Speedway.  He looked at his watch and started fiddling with the radio, hitting the pre-select buttons until he found the right station.

     "...Hi, I'm Harold.  I dress seventy, I talk eighty, and I shoot ninety--when my putter's hot.  Y'all come down to Harold's in the Heights..."

     Harold listened with a smile.  It sounded even better on the radio.  How many people were listening?  Maybe Herb down at the agency could get him some figures.  It would be nice to know how many people heard his voice all at once, in how many cars.  Of course, if the numbers were low no one else need know.  Something had to be working--it was their best Christmas season ever. 

     Aberdeen Way curved along the same gentle lines as Brays Bayou, three blocks away.  A smattering of Christmas lights decorated some of the red brick houses. 

     One Iron pulled the Continental into the Wiesenthal driveway and parked in back.  Milton lazily got out of the car and stretched.

     They heard metal scrape as Harold's Cadillac clipped the corner of the curb and bounced up the driveway.  Harold wasn't a reckless driver, just inattentive.  He parked his Cadillac next to the Continental.  "I just heard my Christmas ad on the radio," Harold proudly announced.  "Did you guys hear it?"

     "I hope it was worth it," Milton said.

     "Worth what?"

     "Whatever it cost.  It's a little late for a Christmas ad to bring in any Christmas business."

     "Well...I...it sure sounded good..." Harold stammered.

     Milton shrugged philosophically.  "If you're happy, then I'm happy." 

     One Iron gave Milton a mock salute and walked out to the street where his Chevy Malibu was parked.  "So what about tonight?"

     "Pick me up after dinner."

     When Milton and Harold came inside, Goldie was up on a chair, peering into a cupboard at cans of peaches and coffee, as if inspecting her provisions for a siege.  The chair put her on an even footing with her two sons, making it easy to kiss them hello.

     Nellie Brousshard, at the stove serving dinner, turned to smile her own hello.  Nellie, a Black Creole, was taller than Milton, but she managed to seem smaller than Goldie.  Nellie, who was practically one of the family, deferred to Goldie in all things.

     "Did you get my coffee?" Goldie asked.

     "No.  What coffee?" Milton asked.

     "I called the store.  I told Lillian."

     "She didn't tell me," Harold said.

     "You've got a cabinet full of coffee," Milton observed.

     Goldie moved some cans aside.  "I've got room for more.  Five pound Folger's is on sale."

     Milton was annoyed and amused by Goldie's tenacity.  "It'll be on sale tomorrow."

     "No.  Only today," she insisted.  "And you're late for dinner."

     At dinner the Wiesenthal family sat in the den in a semi-circle around the TV, as if gathered around a campfire, each with their own TV tray.  On the knotty pine walls were family pictures and middle-brow lithographs of Jerusalem.  The yellow linoleum floor was spotless but worn.

     They had to lean forward to reach their plates, but it was like using chopsticks; practice made one skilled at eating dinner from a wobbly metal TV tray.  The seating order was as codified as a State Department dinner.  Emmanuel, the pater familias, sat closest to the TV, on the couch, with Goldie next to him.  Next came Milton, and then Harold, in the chintz-covered armchairs.  Next to Harold sat his sons, Michael, thirteen, and Daryl, eleven, with their chairs angled so that they too could face the TV during dinner.  The seating order was chronological, from the oldest to the youngest. 

     Milton had always lived at home, except for the year and a half that he was away at Texas A & M. 

     Harold had his own house for the four years that his marriage lasted, at which point he moved back to Aberdeen Way with the boys.  Harold wasn't particularly paternal, but the boys were Wiesenthals and it was unthinkable that they wouldn't be raised with the family.  Truly unthinkable in that Harold didn't think about bringing the boys back with him, he just did it.  Eleanor, his wife, was too worn out by Harold's benign lack of interest in all matters not relating to Harold's in the Heights to protest.  And once Harold was back home with the boys and bunk beds had been sensibly obtained to make a reasonable sleeping arrangement possible for the three of them in a single room, Harold didn't pay as much attention to the boys as he did to Harold's.  Harold was his most dad-like at dinner, sitting as he did next to Michael and Daryl.  But even then his thoughts were elsewhere.  He was usually thinking ahead to his evening campaign for Harold's in the Heights, a tray-table Napoleon plotting strategies of self-promotion, although Harold didn't consider promoting the store to be self-promotion; it was to everyone's benefit, because the better Harold's did the better they all did.

     The fact that Milton and Harold, both grown men and both successful, still lived at home with their parents seemed unremarkable to any of the Wiesenthals living in the little house on Aberdeen Way.  It was just common sense, like keeping at least fifty pounds of coffee on hand to guard against the unexpected.  

     "The Peanuts Christmas Special" was on TV and no one except Daryl cared about it.  The flickering image was like a campfire, a light to stare into.  Dinner was baked chicken, with potatoes and carrots, a dish over which Goldie had complete mastery.  Milton liked to have a scotch and soda with dinner, Johnny Walker Black, but everyone else drank prune juice.  A niece had given Goldie a glass of it the first day she got off the boat in Galveston, over fifty years ago, and to her the taste of prune juice was synonymous with freedom and the new land.  She'd served Emmanuel prune juice as part of their courtship and probably wouldn't have married him if he hadn't feigned passion for the nectar.  It had played hell on his bowels the first year of their marriage, but after that it had the same effect as drinking tap water.  All of Goldie's children, and now her grandchildren, had grown up drinking the stuff, and it seemed a natural and appropriate beverage for any meal or time of day.  Goldie didn't approve of Milton's drinking.  Emmanuel had tried to convince her that after a man was thirty he should be allowed to drink what he liked, in moderation of course.  Goldie did not agree, but in this one matter she reluctantly held her tongue. 

     Harold saw that Michael and Daryl hadn't touched their vegetables.  "Eat your carrots," he told the boys.

     Michael and Daryl looked over to Goldie and Emmanuel to see what to do.  "Eat your carrots," Goldie commanded and they reluctantly obeyed.  Goldie and Emmanuel were really raising the boys, though this was never openly acknowledged. 

     "Emmanuel, you should have driven me to Weingarten's today," Goldie said accusingly.  "Emmanuel?"

      Emmanuel ignored her question; suddenly, he was profoundly interested in the antics of Snoopy on TV, as the goyish dog tried to put a Christmas Tree on top of his doghouse. 

     "Emmanuel?" Goldie tried again, then quickly shifted over her attentions to Harold.  "Harold?"

     Harold had been thinking how nice it would be to see the Harold's commercial here at dinner with everyone, on the color TV.  It would look so much better in color.  He looked over at Goldie.  "Sure, I'll have some more chicken."

     "I didn't ask you if you wanted more food.  Can you drive me to Weingarten's after dinner?"

     Harold felt trapped.  "There's a Christmas party at Champions and another one at River Oaks.  I need to stop by both.   The mayor will be at the River Oaks thing."

     "Milton, can you drive me?" Goldie asked.     

     "I've got a meeting," Milton said.

     "I'm very disappointed.  Very, very, disappointed," Goldie said, as the evening took a turn towards martyrdom.  One day they would all want Folger's, they would beg for Folger's, and there wouldn't be any because they were all too selfish to help.

     Emmanuel had heard enough.  Enough was enough.  Goldie just didn't know when to quit.  She never quit, she never let go.  "Goldie, I'll drive you to get the damned coffee.  I can't see so good at night but that's not important as getting another goddamn five pound can of Folger's.  Just let me eat my dinner in peace!"

     "No, I'll go," Harold said, giving Milton a dirty look that Milton acted like he didn't notice.  Harold had real business to do, promoting Harold's, and Milton didn't want to do anything except be Milton and have fun, never thinking about the burden Harold had to carry.  Having a store that bore your name wasn't a blessing, it was a curse.  "No, I'll go," Harold repeated, annoyed that Milton would not volunteer for what the oldest son should gladly do without having to be asked.

     "No, no, no," Goldie said, her martyrdom naturally leading to the self-effacement that was one of the most noble characteristics of selfless martyrs.  "You have important things to do, Harold.  The Folger's isn't that important.  I can live without it."

     "Of course you can live without it," Milton said.

     "But it's not on sale often," Goldie added, fearful that her self-effacement had gone to far.

     "I said I'd drive you," Harold said, completely exasperated.

     "You're ruining my dinner with this constant Folger's, Folger's, Folger's!" Emmanuel said bitterly, but he didn't stop eating.  "I'm trying to eat my dinner in peace!"

     "I'm peaceful," Goldie said.  And she was.  She was truly peaceful. 

     Harold was dressed for the evening in his wool crepe sport coat and gray flannel slacks.  His silk tie was red and green and featured little Santas playing golf.      

     "Frosty the Snowman" played softly over the Weingarten's loudspeaker.  Goldie walked slowly down an aisle, her eyes as bright and greedy as a child's.  For a woman from the old country, Weingarten's was heaven.  Harold dutifully pushed the grocery cart.  Five pound cans of Folger's, the impetus for the journey, were almost buried underneath the bottles of prune juice, the sacks of sugar, and the cans of peaches that Goldie was accumulating.  Harold had to walk very slowly to keep in step with Goldie, who was taking her sweet time.  She was in her favorite place in the whole world, so what was the rush?  Harold felt that life was moving as slowly as those replays on Monday Night Football.  There was no point in walking ahead of Goldie, it wouldn't make her move any faster.  He pointedly looked at his watch, but the point was lost on her.  "Mom, please, just Folger's and prune juice, you promised."

     Goldie smiled serenely as she removed the rubber band from the wrinkled envelope that held her coupons.  "I think Emmanuel found a coupon for the fruit salad that you like."  It took her an agonizingly long time to look through the pile of coupons.  And when she didn't find the one she was looking for, she started all over again.

     "Mom, don't worry about the coupon.  I'll be glad to pay full price for the fruit salad.  I'm running late.  Time is money."

     "Harold, you can't just waste money."

     "No, but you can waste time."

     "There, found it--see, I knew I had a coupon."

     Goldie added the fruit salad to the cart and continued on at a leisurely pace. 

     "This is the last aisle we're going down. I mean it."  Harold wasn't sure that Goldie heard him.  How could she smile so serenely?  "I really mean it, Goldie."

     One Iron pulled the Continental into the carport of the Bali Hai, a two-story Polynesian-themed apartment building off of Buffalo Speedway.  He and Milton walked past the courtyard pool.  Some of the doors sported holiday wreaths and there were Christmas lights entwined in the metal railing of the second floor walkway.  Even with "Silent Night" drifting through the air, the Bali Hai would never be a very Christmasy place.  But Milton looked as happy as a little boy about to unwrap a big present.  "What are their names?" he asked.

     "Joyce and Eve.  Eve is mine," One Iron said.

     The door was unlocked, but Milton gallantly knocked before opening it.  The apartment was furnished with the bachelor basics.  It had a wet-bar with mirrored tiles behind.  Dean Martin's "White Christmas" was playing on the RCA home entertainment console, the walnut model.  Two women were sitting on bar stools.  They both had big hairdos and wore tight dresses. 

     "Merry Christmas, ladies!" Milton said.

     "Joyce and Eve, meet Milton," One Iron said.

     Eve held out her white-gloved hand.  One Iron slid behind the bar and refreshed the girls' martinis before pouring drinks for Milton and himself.

     "Eve as in Christmas Eve?" Milton asked.

     "Yes--Eve as in Adam and Eve."

     "What's your name on Easter?  Bunny?"

     Eve laughed, a richly toned laugh that had gained its coloratura from years of puffing Virginia Slims.  She slowly withdrew a fresh one from a hard pack and held it up.  One Iron picked up the onyx lighter but Milton caught One Iron's eye.  Milton clicked with Eve.  Would One Iron mind terribly if they traded girls?  One Iron shrugged almost imperceptibly, the quietest possible way of saying "no problem."  And it really wasn't.  They were like brothers.  Milton felt more relaxed with One Iron than with anyone, certainly more relaxed than with Harold.  Even though Harold was masterful at flattering and complimenting people, he never flattered Milton.  Of course, Milton never flattered Harold either. 

     One Iron was remarkably resourceful when it came to finding willing girls.  And Milton always closed the deal.  He took out the twenty-four karat Playboy lighter than One Iron had given him for his birthday last year to set fire to Eve's cigarette.  She held his wrist as she blew the flame out and smiled.

     Joyce took out a white leather cigarette case and tamped down the tobacco on her Salem.  One Iron was quick to light it with the onyx lighter.  The girls looked at each other and smiled.  Joyce raised her plucked eyebrows and asked, "Are you two roommates, Charlie?"

     "No..." One Iron answered.

     "Who lives here?" Eve asked.

     "It's Milton's place," One Iron said.

     "It's where I entertain," Milton said.

     "Entertain?" Eve teased.

     Milton smiled and sipped his martini.  Where had One Iron found these gals?  He'd have to remember to ask him later.  It was a hell of a nice Christmas Eve.

     When Harold arrived at the River Oaks Country Club, the porte-cochére was clogged with Cadillacs.  The liveried doorman was helping a frosted blond in a mink coat into a Coupe de Ville.  Harold nibbled at his lower lip and hurried inside, fearing that the party was well past its peak.  He muttered "fuckin' Folger's" under his breath until he stepped into the main hall and saw the gregarious crowd, the well-heeled sorts who didn't spend Christmas Eve at home.  And who spent money on clothes. 

     Harold joined the first cluster that he saw.  "Hi, I'm Harold, real pleased to meet you...I like that tie.  We've got some new Countess Mara's at the store that I think you'd just love...Hi, I'm Harold..."  Like a politician, Harold was determined to shake every hand.  "Hi, I'm Harold" seemed to start every other sentence that he spoke.

     Tuffy McCormack, a tall, well-fed oil man grabbed Harold.  "I knew you'd be here, Harold.  You're at every damned party in town.  There's someone I want you to meet."

     Tuffy tucked his arm through Harold's and led him across the room.  It pained Harold to pass people he really should be saying "Hi, I'm Harold" to, but he would work his way back.  Well, Tuffy had him now, he needed to make the best of that, see where it led.  "I've seen you in that suit before," Harold said.

     "You sold it to me, bubba," Tuffy said.

     "Didn't you wear it to the Cattleman's Banquet?"

     "Maybe I did, I don't remember..."

     "Time for a new suit, Tuffy.  And I mean tomorrow."

     "Tomorrow's Christmas, my Semitic friend."

     "Then the day after.  Dress for success, Tuffy."

     "I am successful."

     "All the more reason, then."

     "Harold, you are a sketch.  Listen, I got this syndication I want to put you and Milton in.  Six sweet little wells out in the oil patch."

     "Milton doesn't like oil wells.  Unless there's a huge tax break."

     "I'm not talking to Milton.  I'm talking to you, and I'm..."  Tuffy saw someone who turned his head.  "Wait a sec--you know Mary Beth?  Hey, Mary Beth!"  Harold saw that Mary Beth was a petite brunette wearing lot of jewelry; he offered his hand.  "Hi, I'm Harold."

     Mary Beth smiled back.  She recognized him from the commercials.  She thought that Harold looked much better in person and demurely offered her hand.  "Ah, Harold!"

     "Ah, Milton!" Eve cried.

     "Ah..."

     "Eve," she helped.

     "Ah, Eve!" Milton said.

     Eve giggled and gripped the Scandinavian headboard, identical to one in his bedroom at his parent's house.  Milton was a creature of habit.

     The party at the River Oaks was winding down.  The steward in the Santa Claus suit was passing out elaborate candy canes to the last of the departing guests, eager to get out of the itchy red wool suit and home to his wife.  Harold found himself alone under the porte-cochére with another man, as they both waited for valets to bring their cars.  They accidentally caught each other's eye and nodded politely, in the Christmas spirit.  Harold couldn't resist.  "Hi, I'm Harold," he said and stuck out his hand.

     Eve was lying face down on the bed, dead to the world, her big hair in ruinous collapse, her arm thrown carelessly across Milton's chest.  Milton gently lifted her arm off of him and climbed out of bed.  He pulled on a maroon silk robe identical to the one he wore at home and gingerly stepped across the tangle of clothes on the floor.

     The den was empty, except for the martini glasses rimmed with lipstick prints.  Milton found a fresh glass and poured what was left in the martini shaker.  He opened the front closet and pushed some coat hangers aside.  Tacked to the closet wall was this year's Vargas calendar.  It being late December, Milton sipped his martini and flipped through the calendar, reflecting on the year just past.  There were women's names, many different names--Patty, Liz, Julie, Paula, Lois--written on various days, mostly Fridays and Saturdays.  He found the square for Christmas Eve, December twenty-fourth and wrote "Eve" then added an exclamation mark.

     Eve!

     Inspired, he added "Piece on earth, good will to men."  One Iron would get a kick out of that.

     It was late in the year, but Milton wondered if he'd be lucky enough to write another new name in his calendar of conquests before closing the book on 1973.  He capped his fountain pen and yawned.

     Hickory smoke billowed up into the crisp blue December sky from the fifty gallon custom smoker.  As Carerra marble was the preferred material of Florentine sculptors, the oil drum was the favored contraption for cooking real Texas barbecue.  Milton had carefully positioned his smoker downwind from the mimosa tree that Goldie doted over. 

     He wore a navy cardigan sweater, its side pocket filled with Harold's envelopes, and gray slacks with a razor-sharp crease.  While he carved the ribs, Nellie stood by his side, wearing her Sunday best, patiently holding out the platter.  Milton cooked pork ribs because they were leaner and more flavorful than beef.  He didn't like pork meat in general, but for ribs he made an exception.  He had been born a Texan and regarded barbecue as a form of transubstantiation, which transformed the blatantly unkosher into the transcendently tasty.  Besides, it was his birthday, so he made the rules.  Goldie had been suspicious six years ago when he had boldly made the switch to pork ribs, but Milton had bent the truth, and the ribs were so delicious that Goldie didn't question their provenance too closely.

     When Milton came inside, Faye smiled a friendly hello. Her burly husband, Bert, nodded deferentially.  He wasn't wearing his police uniform, but his sport coat was a size too small and his shoulder holster was plainly visible.  The neckline of Faye's blouse plunged lower than usual, and even though Milton was tall she endeavored to lean down when she gave him a kiss on the cheek.  She was always trying to get Milton to notice her.  She'd heard stories about the apartment and was dying to wangle an invite, but Milton never seemed to take any of her hints.  "Happy birthday, Milton, and many happy returns of the day," she said, and handed him a little package with a frilly bow.

     "Merry Christmas, Faye," Milton said.  He took the stack of envelopes out of his cardigan pocket.  They were store stationery, with the heraldic red script Harold's on each upper left hand corner.  Milton found the envelope with Faye's name and handed it to her.  It was indeed Christmas Day and they had exchanged gifts, just as Milton would exchange gifts with everyone else at the party.  But the ritual had only an accidental relation to Christmas.  Faye had given Milton a birthday present, and Milton had given Faye her Christmas bonus.  Attendance at Milton's annual birthday party was hardly compulsory.  If someone missed the party for some reason, the Christmas bonus would most likely be received the day after.  But this was theoretical; no one had ever put the theory to a test by missing the Christmas Party.  Besides, the barbecue was superb, and everyone who worked at Harold's had had enough of their relatives by the time the afternoon rolled around.  Christmas was the only day of the year when they could sample pork ribs at a Jew's house, as long as they were careful not to let Goldie in on the secret of the meat.

     "How are things on the force, Bert?"

     Bert seemed to straighten up, as if his duty officer had called him to attention.  "Very quiet.  Now come tonight, there'll be a fair share of domestic disputes, but I'm off-duty until tomorrow."

     "Merry Christmas, y'all," Stugeon said as he joined them with a big tumbler of bourbon in his hand.  He shook Bert's hand and gave Faye a lingering kiss on the cheek.  Bert frowned suspiciously, but Stugeon didn't have a care in the world.  "Good ribs, good whisky, good football.  Are you a gambling man, Bert?"

     "No," Bert said stiffly, "but you look to be."  

     "Merry Christmas, Stugeon," Milton said as he handed him his bonus envelope.  One Iron and Jolene and the others were gently crowding around, incited to a polite feeding frenzy by those special red-and-white Harold's envelopes that Milton was handing out.  Milton was having a ball.  It gave him a genuine kick to play Santa on his own birthday.

     Harold stood off to the side, against the knotty pine wall, nursing a prune juice on ice in a highball glass.  Passing out the Christmas bonuses was Milton's big moment of glory, and Harold begrudged it.  It wasn't just Milton's money to give away, it was both of theirs, but Milton got to have all the fun, passing out the envelopes. 

      There was an elaborate spread of food on the dining room table.  On a side table, under one of Goldie's begonias, was a pile of birthday presents for Milton.  Goldie and Emmanuel, both dressed up for the party, were sitting on the couch kibitzing with their brothers and sisters.  Milton's party was the one day of the year that the living room was full of life.  But this didn't deter Daryl, who, golf club in hand, was trying to practice his putting through a forest of adult legs.

     Harold was relieved when Willie arrived.  Even standing peaceably to the side, Willie was physically imposing.  Football players always seemed to look bigger in person, Harold had noticed, not because he was in particular awe of their physical prowess, but because he had mentally imagined them wearing a different size suit.  It was a relief having Willie to talk to, or not talk to, as the case may be.  He was just comfortable standing around with Willie.

     "Do you think I should do a commercial for Sam The Rocketman Olds?" Willie asked.

     "Do you want an Oldsmobile?" Harold asked back.

     "No."

     Harold was nervous talking to Milton about business stuff, because Milton made him feel like he didn't know what was what, but with Willie he could explain things, and that was one of things that made him feel good about being around Willie.  "Sam The Rocketman is small potatoes.  You should only be doing national commercials.  Except, of course, Harold's."

     Willie smiled and pulled his jacket tight. "Hi, I'm Harold," Willie said, mimicking Harold's drawl.

     Harold was pleased with the effect.  "That has a nice ring to it," he said.

     Willie slapped Harold on the back, not very hard, because he had hurt Harold once being a little too boisterous and now was quite measured with his backslaps.  They looked at each other and laughed, like two school boys cutting up.  Willie just had to say it again, "Hi, I'm Harold."

     Lillian's two teenage daughters, Stephanie and Fredell, came bursting through the front door.  Lillian and her family lived at the end of the street.  Lillian and her husband Buddy had bought the house ten years ago, moving away from the old McGregor neighborhood where Lillian and Goldie had lived only three houses apart.  Goldie then decided to move.  Lillian felt a little hemmed in to have Goldie again living on the same street, but at least they were seven houses apart this time.  But Lillian never said anything about it to Goldie, and Goldie never openly acknowledged her need to keep close to Lillian. 

     Stephanie ran up to Milton and held out a long, skinny over-sized present.  "Happy birthday, Uncle Milton," she said and kissed him.  "For the man who has everything."

     "What is it?" Milton teased, already guessing from the size and weight what the gift most likely was.

     "Open it and find out," Stephanie said.

     "It's impolite to open presents at parties," he mildly reprimanded.

     Lillian came through the front door.  But it was the friend that she had brought with her that caught Milton's eye.  Dorothy was a vivacious redhead; everything about her was bright.  Her lipstick was an incandescent red and her flouncy silk dress was seasonably red and green, a size too tight, just enough to attract the right kind of favorable attention to her pleasingly endowed chest. 

     "It's impolite to stare," Stephanie said.  "Go ahead."

     "What?" Milton asked, too distracted to pay full attention to his niece.

     "Go ahead and open it," Stephanie insisted.

     Milton looked away from Dorothy.  He'd seen enough and needed to sort a few things out before looking at her again.  The birthday present was a welcome distraction.  He even forgot his edict and tore open the wrapping paper, revealing a gold-plated Playboy golf putter.  "Very funny," Milton said, giving Stephanie a thank-you kiss, "but I don't golf."

     "But you're a playboy.  And you like to use your putter," Stephanie said.

     "What a mouth," Milton said, amused.

     "It runs in the family."

     Milton turned back to look at Dorothy, but she was no longer in the doorway.  He saw Lillian leading her over to meet Harold.  Milton felt a twinge of jealousy, and he felt anxious, but he knew it wasn't his moment.  Milton was strategic; he knew how to wait, that was always the best way to get what he wanted.  Rushing never seemed to work, especially with women.

     Buddy, Lillian's husband, came in, removing his Stetson Open Road from his balding head and his unlit cigar from his mouth as he went over to pay his respects to Goldie.  He was a pleasingly overweight man who seemed to enjoy food and life and being married to Lillian, and was quite content to try and keep up with whatever his strong and sharp-tongued wife was up to.  Clearly, Dorothy was Lillian's Christmas Day agenda and Buddy was content to watch from the sidelines, preferably from somewhere near the buffet table.

     "Harold, I want you to meet Dorothy," Lillian said.

     Harold was struck by Dorothy's beauty, so struck that he said the three words that came most naturally to him in new and unfamiliar social situations. 

     "Hi, I'm Harold," he said and stuck out his hand to offer a vigorous handshake.

     "Hello," Dorothy said, amused that Harold seemed so shy with her.  But men were like that, if they thought her pretty, as Harold so clearly did.  Like everyone else, Dorothy had seen Harold's ads on TV and seen the big billboard over on the Katy Freeway with Harold smiling down at all those drivers.  She didn't think he'd be so flustered by her, though it was flattering.  Then again, he sold men's clothing, not women's, so his worldly success did not depend upon his ease with women.  She would almost have thought that Harold was a virgin if Lillian hadn't told her that he had two boys.

     Whenever Harold was at a loss for words he began to flatter.  Flattery came naturally when nothing else did.  "I love that dress on you," Harold said, then sensed a lingering implication that he would like to see the dress off of her, which, though he might, he would never, ever, imply such a thing so blatantly.  "I mean, it picks up the color of your hair.  And eyes," Harold said, worried that he was going too far.  It wasn't like she was a customer.  "I've got an eye for these things, professionally, but that aside, you look quite nice."

     "Why, thank you.  I'm not used to such intelligent compliments," Dorothy said, herself a masterful flatterer.  She could already see that he shared her taste for good clothes.

     Lillian was pleased by the galvanizing effect that Dorothy so instantly had on Harold.  It had been a stroke of good fortune running into her at Alfred's Delicatessen.  Dorothy was the best marriage prospect for Harold that Lillian had seen in quite a while.  Wouldn't it be nice to get Harold married again and get Michael and Daryl into a normal home, instead of sharing a bedroom with their father, Lillian thought. 

     "Dorothy was married to Max Rosen.  You remember Max?" Lillian asked Harold, to get a conversation started.

     "Of course.  Max, yes.  I played basketball with Max at the old JCC."

     "Ah, the old neighborhood," Dorothy enthused.  She could enthuse about almost anything, Lillian noticed.

     "Dorothy just moved back to Houston.  You two have a lot in common," Lillian said.

     Harold couldn't help looking down at Dorothy's dress.  At her chest.  The fabric was stretched so tightly there.  He quickly looked back up but was embarrassed by the knowing twinkle in her eyes.  Always look a man in the eye, that's what Emmanuel had taught him at the army surplus store, where Harold had gotten his schooling in retail.  But looking a woman in the eye, especially away from the store, that was a different thing altogether.  "Really?" Harold finally asked.

     "We both love Houston," Dorothy said. 

     Somehow she seemed a step closer, Harold thought, but he hadn't seen her move.  He caught himself starting to look down at that tightly stretched fabric again and stopped before he further damaged her opinion of him with any discourteous looking.

     "And you're both single," Lillian added.

     Dorothy laughed in a delicate way that Harold found thrilling.  He didn't know quite what to say to that.  "And well-dressed.  At least you are, Dorothy," Harold demurred.

     "Flattery will get you everywhere," Dorothy beamed, never afraid of a useful cliché.

     Goldie was pleased to see Harold finally talking to a nice Jewish girl.  That was a welcome change.  Better a nice Jewish girl than spending the whole party standing like a bump on a log next to the mishugeneh shvartza football player.  She watched as Willie went down the buffet line with a plate.  Goldie delighted in feeding people, but only if they were deserving--family, and those nice boys and girls who worked for Harold.  But it pained her to see Willie putting so much food on his plate.  Did he really have to take so many of Milton's delicious beef ribs?  Those ribs were meant for everyone, not just Willie.  Goldie had been meaning to talk to Willie about that.  In fact, she had been meaning to talk to Willie about a number of things.  She had planned to call him, but this was better.  It was better all around if she really gave that young man a talking to.

     Goldie touched Willie's arm.  He smiled down at her.  Willie liked the feisty old lady.  Goldie reminded him of his own Gramma.  "I've seen this jacket before," Goldie said.

     Willie was flattered that she noticed.  "I wore it on the Harold's commercial," he said proudly.

     "Did Harold give it to you?"

     "Yes, he did," Willie said.  That was what made the jacket special.  He always thought of Harold when he wore it.

     Goldie looked at the plate of food that Willie was holding.  So much food he was eating.  "Harold's a sweet boy," she said.

     "Yes, he is," Willie agreed.

     "I don't like him being taken advantage of," she told him.

     Willie felt Goldie crowding him as forcefully as a Steelers' lineman.  And the way she kept staring at his jacket and his plate, Willie had lost his appetite.  "No..." he politely agreed with her.

     "He sells clothes," Goldie said, as if explaining the Golden Rule to a naughty child.  "He doesn't give them away, because he'd go out of business if all he did was give clothes away.  I don't like you taking advantage of my boy.  Not one little bit."

     "No..."  Willie was shocked; his face flushed red with embarrassment.  Goldie kept staring at him.  Willie almost wished that she would tackle him, do something physical.  That he could deal with.  But Goldie turned abruptly and walked away. 

     Willie carefully set his plate down on the table and walked stiffly out of the room.  His abrupt exit went unnoticed by the other Wiesenthals.

     Milton had watched quite enough of Harold and the belle.  He walked over, ostensibly to kiss Lillian hello, which conveniently placed him next Dorothy. 

     Harold was less than thrilled to have Milton join them before he got a good conversation going with Dorothy.  Maybe she was interested in football.  Some women were.  They could talk about football, that was always easy.  He could even introduce Dorothy to Willie, maybe give her an autographed ball at the appropriate moment.  He looked for Willie to gesture for him to join them, but Willie seemed to have left the room.

     "Happy Birthday," Lillian said and kissed Milton.

     "Happy Birthday, Milton," Dorothy brightly added.  "You don't remember me, but I remember that you used to tease me on Wentworth Street when I was a little girl."

     "I never teased little girls," Milton smoothly replied.  He liked her better the closer he got.  Milton knew the type well, someone who liked attention and knew how to get it without overtly asking for it.  She was a Jewish Southern Belle.  And a Princess.  Milton had grown up with just such girls and at a younger and more "eligible" age he had been expected to marry one, but that wasn't a game he had cared to play.  But this one was affecting him differently.  He felt something, well, different than he had felt with any of the other belles, not that he had thought about Jewish Southern Belles in he didn't know how long.  Of course he thought about women, like last night, but that was a separate compartment, fun and comfortable, and easy to deal with.  This was, well, Milton would have to think about this one.  She was the real deal. 

     Harold was distressed by how relaxed Milton seemed.

     "Milton, you've always been a terrible tease," Lillian said.

     "Not if I thought that the little girl would grow up to be such a beautiful big girl," Milton said.

     Dorothy threw back her head and laughed.  The light caught her loose hair and the dress stretched tighter as she leaned back in seemingly spontaneous good humor.  Harold found it instantly depressing that Milton could so easily make Dorothy laugh.  He wasn't supposed to be the funny one.

     "I love being called a girl!  Which says something about my age."  Dorothy held out her hand to Milton.  "Dorothy Rosen."

     Milton gave her a lingering handshake, nothing like the pumping hail-met-hearty handshake of Harold.  "You were married to Max?" he asked.

     Dorothy smiled coquettishly.  "Well, maybe you do remember."  Dorothy could immediately see the challenge of Milton.  Unlike Harold, he wasn't afraid of women.

     Lillian was pleased that both Harold and Milton were so obviously interested in Dorothy.  That was more than she expected.  Too bad there was only one Dorothy, but it doubled the odds of getting at least one of them married and out of this crowded house.  "Dorothy, would you believe that these big boys, my little brothers, both still live at home with their Mommy and Daddy?"

     "That's so cute!" Dorothy said, beaming at both of the brothers.  It pleased her that finally Milton was as embarrassed as Harold.

     "Well, their Mommy takes good care of them," Lillian teased.  If nothing else, this moment made her day, to see Milton and Harold blushing side by side.  That was no mean feat.  But Lillian played poker with the girls every week and well knew to leave the table when she was ahead.  She tugged Dorothy's arm, ready to quit winners.  "Come on, Dorothy, I want you to meet someone."

     "Bye-bye, boys!" Dorothy said gaily as she waltzed off arm and arm with Lillian, both of them giggling like teenage girls and whispering in each other's ear.

     Harold and Milton looked at each other.  Lightning had struck.

     Twice.

     Years ago, before World War Two, Emmanuel had a store downtown on Preston Street.  He had called it E & W Army Surplus.  His initials were EW, but he thought E & W sounded better and he was right.  When he put up the money for his sons' store he said that a single name, either Harold's or Milton's, would sound better than Harold's & Milton's or H & M, but the naming of the store was more complicated than that.  Even though Milton was the oldest son, Harold had been the family favorite, the sunny personality.  Harold liked to be with people; he knew how to make them feel good, especially about buying clothes.  Milton seemed too quiet to succeed at retail.  Emmanuel had really set up the store for Harold, even though technically the brothers were partners.  Milton always suspected that when they had drawn the names from the hat to pick the store's name, that both slips had said "Harold."  Milton wouldn't put it past Emmanuel, or even begrudge him fixing the deck.  Business was like that, family or not. 

     In the early years, Harold's did okay, but it was nothing special.  Then Harold got drafted and went into the Merchant Marines as a safe alternative to military service. 

     Milton was 4-F.  He'd lost his right lung thanks to a quack doctor when he got pneumonia his sophomore year at A & M.  That was the end of college, the end of what might have been another life.  But when Harold was off to sea, Milton came into his own.  Quiet or not, he had a remarkable flair for business, and the store flourished.  For the first time, Emmanuel came to respect the wily business skills of the elder brother.  When Harold returned it was to a thriving business.  Milton didn't care for the see-and-be-seen, press-the-flesh backslapping that Harold excelled at.  So let it to be called Harold's; Milton would laugh quietly all the way to the bank.

     The day after Christmas, Harold was back on watch from the cashier's island.  Faye was ringing up a sale.  Business had been brisk all morning.  But Harold was on the phone and he was troubled.  "...Is Willie okay?  He left the party without saying good-bye.  You have him call me, please... Thank you much..."

     After he hung up, Harold's gaze drifted toward the shoe department and the back door.  The parking lot was in the rear of the store.  The back door had, over the years, become the front door.  Gary Plotkin was waiting there, ready to snag the next customer.  Plotkin wasn't family, but Harold smiled at him with something close to familial fondness, because Plotkin was a kindred spirit.  He didn't sell to live, he lived to sell. 

     When Plotkin saw the Judge walking across the parking lot, he smiled and fussed with the hair that he had combed over his mostly bald head and hairsprayed into place.  Plotkin knew he could run the Judge's tab up to a thousand, easy. 

     Plotkin had spent seven wasted years at his dad's pharmacy, three blocks east on Heights Boulevard.  There was no commission on sodas and sundries, and it was a blessing in disguise when the old man had sold out to Rexall and moved back down to Galveston.  Plotkin had turned down the pissant manager job and quit the store to work at Harold's.  A month later he quit his Thursday night poker game.  Retail was as much fun as gambling, and you didn't even have to ante up.  Each face through the door was like a fresh hand to play. 

    Ernie the Cop, off-duty, but still wearing his powder blue H.P.D. uniform, tipped his cap and held the door open for the Judge. 

     "Happy holidays, Judge," Plotkin said in greeting.

     The Judge, a silver-haired man in a gray suit, took off his Stetson.  "Merry Christmas, Barracuda.  Or should I say Happy Chanukah?"

     Plotkin chuckled appreciatively.  He didn't like boats and thought that fishing was perhaps the stupidest activity known to man, but a sport fisherman partial to size forty-eight poplin suits had called him Barracuda eight years ago and the name had stuck.  It sounded a hell of a lot better than Salesman of the Month or Salesman of the Year.  "The eight nights of Chanukah are a done deal, but Happy Chanukah all the same.  What can I do you for, Judge?"

     "I need a sweater to wear to my daughter's house tonight."

     Plotkin was off to the races, gently guiding the Judge back towards the shelves of sweaters.  "I just got in some beautiful mohair, the softest wool you ever felt..."  Thank god for cold weather.

     Harold hurried over to shake the Judge's hand.  "Hi, Judge, how ya doing?  How's Merrily?"

     "Just peachy."

     "You wish her happy holidays for me."

     The Judge chuckled and patted Harold's arm as Plotkin steered him gently toward the appropriate merchandise.  Plotkin smiled unhappily when he saw Tim Stugeon ambling their way, nervously fussing with the brim of his black Stetson. 

     Harold generally discouraged salesmen to wear hats inside the store except during Rodeo Week, when even Plotkin made it his business to sell cowboy clothes.  Dr. Feinlich, a psychologist, who reliably bought four new suits a year from Plotkin, had once explained that Stugeon had a short man's complex.  Stugeon didn't seem at all complex to Plotkin; he just always had something to prove--namely, that he was a big deal and should be thought of as such.  Plotkin knew that this made Stugeon a piss-poor salesman; a salesman should always be making the customer feel like a big deal--preferably by spending money for nice clothes.  Plotkin knew for a fact that Stugeon barely made enough in salary and commissions to cover the cost of the western-style suits that he favored.  Stugeon was probably just as bad a bookie, barely covering his own bets with the ones that he placed for customers.  Plotkin was annoyed to have Stugeon break his rhythm, but placing a bet could often put a man in a hopeful mood to buy more clothes.  That was an angle that a shrink like Dr. Feinlich might be able to explain.

     "Happy holidays, Judge," Stugeon said, tipping his hat.

     "Happy holidays, son.  What's the line on A & M?"

     "The Aggies with four points."

     "Put me down for a C."

     "You got it, Judge.  You're with the smart money on this one."  Stugeon hurried off to place the bet.

     "What are you drinking, Judge?" Plotkin asked.

     "Turkey with a splash."

     Plotkin waved over a black man in a polyester sport shirt and Sans-A-Belt golf slacks.  "Cochise.  Wild Turkey with a splash for the Judge."

     Cochise looped his thumb and index finger together and flashed the A-OK sign to Plotkin and went off on the errand.  Cochise's real name was Raymond.  No one remembered that except Milton, who had discovered him shining shoes and doing errands at Westwood Country Club.  Milton was fanatical about his shoes and knew of no one with a touch to match Cochise's.

     No one remembered who nicknamed him Cochise.  Except for Cochise, who had done the nicknaming himself.  The dudes at the club had taken him to calling him chief, as in, do this for me, chief, do that for me, chief.  And he realized if he was going to be called chief he might as well really be called chief and Cochise had been a hell of a chief so why not Cochise?  Besides shining shoe leather, Cochise served up the liquor.  It was Milton who made sure that they served decent liquor in the store.  Harold was a teetotaler and threw a fit about it, until he saw how the customers liked it and tended to be a little freer with their wallets with a couple of drinks under their belt.

     Plotkin fanned out the sweaters on a glass top display case.  "Aren't they sharp, Judge?  These are all size forty.  Gray and blue, your colors."

     The Judge was impressed.  "You remember."

     "Only the important things."

     The Judge soon had a drink in his hand and was wearing a gray mohair sweater with the price tag dangling.  He sipped his scotch and admired himself in the three-fold mirror as Plotkin knelt to fit him for a pair of slacks.

     "Feel this flannel, Judge, these are exactly what you need with that sweater--I can get these tailored for you in ten minutes, you can wear them tonight--and see how these socks pick up the color?  Sharp."

     The Judge laughed with a baritone that made plaintiffs tremble.  "Jesus Christ, Plotkin, don't you ever stop?"

     Plotkin marked the inseam with his tailor's chalk and smiled up at the Judge.  "No, sir, I'm just a simple country boy trying to make you look good, Judge, and I mean all of you.  Have you seen these boxer shorts with the Santas?  Aren't they a scream?"

     "Jesus.  Plotkin, now you're selling me underwear."

     "The holidays only comes once a year, Judge.  Think of the look of Merrily's face when you take off your pants tonight.  You might even get a sleigh ride."

     The Judge held up his hands in mock surrender.

       Cochise double-folded the twenty dollar tip from the Judge as he walked back toward his shoeshine stand in Western Wear.  The store was a series of rooms leading into other rooms, having annexed adjoining stores as it expanded.  The Big Man's Shop had been a toy store.  The Sportswear Salon, its walls covered with photos of Harold "golfing" with an odd mix of celebrities--Dwight Eisenhower, Mickey Mantle, Flip Wilson--had once been an alley, and was sometimes still referred to as such.  Western Wear, which marked the current frontier of eastward expansion, had once been a cafeteria.  Besides Cochise's leather and brass shoeshine stand, Western Wear was graced by a life-size cut-out of Harold and Willie, a Jewish clothier and a black halfback, both completely duded out as cowboys.  A more unlikely pair of cowboys there never was, but if there was any irony it was lost not only on Cochise, but on Harold.  Cochise put the finishing touches on Milton's alligator loafers.  He then climbed a steep set of stairs.

     Upstairs in the tailor shop it was hot and bright and busy.  Cochise walked all the way to the back where a full-length mirror was mounted on a door.  He knocked lightly on the mirrored door as he stared at his own reflection. "Milton?"

     "Just a second," a muffled voice came through the door.

     Cochise heard a bumping sound, and wondered for the umpteenth time what Milton was up to behind that mirrored door.  But Milton had a whim of iron, and Cochise knew better than to barge in.

     "Come in,"  Milton finally said.  Only then did Cochise turn the doorknob and step into the office. 

     Milton was sitting stocking-footed behind his big oak desk, just closing up the credenza.  "Cochise, que pasa?"

     "Spit and shined until they look so fine," Cochise said as he carefully placed the alligator loafers down on Milton's immaculate ink blotter.  The leather chair creaked as Milton leaned forward to look closely at the shoes, like a general reviewing his troops.  Cochise stood at parade rest in front of the desk.  Milton lifted one of the shoes to take a closer look.

     Cochise waited patiently.  Milton's office was the nicest place in the store.  Milton was a fanatic about his shoes and his hair, and luckily Cochise didn't have to have anything to do with Milton's hair.  And the shoes were no big deal, as careful as Milton was about where and how he walked.  Cochise knew that lots of the others at the store were scared of Milton.  But Cochise knew that as long as he did right by Milton's shoes, then Milton would do right by him. 

     "Nice, Cochise, nice," Milton finally said.

     "Thank you.  I disappeared that little ding on the instep, Mister Milton."

     "That's why you're my main man."

     Gary Plotkin was at the back door, sending the Judge on his way with three new sweaters with matching pairs of slacks, a new sport coat, six pairs of socks, and a pair of Santa-patterned boxer shorts.  Plotkin watched a powder-blue Thunderbird park but was disappointed when he saw that it was Dorothy in the car, freshening her lipstick in the rearview mirror.  She got out, straightening the pleats of her frilly floral-print dress as she sashayed toward the door.  Plotkin thought that she was pleasing to the eye, but an unlikely candidate for menswear.  If he had to choose between sex and selling, the choice was easy.  Sex usually was a whole lot of bother, and selling never was.  With sex you never knew exactly where you stood and with selling you always did.  Hell, you could have sex with yourself if you got desperate--and with Irene for a wife that was more often than not--but selling always took at least two people; it had foreplay, it had an afterglow, shoot, it had it all.

     Ernie the Cop tipped his hat and held the door open for Dorothy.  Despite his low expectations, Plotkin was all smiles, because you just never knew.  "Howdy, ma'am, welcome to Harold's.  How can I help you today?"

     Harold, watching as always from the cashier's island, was startled and thrilled to see Dorothy enter the store.  Lillian hadn't told him that she was coming out to visit, but then that was like Lillian to let him be the last to know.  "Dorothy!  How nice to see you.  You look great again today.  I'm beginning to suspect that you always look great," Harold said with a big smile.

     "And I'm beginning to suspect that you are a charmer," Dorothy replied with her own smile.

     "Lillian went over to Heights Savings.  You just missed her," Harold said.

     "You're presuming that I came here to see Lillian," Dorothy teased.

     "Oh?"  Harold felt flattered.  Harold supposed that he should invite her out to lunch.  But maybe he should show her around the store first, that would impress her.  That would be the polite thing to do, give her a little look-see and let that build up to a lunch invitation, so as not to be impertinent.

     But before Harold could speak Dorothy said "I was invited here by Mr. Milton Wiesenthal.  We have a lunch date."

     "Oh," Harold said, shocked.  Then disappointed.  But he knew that it was important to not look disappointed, to keep smiling, make the best of it.  "Well, I'm glad to see you.  And glad you could see the store.  If I'm not being too presumptuous, would you like a little tour of Harold's?" he asked.

     "Why, thank you, I'd be delighted," Dorothy answered.  She gaily hooked her arm through his. 

     Harold found the touch of her arm enormously exciting.  In fact, he tugged at the hem of his coat, startled that he had an erection and at great pains to keep that knowledge private.  Milton might have gotten the jump on the dating deal, but Harold was always selling Harold's.  He would make it his mission to sell himself, Harold, to Dorothy, beginning now.  "Well, as you see this is the main floor, shirts, ties, accessories, Gary Plotkin you met yesterday at the party..."

     Plotkin was all smiles, seeing Harold with a girl on his arm, even if the girl had put her arm there.  That was amusing, but Plotkin was on to the next sale, the next fresh face through the door. 

     Harold was grateful to have the store to talk to Dorothy about.  That was the easiest thing in the world.  "And this is Tim Stugeon..." Harold said. 

     Tim tipped his black Stetson.  "We already met at Milton's Christmas party.  Pleased to see you again, ma'am," he said in his I'm-just-a-good-ole-boy style, then hurried off to the telephone to place another bet.

     Harold led Dorothy over to the cashier island.  "And this is Faye."  Dorothy and Faye exchanged a tepid, wary handshake.  "Hello, Faye.  What a cute blouse."

     Faye was jealous of Dorothy's dress, which she could never afford, and Dorothy's red hair, which she was sure was a dye job.  Dorothy thought that Faye's neckline was too low, too eager to display Faye's cleavage, and that Faye's make-up was too bright, too obvious.  As they faced each other with brittle smiles there passed a moment of recognition.   Both women were well aware of the effect that they had on men.  Faye didn't feel threatened by Harold's obvious attraction to Dorothy, because until now Harold had seemed to have no interest or aptitude for women.  But working at Harold's, Faye was used to being the only pretty woman in sight, the only suitable target for flirting, and she was glad to have things return to this preferred natural state as Harold led Dorothy off the main floor, if indeed he was really doing the leading.

     "And right through here is the Big Man's Shop," Harold said.

     "My, what a lot of different rooms," Dorothy marveled as they stepped into the first of many interconnected specialty areas.

     Stugeon sidled over and secretly played footsie with Faye.  If his intentions were romantic then something was lost in the translation as he nudged her with his pointy-toed goatskin boots.  Faye was grateful for the attention and even acted like she enjoyed it.

     "She's a Texas firecracker, that one is," Stugeon mused, "I think Harold's got a hard-on for her.  Which is understandable."

     Faye pushed Stugeon firmly but decisively away.  She didn't care to listen to another woman receive compliments, no matter how backhanded, no thank you.

     Milton watched Harold escort Dorothy stiffly through the store on the grainy black and white closed-circuit monitor that he had in his office.  He put on his sport coat, tightened his tie, and checked his hair in the mirror.  Milton didn't want Dorothy to see his office; that was too personal for a first date.  Milton looked forward to lunch with the Princess.  He hadn't tangled with a Jewish Southern Belle in quite some time, and he relished the challenge.      

     Seated at a very good table at Herbert Ritz, the finest Creole restaurant in Houston, Dorothy was very pleased.  She expected no less than the best, but men rarely met her expectations.  The ornate filigree and rococo paintings, the brocade dining chairs, the delicate linen, they were all so perfect.  After those delicious ribs of Milton's yesterday, she was anticipating more barbecue today.  Men were so like children; once they found something they liked, then they wanted that one thing over and over again.  When he only ordered a cup of seafood gumbo for lunch, that too had surprised her, but he said that he often skipped lunch, that it was the most over-rated meal--present company excepted, he had sweetly added.

     Milton watched Dorothy tear into the grilled pompano.  She ate with extraordinary gusto for a woman with such a trim figure.  "You have a good appetite," he complimented her.

     "I have a great appetite.  For many things," Dorothy mockingly replied.  They laughed easily with each other.  "I had no idea your store was so clever.  All those little boutiques," she said.

     "Something for everyone," Milton said and sipped his wine.

     "I just loved those cowboy clothes.  It made me want to be a cowgirl.  Of course I've always been a sucker for big silver belt buckles.  Dressing up like that is my idea of a good time."

     Milton took the bottle of Chardonnay out of the ice bucket and refilled their glasses.  "And what else is your idea of a good time?"

     Dorothy smiled at his expert way of making everything sound vaguely suggestive.  He really had it down.  "There are different kinds of good times, for different times of day."  Dorothy took her sweet time sipping the wine now that she had the floor.  "Having lunch with such a charming gentleman as yourself ranks fairly high on my list of how to pleasurably spend the noon hour.  And what's your idea of a good time?"

     Milton smiled, pleased with how well she kept up the repartee, how easily she threw it back at him.  He hadn't dated a genuinely smart woman in a long while and he found it exciting.  "That entirely depends on the time of day," Milton said.  "There are so many ways to have fun--if you're a fun loving person."

     "You dress so elegantly for such a free spirit," Dorothy teased.

     "Because I happen to think that it's fun to wear nice clothes."

     "And who helps you pick out your clothes?" Dorothy asked.

     "No one," Milton said.  "Yet."

     Dorothy laughed and shook her hair so that it caught the light.  She always liked that effect.  And the effect that it had on men.  Oh, he was a fun one; she could play cat and mouse with Milton all day.

     When Milton came home from work, he was still a little buzzed from flirting with the Princess.

     Emmanuel sat in a chintz armchair, studying the stock page with a magnifying glass.  Milton's impeccably tailored suit looked out of place in the den--it retailed for more than the matching sofa and armchairs.

     "How's business?" Emmanuel asked, lowering his Houston Chronicle.

     "Excellent.  Dad, I heard about a piece of property out on Westheimer.  Let's drive out there tomorrow and take a look," Milton said.

     "Who told you?" Emmanuel asked.

     "Chen."

     "Is he selling it?"

     "No," Milton said.

     "Then why isn't he buying it?"

     Milton thought that was a damned good question--why wasn't Chen buying it?  Emmanuel's sharp business acumen constantly impressed Milton.

     He walked toward the back of the house.  There were three bedrooms along the short central hallway.  Milton's was the first door, then Harold's.  Emmanuel and Goldie had the master bedroom at the end of the hallway. 

     A king-size bed filled most of the limited floor space in Milton's bedroom.  The headboard was of blond Scandinavian wood, and matched the desk and dresser, the nicest furniture in the house.  Although there was barely enough room to squeeze between the pieces of furniture, it was the only room in the house that was uncluttered. 

     Milton opened the closet door to hang up his jacket.  There were over forty suits, organized by color.  A custom set of shoe trees held in excess of a hundred pairs of shoes, all flawlessly shined.  As Milton took off his tie and hung it in its proper place, among a hundred and fifty other ties, he felt neither tired nor excited, but somewhere in between.  He was surprised to still be thinking about Dorothy, her gusto in attacking the grilled pompano at lunch.  He saw no percentage to sweating things.  The only sweating that he wanted to do was in a sauna.

      When Milton stepped out of his room wearing a maroon silk dressing gown and slippers and carrying the latest issue of Playboy, Harold was waiting.  "Milton?  Do you have a sec?" 

     Milton detoured into Harold and the boys' room.  The bedroom was the same size as Milton's, but it held a single twin bed and a set of bunk beds.  The bunk beds were Nellie's idea, coming as she did from a large Creole family that had similarly crowded sleeping arrangements.   

     Michael, Harold's oldest son, was sprawled on the top bunk raptly reading an Archie comic.  Harold was leaning against the dresser, anxiously waiting to talk to Milton.  On the dresser was a jumble of papers, receipts, cufflinks, tailor's chalk, and football tickets.  The mirror behind the dresser had pictures tucked along the edges: Harold smiling with Alan Shepard, Harold smiling with Joe Morgan, Harold smiling with A.J. Foyt.  "I'm worried," Harold said.

     "About what?"

     "I'm worried about Tim Stugeon."

     "Can we talk about it later?" Milton asked.  He knew that Harold was really worried about Milton's lunch with Dorothy, but wouldn't dare broach that topic.

     "I'm worried about it now.  Is it illegal for him to take bets?" Harold asked.

     "Of course it's illegal.  It's called book-making."

     "Can he get in trouble?  Can we get in trouble?"

     "Jesus, Harold.  Even the Judge lays down bets with Stugeon."

     This piece of information did little to mollify Harold.  He bit his lower lip a little harder.  "Maybe you should talk with him."

     Milton started to look at his watch, then realized that he had taken it off.  It wasn't that long until dinner and he didn't want to spend the time rehashing business.  That's what you were supposed to do at the store.  Not at home.  Unless you were Harold.  Milton had better things to do.  "Christ, Stugeon's piddly little book is good for business.  Guys feel like big shots if they can lay down a bet.  It makes them feel like they're part of the club.  Half those jokers don't even bet unless they're out at the store and Stugeon asks them.  I wish I had a piece of that book myself."

     Harold remained unconvinced.  The more Milton talked about it, the worse it all seemed.  "I really am worried.  Aren't you?  Milton?"

     But Milton was gone.

     Milton walked faster than usual as he crossed the backyard.  The cold air cut right through the silk.  No one had ever seen Milton hurry, and no one saw him now.  He went through the chain link gate, past the wooden slats of the old water cooling tower.  The house had central air conditioning now, but the old unit had never been hauled away. 

     Milton went into the detached garage.  Emmanuel's car, a vintage green-and-white '56 Chevy Bel-Air, was parked alone in the garage.  To the side, where a work shop might have been, there was a large sauna.  Milton took off his silk robe and wrapped a towel around his waist.  He stepped inside and breathed in the welcome heat.  Nellie turned on the sauna at four o'clock every afternoon so that it was heated and ready to use when Milton got home.  The sauna was state of the art, paneled with Lebanese cedar.  In a recessed niche that he had custom ordered there was a telephone and a sixty-four band radio.  When Milton wasn't in the mood for music sometimes he listened to the police radio for kicks.  Tonight he dialed the FM to the easy listening jazz that he liked best.  Milton reclined on the cedar bench and opened the Playboy.  But Miss December didn't do much for him.  He needed to blow off some steam tonight, to get the Princess, Dorothy, off his mind.  He picked up the phone and dialed.  "Hey.  It's me.  So Joyce's friend--what's her name again?"

     "Milton!  Dinner, Milton!"  Goldie's voice traveled across the backyard and penetrated the sauna's cedar walls.  Milton sat up; it wouldn't do to dawdle.  "Pick me up around nine," he told One Iron and hung up.

     The next day when Dorothy pulled her Thunderbird into Harold's parking lot, by instinct she parked in the space next to the fiberglass awning for the three Wiesenthal cars.  It was raining, a sudden squall in from the Gulf of Mexico.  The sky was spectacularly dissonant, with brilliant patches of sunlight breaking through gray rain clouds.  One of those rain clouds was just passing over the Heights and Ernie, wearing his yellow H.P.D. rain slicker, hurried out from under the awning with an umbrella that had the distinctive red-scroll Harold's logo on it.  "Nice to see you again, ma'am," he said as he held out the umbrella for her.

     "Nice to see you, Ernie."

     Milton was kibitzing in the shoe department, slouching comfortably in a cracked-leather chair.  Harold stood with folded arms beside the cashier island.  They saw Dorothy come into the store at the same time and both waved hello.  Dorothy waved gaily back and opened the door to Lillian's office, which was located beside the rear entrance.

     When Dorothy stepped inside, Lillian was talking on the telephone, smoking a cigarette, and punching numbers into the adding machine, working its lever like a slot machine.  Lillian covered the telephone.  "I need the accounts receivable for the last two months, Jolene," Lillian said and went back to her phone call.  At the neighboring desk, Jolene was struggling to keep up.  Lillian saw Dorothy standing inside the door, a bit awed by all the commotion coming from two seated women and waiting to get a hello in edgewise.  "Dorothy!  Just a sec--Ed, give me until closing time tomorrow?  You're a love."  Lillian hung up the phone.  She leaned back in her padded office chair and smiled at her friend, admiring Dorothy's spiffy faille dress. 

     The chance to gab with Dorothy was a welcome break from the grind of holding the nuts and bolts of Harold's together.  Dorothy was eight years younger than Lillian--thirty-four to Lillian's forty-two.  Even when she was a little girl, Dorothy's humor and coquetry had amused Lillian.  Dorothy had been away from Houston for fifteen years, the duration of her marriage to Max and then some.  Lillian thought it very exotic that Dorothy had lived in Las Vegas for so many years and still managed to keep her fair skin.  Two weeks ago, out of the blue, she ran into Dorothy at Alfred's, the only delicatessen in Houston.  Dorothy had moved back to Houston only the week before.  And now, if they put their heads together, they might wind up sisters in law.  Dorothy was still young enough to have children, but she had to hurry.  "Aren't you a picture!" Lillian said, impressed.

     Dorothy gave a tiny curtsy of thanks.  "I'm here for another lunch date.  Today, it's Harold."

     "I know.  And Harold never ever dates," Lillian said.

     "Well, if you call it lunch then the little boys find that less threatening," Dorothy said with a mischievous smile.

     Lillian laughed as Dorothy came over to her desk.  Through the window Dorothy could see her Thunderbird parked beside Lillian's Electra, Harold's Cadillac and Milton's Continental.  The rain was rolling off the fiberglass awning and beating down on her poor little car.  It didn't seem fair.  Dorothy looked down at Lillian's desk, at the chaotic and complicated paperwork; there was so very much to keep track of.  But Dorothy was more interested in talking about the brothers than all those frightful bills and things that spilled across Lillian's desk.  "Does Milton know that I'm going out with Harold?" Dorothy asked, eager for Lil's insider opinion.

     "Hon, Milton knows about everything," Lillian said.

     "Harold just called me yesterday."

     "Around here the walls have ears.  And they all report to Milton," Lillian said knowingly.

     "And you never know if big brother is listening," Jolene added and pointed to the telephone.

     Dorothy was astonished, and quite acted the part, bringing a hand to her lips, careful not to smear her fresh lipstick.  "Well, I'd hate to come between two brothers," she drawled, sounding like a latter day Scarlett O'Hara.  Lillian thought that Dorothy's accent was thickening a little more each day.

     "Come on, you know you love it," Lillian said, amused by her friend's sardonic coquetry.

     "Well, to tell you the truth--I do," Dorothy smiled, and they all laughed.

     Lillian lit a fresh cigarette with the stub of a dying one.  "Once upon a time, Harold actually got married and moved away from Goldie, so he is at least capable of doing it, we know that much."

     "But Milton's a clean slate.  That has it's advantages," Dorothy countered, as they weighed the relative merits of the two brothers as marriage material.

     "Pushing either of those boys out of the nest, good luck," Lillian said.

     Harold came in, receipts in hand.  He looked determined, his jaw clenched with the man-in-charge-look that he thought would suitably impress Dorothy. 

     Dorothy and Lillian and Jolene all stopped talking, and the liveliness that he had felt when he stepped into the office was suddenly gone.  Harold wasn't afraid of people, he was a people person, everyone said so, so why this?  Dorothy was just another form of people.  "Hello, Dorothy.  This makes three days in a row that I've seen you.  It could get to be a habit," Harold said to puncture the ladies' amused silence.  It wasn't received as breezily as he had hoped. 

     "Marriage is a habit.  Visits are a little more carefree," Dorothy said, and Lillian and Jolene laughed at a shared sentiment.

     Harold was grateful for the papers in his hand, the most immediate proof for Dorothy that he was also a busy businessman.  "Lillian, here are the morning receipts," he said with a friendly formality and put the papers down on her desk.

     Dorothy looked at Lillian.  They could have made it easier for Harold by saying that right something, but they didn't.  Seeing him squirm a bit like this was too much fun.

     "Are you ready to go have lunch?" Harold finally asked.

     "After we finish our girl talk," Dorothy said with a smile that both made him melt and shooed him away.

     "Yes, of course."  He tried to think of something more to say, but that something eluded him.  He smiled tightly, nodded in a way that he felt would look decisive and walked stiffly back out of the office.  As the door closed, he thought he heard laughter.

     Harold returned to the cashier island and paced back and forth like Ahab on the quarter-deck waiting for the white whale to appear.

     Holding a rolled up set of blueprints, Milton leaned forward in one of the comfy shoe department chairs to talk with Frank Brooks, an architect who wore preppier clothes than Harold's sold.  Milton leaned in close, encouraging the architect to speak confidentially.  "I'll draw up some furniture layouts, but you really need an interior decorator," Brooks said in a sotto voice.

     "Is that absolutely necessary?" Milton asked.    

     "Not absolutely.  Let me send over some furniture catalogs for you to look through," Brooks said.

     "Don't send over anything, Milton said.  "I'll stop by your office.  This deal is still secret.  Let's keep it that way."

     "Whatever you say, Milton, but please, start thinking about furniture," Brooks gently insisted.  "We've got to furnish your beauty just right."

     "She is a beauty," Milton said softly as he saw Dorothy come out of the office, all smiles, walking toward him with a nice sway that was awfully close to sultry.  "She is a beauty," Milton repeated softly. 

     He ambled to his feet and smiled at Dorothy.  Harold asking her out to lunch, and the very next day, had been a real surprise.  He didn't think that Harold had it in him.  But he had to give his brother credit for knowing a good thing when he saw it. 

     When they saw it. 

     They had never competed over girls.  Three years was a huge age difference when they were growing up, and even back in their school days Milton had been interested in different sorts of girls than Harold.  He had been interested in girls period, whereas Harold had been interested in Jewish girls, nice Jewish girls until, at Goldie's insistence, Harold had married one.  Then he had seen how nice they mostly weren't. 

     Later, Goldie had railed against at Milton's bachelorhood, but by then he was secretive enough that Goldie didn't have much in the way of specifics to rail against. 

     Dorothy was the first woman that both he and Harold were keen on.  Milton was ready to throw aside his lifelong prejudice against nice Jewish girls, particularly the belles, the Jewish Southern Belles, to make a play for her.

     "Milton, I want to thank you again for that delightful lunch yesterday," Dorothy said.

     "We'll do it again," he said with a smile.

     "We will," Dorothy said and smiled back, impressed again with what a cool customer he was.  She'd like to see him lose his cool.  She'd like to make him lose his cool.  She wasn't just smiling at Milton, she was smiling at her own secret ambition as she gave him a little wave good-bye and walked across the terrazzo floor to Harold at the white Formica cashier island. 

     Tim Stugeon, One Iron, Plotkin, and the others stood by like a Greek chorus in sharp sport clothes, keeping close tabs on the action. 

     "Hello, Dorothy.  You look real nice today," Stugeon said with his bookmaker's smile.

     "Thank you, Tim," Dorothy replied with a graciousness she did not feel for such a weasly man.  "I'm all yours, Mr. Wiesenthal," she said to Harold with an ironic curtsy.

     "Well, fine then."  He  always felt very in control when he was near the cashier's island.  He wanted Dorothy to see that he was the man, Harold of Harold's.  "Plotkin, if Nolan Ryan comes in, please get him to sign that box of baseballs under the counter."  Harold felt proud but self-conscious.  She was so damned pretty standing beside him.  "And if the Murphys get here before I'm back you know what to do.  Shall we go?" he asked her. 

     As the walked toward the door something was still nagging at him.  Right: Willie.  "Willie never called back?" Harold asked Faye.

     "No," Faye said, her arms folded, cautiously watching Dorothy.

     "Well, if he does..."  Harold's voice trailed off.  It bothered him that something was off with Willie.

     "I'll take care of it," Faye said, shooing him away, and Dorothy with him.  Harold wasn't used to going out to lunch.  It was a time of day that businessmen came in to shop and Harold hated to leave the store at a potentially busy moment.  But Dorothy was worth making an exception. 

     Plotkin always brown-bagged it.  There was a window in the stockroom here he could eat his lunch and keep an eye on the parking lot.  That was the beauty of a tuna fish sandwich--you could put it down when a car pulled into the parking lot and be waiting with a smile at the backdoor, ready to get your teeth into the next wallet.  

     Dorothy hooked her arm through Harold's.  She could feel him jolt at the contact.  What a nice feeling, that simple power, and from such a trifle, a touch.  "I have to warn you, Harold.  I'm very, very hungry," Dorothy said as he held the door open for her.  The storm clouds had passed and sunlight sparkled on the wet concrete.

     Faye and Stugeon and Plotkin all exchanged a look, and a smirk, as they watched Harold open the door of his Cadillac and gallantly help Dorothy get in.

     "Harold Wiesenthal on a date.  What kind of odds you got on that, Stugeon?" Plotkin asked.

     Stugeon fingered his string tie while he guess-timated.  "I'd say Harold and twenty-one.  He's a serious underdog against the wildcat.  Serious."

      Plotkin let out a braying laugh. 

     Slouching in the shoe department, there was a sparkle of jealousy in Milton's eyes as he watched the Cadillac drive away.    

     Harold felt distracted with Dorothy in the car.  He never thought much about his driving, his mind was never really on it, and he had always managed to get safely from one place to another.  Only today, with Dorothy in the car, he was self-conscious about his driving and that made it tough.  Somehow she threw him off his game.  "Do you like football?" he asked, anxious to break the silence.

     "Max liked football.  I wouldn't say that I had a passion for it.  Why?  Do you?"

     "What?"  He had been thinking about how nice she smelled and hadn't really heard what her question was about. 

     "Have a passion for it?"

     "Passion?" Harold wondered.

     "For football," Dorothy said with a smile.

     If he was amusing her, that was good, Harold thought.  "It can be very exciting at times. The reason why I asked is, would you mind if we stopped by the Oilers' practice field?  I want to say hello to Willie."

     "Sure.  That sounds like fun."

     "I never much liked football until I started watching it from the sidelines, after I got to be friends with the players."  He hoped that it didn't sound like bragging because he was just explaining, that was all.  "It's a lot more exciting up close," he added.

     "Lots of things are more exciting up close," Dorothy teased.

     Harold smiled politely back, nervous about saying the wrong thing.  Teasing was a different kind of deal from just talking, especially this flirting kind of teasing.  "Such as?" Harold asked with a friendly, hopeful smile.

     Dorothy smiled coyly back.  "Why all kinds of naughty things are more exciting up close.  How did we get to talking about the birds and the bees?"

     Harold blushed.  "I thought you meant like golf or tennis."

     Dorothy laughed as if Harold had told a very witty joke.

     This flirting deal took a whole lot of work, Harold thought.  It was hard to do and drive too.  He saw dark clouds ahead of them, south of the Astrodome, but the sun was shining along Brays Bayou as Harold drove toward the practice field.  Roads were supposed to be slick with oil after it rained, Emmanuel was always telling him that, and Harold was worried about oil slicks as he drove along the wet streets.  He slowed his speed even though he wasn't sure what an oil slick would look like after a rain, when the whole street looked slick.  Driving slower, it seemed to Harold like time was passing slower and it was his turn to say something.  "So Max passed away?" he asked a bit abruptly, but it was something he was very curious about.

     "Of a heart attack," Dorothy said.

     "Oh.  I thought it was a car wreck."

     "He had a heart attack while he was driving--which caused the accident.  They were never sure what really killed him, I mean, if he was dead before the car crashed, because it, well, sort of blew up," Dorothy explained.  "It sounds a bit morbid, but..."

     "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bring up a painful subject."

     Dorothy put on a brave face for Harold.  "Don't worry, you won't have a weeping widow on your hands--doesn't that sound just awful, that I have to call myself a widow?"

     "Yes, I suppose that does sound kind of sad," Harold said, agreeing with her.  He was eager to agree with whatever she said. 

     She smiled at him in a special way that made him feel that he was a partner in her story.  "And I'm not a sad person at all.  Not even a little bit.  You know, I think that's what we've got in common, that we're both very positive people."

      Harold smiled hopefully.  "Dorothy, you're about the farthest thing from a weeping widow that I can think of."

     "Why, what a sweet thing to say," Dorothy smiled back. 

     Harold was pleased with how well their lunch was going, and they hadn't even eaten yet.  Driving wasn't half-bad with a passenger like Dorothy.

     An oil derrick bearing the Houston Oilers' logo towered over the team's training facility.  The practice field abutted rain-swollen Brays Bayou.  Harold led Dorothy from the parking lot, trying to pick ground that wasn't too squishy.  She was appalled but thought it best not to be too finicky about muddying her suede pumps.  The important thing was to seem game.

     "You're going to like Willie.  He's good people," Harold said.

     When they got to the sideline, the offensive team was scrimmaging in their practice suits.  The field was wet and muddy and everyone was miserable and jumpy.  With mud covering most of the numbers, it took Harold a while to spot Willie, just as he ran past.  "Hey, Willie!" he called out.

     Willie saw Harold and double-clutched.  He looked sheepish and kept on running.  Harold was confused.  Why was Willie acting so strangely?  And in front of Dorothy, that made it even worse.  "Willie?  Willie?!"  Harold called out again.

     Willie reluctantly stopped running.  Harold walked over, embarrassed that Dorothy was tagging along behind, and he didn't know how to tell her not to.  Even speaking softly, she would probably hear everything.  "I've been trying to call you," Harold said quietly.  "I thought we were supposed to meet at the club last night.  And we've got that charity dinner tonight for the Big Brothers."

     Willie stared down at his cleats and kicked nervously at the muddy grass.

     Harold was starting to feel desperate.  He glanced over at Dorothy, who was discreetly hanging back.  He was grateful that she wasn't crowding him, but he still felt awful.  "What's wrong?  Is it something I did?  Something I said?" Harold asked.

     Willie kept staring at the ground, feeling awful too.  "Harold, I don't know..."

     "What is it?" Harold asked in a troubled voice.  "What's wrong?"

     Willie looked Harold right in the eye.  "Do you think I'm taking advantage of you?"

     Harold was stunned.  It was such a crazy question.  "What?  What are you talking about?"

     "Because I don't need any free clothes.  I like to pay my own way."

     Harold felt dizzy.  This was all so damn crazy.  "There is no way in the world that you are taking advantage of me.  I thought we were friends."

     Willie looked back down at the ground, then reluctantly met Harold's eye again.  "I thought we were friends too."

     "Tell me what happened," Harold pleaded.  "Will you please tell me what happened?"

     "Your Momma talked to me at the party and she said I was taking advantage of you, taking free clothes, and she didn't want me taking advantage of her boy."

     Harold's face reddened.  "What!  She told you what?!" he exploded.

     "That you made your living selling clothes and that you couldn't just be givin' them away to me," Willie said with a shrug.  He already felt a whole lot better, seeing how upset Harold was with Goldie.  Willie was sure glad he wasn't her son.

     "Willie, she is so far out of line that there's not even a line.  You and I, we do stuff for each other.  We always have.  We're friends," Harold said.

     Willie nodded thoughtfully now that the whole thing was clear.  Harold's Momma was haywire, that's all it was.  Willie held out his hand and they shook. 

     "Willie, goddamnit, we got a game to get ready for!" the offensive coach yelled from the scrimmage. 

     Willie saw that the team was lining up to run the next set of downs.  He turned shyly back to Harold.  "See you later?" he asked.

     "See you later," Harold said, relieved.  Willie gave him a pat on the back and ran back into the scrimmage.  Harold turned to Dorothy.

     "Is everything okay?" she asked.

      "Is everything okay?  Other than my mother alienating the biggest sports figure in the city, sure everything's fine.  Goddamn!"  Then he remembered.  "I forgot to introduce you to Willie.  God, I'm sorry."

     Dorothy was intrigued by the drama and emotion.  It was even worth getting her shoes muddy.  All she'd expected to see were some big lunks tossing a ball back and forth.  "Maybe we should have lunch another day," Dorothy suggested.

     "No, no, no, I've got things straightened out now.  Let's go eat.  You like Sonny Look's?" he asked.

     "Anything's fine," Dorothy said and tried her best to look enthusiastic.  After all, lunch wasn't just about food.

     Sonny Look's was a classy steak house, with quotation marks around classy.  Instead of linen on the table, there was sawdust on the floor.  It wasn't Dorothy's kind of place, but lunch wasn't really about the place.  And her sirloin was rather tasty.  Harold sawed at his T-bone without much enthusiasm, still looking upset.  After seeing Willie at the practice field, he had gotten quiet.  But Dorothy usually could succeed in getting men to talk about themselves.  It was at least a topic in which the gentleman in question was usually well-versed.

     "I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but my gosh.  You must be very frustrated,"  Dorothy said.

     "I am very frustrated," he said, looking deep into her eyes, grateful at last for someone who really understood him.  Why, Dorothy didn't have to say hardly anything, and Harold just knew that she understood.  Somehow he could tell from the easy way that she smiled at him.  "When the name on the door says Harold's and you're responsible for everything, it's not always easy.  And then Goldie pulls a stunt like that.  The jackets I gave Willie aren't jack compared to the advertising bang we get with him.  But the important thing is that Willie's my friend.  Shoot, it's hard to stop thinking about."

     Dorothy shook her hair, trying to let the light, as pitiful as it was in here, catch it.  "Well, maybe I can distract you.  I've been known to distract people before.  In a positive way.  I think you mended things very nicely.  Very nicely, indeed.  You should look on the bright side.  This kind of thing can make a friendship stronger."

     "You really think so?" Harold asked.

     "I do.  Trust me," Dorothy said with a reassuring smile.  She put down her steak knife and touched Harold's hand.  Gosh, he liked how that felt.  He couldn't remember ever getting this excited by a woman.  It had never been like this with his wife, not even in the beginning.  Harold was glad they were seated at the table because he surely didn't want her to see how excited his lap looked.

     When Harold came home Goldie was standing on top of one of the kitchen chairs, inspecting and rearranging newly acquired five pound cans of Folger's.  It had taken some ingenuity to get all of the coffee into a single cupboard. But that meant dividing her bags of sugar into two cabinets.  She preferred keeping each kind of food together, but for the time being she would sacrifice her system.  She really needed more cabinet space to properly provide for the family and was glad to see Harold home early so they could talk about that.  After all, she couldn't do it all alone.  If they wanted to make sure there was enough food on hand, then they all had to help.

     "Mom!  It's none of your business what I give Willie!" Harold exploded.

     Goldie stared at her packed shelves, unperturbed by his words, inspecting her provisions with a pleased smile.  They had enough coffee now for at least three years.  That was something to smile about.

     Nellie kept herself very busy at the stove; loud voices always scared her and she was desperate to stay out of the way.  The Wiesenthals never hit each other like they did in the Brousshard family, but boy could they talk loud, and that yelling could make you feel worse than a smack on the cheek.

     "Mom!  Listen to me!  It's outrageous!" Harold said louder, frustrated by Goldie's placid indifference.

     She finally turned to look at him--it wasn't healthy for him to get so excited.  Standing up on the chair put her at Harold's eye level; maybe she should get up on a chair whenever she needed to give Harold a serious talking to.  "I thought he was taking advantage of you," Goldie patiently explained.

     "That's crazy!  He gets paid ten thousand dollars to do other local ads--and he does my ads for free!  And anyway it's none of your business."

     "I'm still your mother.  Of course it's my business!"  Goldie said, starting to get really steamed.

     "I don't want you talking to Willie again," Harold nearly shouted, furious with Goldie's obstinacy.

     "If he comes into my house then he's going to hear what I have to say," she said defiantly.

     Michael and Daryl were both doing their homework at their TV trays, but they didn't pay much attention to the yelling because no one was yelling at them.

     Emmanuel was trying to read the stock quotes with his magnifying glass, and she was making him crazy.  "Goldie, goddammit!  Will you listen to Harold!" Emmanuel yelled at her.

     "Only if he listens to me!  Who wants to buy clothes from Willie?  What does Willie know about clothes?"

     "Goldie!" Emmanuel shouted back.

     She didn't answer.  Emmanuel went back to studying the stock quotes.  Goldie got off the chair and moved it in front of the next cabinet.  She was worried.  About the canned peaches.  She wouldn't bother to count them, just get a sense of what they had on hand.  The middle cabinet was a bit thin, but that was understandable considering all the canned peaches they'd eaten this last week.  "Harold?"

     He looked at Goldie, ready for the apology she owed him.

     "Could you take me to the store after dinner?"

     Harold stormed out of the kitchen, muttering to himself as he stalked down the hall to his bedroom.  As he passed Milton's room, he saw his brother reclining on the bed, in T-shirt and chinos, reading the Wall Street Journal.

     "Milton, will you talk to her?" Harold asked.

     "What's the point?  You already squared things with Willie," Milton said with a shrug and took a sip of ice tea.

     "The point is...the point is I don't want it happening again.  Ever!" Harold said.

     "When was the last time that Goldie apologized?  For anything?" Milton asked.

     Harold stared at Milton, unwilling to answer. 

     "When was the last time Goldie apologized?" Milton asked again. 

     It wasn't fair, Harold thought.  Milton should be angry too; Willie did the commercials for the store, for both of them.

     "When was the last time Goldie apologized?  Never.  Never was the last time," Milton said, answering his own question.  "So what's the point?"

     "The point is...the point is I don't want it happening again."

     "Relax," Milton said.

     "That's easy for you to say," Harold said.

     Milton thought about it.  "You're right," he concluded.

     Harold rolled his eyes in frustration and retreated to his bedroom.  Someday Milton would see, someday they would all see, someday they would finally appreciate him.

     "Boys!  Dinner!" Goldie called.  If she was worried about anything, it was that her meat loaf be eaten while it was hot.

     A heavy rain had drummed through the night and violent brown water was coursing through swollen Buffalo Bayou.  But the skies this morning were a soft winter blue.  Allen Parkway followed the gentle contours of the bayou, and as Lillian drove her Electra along the parkway she looked at the bright day and thought it perfect for shopping.  Thankfully, the traffic was light and Lillian could drive safely.  The second year of her marriage when she was just learning to drive, she had scraped the passenger side of their Buick Special on a low fence post that was well-nigh invisible.  It was the first new car that her husband Buddy had ever bought, and when he saw the scrape, and before she could properly tell him about the accident, he yelled at her for the first and only time in their marriage.  He had immediately and profusely apologized.  Nevertheless, after that, Lillian made a point of giving a wide berth to the passenger side whenever she drove, afraid of what low-lying obstacles might be lurking there.  The method that she had settled upon, particularly when driving on a nice four-lane road like the Allen Parkway, was to center the road stripe beneath her.  That way she could be sure that there was plenty of clearance for the passenger side of the car.  Drivers behind her often honked, but let them honk, they'd get to where they were going.  What was a little honking when she had a foolproof method of keeping her car intact and Buddy happy.

     Today Dorothy was in the passenger seat of the Electra, not paying any attention to Lillian's driving.  She only paid attention to a man's driving, because it was a clue to character.  In the back seat were packages from Joshke's and Foley's and Sakowitz's, the bounty of their shopping spree.

     "I'm glad you talked me into this," Lillian said.

     "Shopping is like sex.  You have to stay in practice," Dorothy replied.

     They looked at each other and laughed. 

     It seemed like more fun than sex, Lillian thought.  There was no one else's happiness to worry about, it was all for her, and when was the last time that she had done something all for her.  Lillian couldn't even remember.  She was thankful to be under Dorothy's influence, to be encouraged in indulgence, if only for a morning.  "I forgot how much fun it is just shopping for me--not for Buddy or Stephanie or Fredell.  That's the problem.  You spend a day away like this, having fun, then you never want to go back.  Never."

     "That is a problem," Dorothy mused and pushed in the car lighter to light a cigarette.

     "So how's the dating game going?" Lillian asked.

     Dorothy took the first drag of her fresh cigarette.  The first puff was always the nicest one, the freshest one.  "I don't know, Lil.  I like them both, but do you think that either one is ever going to move away from your Mom and Dad?"

     Lillian smiled mischievously to herself.

     "What?" Dorothy asked, intrigued by her smile.

     "I want to show you something," Lillian finally said.

     Lillian drove the Electra down Heights Boulevard.  The once elegant street had a wide esplanade.  With two lanes on either side, Lillian could drive in her preferred manner, with the lane stripe centered beneath her.  The street had devolved into a weird mix of run-down gothic mansions, small apartment buildings, and beer joints, mingled with a smattering of magnificent turn-of-the-century palazzos that had been meticulously maintained.

     Lillian parked in front of a two-story brick mansion that was being restored.  Landscapers and contractors were busily at work. 

     "Lil?" Dorothy asked.

     Lillian smiled slyly and motioned for Dorothy to follow her through the portico.  The interior walls of the original mansion had been gutted, creating an enormous central room with an upstairs balcony running the length of the house.  It was a Texan's idea of what a Texan mansion should be.  Painters and carpenters were installing a parquet floor.  The workers paid little attention to Lillian, but they were checking out Dorothy, looking her over in a manner to which she had been accustomed since the first stirrings of puberty.  Dorothy was well aware of how much an attractive woman could do without doing anything.

     "Do you know the owner?" Dorothy asked.

     "Intimately," Lillian said.

     "Buddy's building this house for you?"

     "No," Lillian said, flattered.  "It's my brother's."

     Dorothy looked around, pleased with the information.  Very pleased.  She saw the house in a different light, through different eyes.  "So, Harold built this.  Good for him."

     "No, Milton," Lillian said, amused by Dorothy's mistaken assumption.

     "Milton?!"  Dorothy said, shocked.

     "It's a secret.  I mean it, Dorothy.  He doesn't want anyone to know until it's finished and he moves in."

     They strolled toward the back of the unfinished house.  "It's an awfully big place for one person," Dorothy mused.

     "Milton's never lived alone.  I can't imagine him living here without One Iron," Lillian said.

     "I can't imagine anyone living with One Iron," Dorothy said and Lillian laughed.

     They reached the far end of the enormous room.  A crew was installing a glass elevator. 

     "A two-story house and he's putting in an elevator," Lillian said, shaking her head.  "Milton says that it's for Goldie, but Milton hates to climb stairs.  Come on, I'll show you the rest of the house."

     "Can we take the elevator?" Dorothy asked.

     "Not yet, ma'am.  Maybe tomorrow," a worker chimed in.

     "We'll take the stairs,"  Lillian said and took Dorothy's hand.  Upstairs, Lillian hurried to keep up with Dorothy as she rushed along, eager to see it all.  At the end of the balcony was a room with a bay window.  "Oh, this would make a wonderful sewing room," Dorothy beamed.  She could imagine the wallpaper she would use.  A very pale yellow, with tiny lavender flowers.

     "I didn't know that you sewed," Lillian said.

     "I don't.  But I love the idea of a sewing room," Dorothy said and continued her wanders with a dreamy smile.

     Lillian snagged her nylon hose on a protruding electrical wire.  "Shoot," she said examining the run.

     "Are you okay? Dorothy asked.

     "I'm fine.  But these hose are shot," Lillian shrugged and lit a cigarette. 

     "I left my purse in the car, Lil.  Mind if I bum a smoke?"  Lillian gave Dorothy one of her Salems and lit it.  Dorothy leaned on the balcony railing and blew out a puff of smoke like a genie casting a spell.  She looked dreamily down at the living room.  "The store must be doing very well," Dorothy said.

     "The store is doing very well."  Lillian felt adventurousness being in Milton's unfinished house, on a secret visit.  Seeing all those men at work helped create a mood of possibility, that dreams could become real, if you just tried.  "And I've got an idea that could make the store do even better," she shyly told Dorothy.  "I have this idea for a ladies' shop."

     "You could call your store Lillian's," Dorothy said, feeling dreamy too.  She could see this house finished, all the carpets and colors, the furniture, even the tulips in the vase, every last detail, it was all so clear.

     "No, it wouldn't be a store.  It would be a ladies' department at Harold's," Lillian said.

     "But Harold's is a men's store.  Why would ladies shop there?" Dorothy asked, pulled out of her reverie about the marvelous possibilities for this house.

     "We get a lot of women who come out to the store with their husbands.  Now what do you think they do?  That is, besides pick out clothes for their husbands?"

     Dorothy smoked thoughtfully now.  Her fantasies about the house and the fresh flowers that should be in the house blurred as she started to grasp Lillian's concept.  "I had a husband, honey.  Picking out his clothes only kept my little brain half-occupied.  Men complain about us shopping.  It takes them forever to try clothes on.  Brother, are they ever lost."

     "Exactly!  Watching a man buy clothes isn't any fun," Lillian said, excited that Dorothy thought her idea had some promise.  "I think that a ladies' department could do very well.  I'm tired of being in the back office."   

     "You might be on to something," Dorothy said.

     "But it'll never happen.  Harold's will never change,"  Lillian said, shaking her head.  It was her one day off in she couldn't remember how long, and here she was talking about the store.  She couldn't get away from it, even when she was away from it.  All of a sudden she started feeling blue.

     "Mmmm," Dorothy said agreeably.  She sensed the downturn in Lillian's mood, but Dorothy wasn't at all blue.  Quite the contrary.  The store was so interesting. 

     So many new things were so interesting. 

     Milton peered down into his closet, carefully weighing his options.  There were over a hundred pairs of shoes to chose from, but there was only one perfect pair of shoes for this evening.  He felt like wearing something stylish but playful, a flirty kind of shoe.  That was the signal to send tonight.  And they had to be comfortable, very comfortable, because he didn't want to think about his shoes once he put them on.  Milton picked his tasseled alligator loafers.  It was the right choice for tonight.

     After knotting his tie, he used a hand mirror to inspect the back of his hair.  Then he put on a new hound's-tooth check jacket; it felt invigorating.

     When Milton came into the den, Emmanuel, Goldie, Harold, Michael and Daryl were all seated with their TV trays, eating Goldie's traditional Monday night dinner, roast beef and broiled potatoes.  Milton's empty chair was a gap in the semi-circle of TV trays.  Monday Night Football was on TV.  Goldie was the first one to look up and see Milton.  "You look very nice," she said.

     "Where are you going?" Emmanuel asked.

     "I've got a date," Milton said with a twinkle.

     "With who?" Goldie asked.

     "A nice Jewish girl."

     No one, except Harold, knew whether or not to take Milton seriously.  He was always kidding around, about everything.  They were used to the way that he would say the craziest things like they were true, so after a while you didn't know what was a joke and what wasn't.  Lillian had once tried to explain to Goldie that Milton's sense of humor was called irony.  But Goldie kept saying "Ironing?" refusing to believe that Milton's idea of a joke had anything to do with laundry. 

     "Is One Iron driving you?" Emmanuel asked.

     "No, I'm driving myself."

     "Are you sure that you remember how?" Harold pointedly asked.

     "Yes, I'm sure,"  Milton said, annoyed that they were all making such a big deal about his driving.

     But when he got behind the steering wheel of his Continental it did feel strange.  He took a minute to adjust the seat and the rearview mirror, and to get used to where the turn signals and such were located.  Backing out of the driveway he didn't trust the mirror, so he turned his head all the way around and got a crick in his neck.  The car seemed an awful lot bigger behind the wheel than it did as a passenger.  Well, any idiot could drive, and once he was rolling down Aberdeen Way, past Lillian's house and then left on Buffalo Speedway, the driving got much easier.  The driveway had been the hardest part.  The longest part of a journey was the first step--Milton remembered that from a fortune cookie at Lee's Den, the Chinese joint over on South Main.

     Dorothy was renting a small house in West University.  The sidewalk was sagging and the yard looked like hell, what he could see of it at night.  She made a point of not inviting Milton in. 

     Life seemed much nicer after they'd taken the elevator up to the Summit Club, atop a high-rise just off the Gulf Freeway.  It was a private club and the lights of downtown twinkled promisingly through the floor to ceiling windows.  Milton marveled at the gusto with which Dorothy ate her cold-boiled shrimp.  A trim woman with an appetite, what more could you ask? 

     Dorothy leaned toward Milton, speaking with intimate fervor, well aware of the flattering effect of the candlelight on her hair. "...think about all those women who come out to the store with their husbands.  Maybe they help hubby pick out a tie or a jacket.  But they're bored.  And they want to get even.  They want to spend some money too..."  She liked dining up here at the top; it was the right place for her to be.

     Harold stared nervously at the confusing mass of ties that had accumulated on his tie rack.  Luckily, he found the red rep tie that he thought best to wear with his navy blazer, but unluckily when he pulled it free a snake-like mass of silk ties fell to the closet floor.  Harold checked the time on his Rolex Presidential.  It was a gift from Flip Wilson for helping with the wardrobe for his comedy special; Harold had gotten it out of the store safe just to wear tonight.  No, there wasn't time to deal with the fallen ties.  In fact, the whole closet was a disaster.  Everything in the bedroom just felt too damned crowded tonight.  Even the mirror.  All those photographs of celebrities were crowding him, making it hard to see if his tie was properly knotted.  Harold pushed aside the picture of himself with Flip Wilson to clear enough room to see if his Windsor knot looked okay.

     Emmanuel, Goldie, Milton, Michael and Daryl were seated at their TV trays eating their traditional Thursday night dinner of beef brisket, mashed potatoes and cooked carrots.  Tonight Harold's folded-up TV tray broke the family circle.  They were watching "M*A*S*H," one of the few shows that Milton liked.

     Harold felt great, on his way out, walking past Milton.  "Don't wait up for me," he said.

     "When have we ever waited up?" Emmanuel asked, puzzled by the remark.

     "Did you sign my permission slip?" Michael asked without taking his eyes from Hot Lips.

     "What permission slip?" Harold asked.

     "For the zoo trip.  I told you about it a million times."

     "Leave it on my bed, I'll sign it tomorrow," Harold said.

     "Don't you want to sign it now?" Michael asked, his eyes still glued to the TV.

     "No, I'm late," Harold said, anxious to be on his way.  He was annoyed at Milton for not seeming at least a little jealous.      

     "I'll sign it," Emmanuel said.

     "Thanks, Dad."  Harold checked the time, hoping that Milton would see the Rolex Presidential, but Milton annoyed Harold by not noticing.  Harold pulled his starched cuff back down over the watch.

     "We won't wait up," Milton said, finally looking up at Harold with a sly smile.  Was he daring Harold to keep Dorothy out late?  No, Harold decided that Milton was just taunting him.

     Goldie gave Harold a big smile and he felt grateful. 

     "Could you pick something up for me at Weingarten's on the way home?"

     "Not tonight," Harold said.

     "Why not tonight?"

     "Just not tonight."

     "What's so different about tonight?" Goldie persisted.

     Dorothy had feared it would be sawdust on the floors and A-1 Steak Sauce with the sirloin.  She was pleasantly surprised when Harold took her to Westwood Country Club, one of several country clubs that Harold belonged to, but the only one that was predominantly Jewish.  They sat at a window table overlooking the eighteenth green.

     Dorothy leaned forward into the warm glow of the hurricane lamp.  What made a restaurant elegant wasn't just the food, it was the lighting.  The finer places understood that it was lighting that made a woman look good.  Out of the corner of his eye Harold vaguely registered the presence of the Sandlers, the Kaplans, and the Kahns, but his instinct to go over and say hi, ya'll come on out to Harold's was on hold as he listened raptly to Dorothy.         

     "All these women who come out to the store and they help their husband pick out a coat and tie, but they're bored and they want to spend some money too."  Dorothy paused to take a sip of her ice tea.  She would have preferred white wine or even a martini, but Harold never drank, and didn't think to ask Dorothy if she did.  Harold had gotten very drunk one night in the Merchant Marines, in Virginia Beach, and he had hated how that felt, to be that out of control, that emotional, not to mention the hangover, and had never touched alcohol again. 

     "Mmmm," Harold said thoughtfully, looking at Dorothy, at her lips, and quite intently, wondering what it would be like to kiss her.  He was determined to kiss her tonight.  It had been building between them, he could feel that, and it felt real.  He would kiss her tonight.  He couldn't let her slip away without a kiss goodnight.

     "Believe it or not," Dorothy continued, quite pleased with Harold's attentiveness to her idea, "I spent several years selling women's clothes when Max and I lived in Las Vegas.  Maybe that's why I thought of this idea." 

     Dorothy gave Harold a big smile.  What she said made so much sense, he could kiss her for it right now.  If only she were that type of girl.  Dorothy was so lively, so encouraging...

     ...and yet she never seemed to be encouraging when it came to kissing her, even just kissing her goodnight, Harold thought as he lay awake on the top bunk, arms folded behind his head. 

     He wound up sleeping on the top bunk most nights.  When they had first gotten the bunk beds, the boys had fought over the top bunk, and Michael as the oldest had prevailed.  But two years ago he had developed a phobia about sleepwalking and falling down from on high.  Michael had inspired Daryl to acquire the same phobia, and now neither boy could be persuaded to sleep up there.  Harold had found the single bed too narrow to share with one of the squirming kids and was resigned to sleeping up in the top bunk.

     Harold heard the Continental pull into the driveway, as he saw the wash of headlights across the ceiling, just a few feet from his head.

     One Iron parked the Continental next to Harold's Cadillac.  Milton and One Iron got out and stretched, looking pleased with themselves and with the world.

     Milton placed a hand on the hood of the Cadillac.  The engine was cold.  He smiled.  Harold had the date with Dorothy, but Milton was the one that had scored.  He was tempted to take his younger brother under his wing and give him a few pointers, not about Dorothy, but in general, about women.  But then he thought about those damned Harold's commercials and the Harold's billboard on the Katy Freeway and decided once again, for the thousandth time, that what the hell, Harold made his own bed, let him lie it.  Alone.

     "Were they really sisters?" Milton asked, putting an imaginary x through the calendar for tonight.

     "Sisters, man.  No lie," One Iron said.

     Evelyn and Judith.  Quite a Thursday night.  Milton thought.  "Evelyn looks a little like Hot Lips."

     "It's her hair--that style's popular.  What time should I pick you up in the morning?"

     "The usual.  Catch you later, One Iron," Milton said with a yawn and walked across the back patio.  One Iron yawned and waved goodnight as he walked toward his Chevy Malibu, parked on the street.

     Inside, Milton loosened his tie, and opened the refrigerator.  Other aspects of life were uncontrollable and unreliable, but he could always count on finding a good snack in Goldie's refrigerator.  He found a Corning Ware dish with cold chicken and noodles that he ate leaning against the counter.

     Harold came in wearing his pajamas without a robe.  He didn't even own a robe.  Milton was the robe man in the family.  "I heard you come in," Harold said.

     "What are you doing up?" Milton asked.

     Harold shrugged.  "I haven't been home that long." 

     Milton just nodded, quite enjoying the cold chicken.  Harold felt nervous talking to Milton, and he was nervous that Milton would sense his nervousness.  Harold needed a drink to calm his nerves.  He opened the refrigerator and got out the bottle of prune juice.  He poured himself a tumbler, and silently gestured to Milton, did he want a drink too?  Milton nodded yes.

     They drank their prune juice in silence.

     "I've been wondering something," Harold said and took a meditative sip.  "How well are we doing with Western Wear?"

     Milton looked sharply at Harold and took a sip as he sized up the question.  "Fair.  Just fair.  But in terms of sales per square feet, we give it too much space for the sales volume."

     Harold took his prune juice over to the Formica kitchen table.  Milton carried his drink and the Corning Ware dish over.  They sat opposite each other, Harold in striped pajamas, Milton in his raw silk canary yellow sport coat.  Goldie had left a poker chip caddy and canasta dealer in the middle of the table.

     "Maybe we should take some of that space and put in something new,"  Harold suggested, quite casually he thought.

     "That makes sense to me.  Western Wear should really be one of our seasonals, just during Rodeo Week and Pioneer Days," Milton replied.

     They sipped their prune juice in silence.  The house was quiet and they could hear the muffled sound of Emmanuel's snoring from the master bedroom.

     Harold started to ask a question, thought better of it, then finally decided to ask.  "Feel like playing a hand of gin?"

     "Sure, deal 'em up."

     Harold dealt the cards.  He was grateful that the deck had been on the table.  Cards helped make Harold pokerfaced, even if the card game wasn't poker.  Milton was pokerfaced naturally.

     "If we're going to open up a new shop it should be something really new," Milton said casually.

     "Bennett at London Fog has been begging us to expand," Harold quietly suggested.

     "We'd take a bath if we got in that deep on London Fog," Milton said.

     "Seasonal," Harold agreed.

     "Seasonal," Milton repeated.  "It's your play."

     "Right," Harold said and picked up a card and began to rearrange his hand.  "We could expand into kids clothes.  We get kids in the store."

     "Too low-end," Milton said.  "And we'll alienate the adults if there are a bunch of brats in the store."

     "What else could we tap into?" Harold innocently asked, proud of how skillfully he was dancing around the real subject.  He discarded a queen.  Milton quickly picked it up.  "Shoot," Harold said, annoyed with himself, "I should have guessed that you were collecting queens."

     Milton just shrugged, not seeming to pay much attention to Harold as he intently studied his hand.

     Harold took a sip of prune juice.  He was feeling this enormous pressure, and Milton didn't seem to be helping.  He thought that maybe he should politely ask Milton about his date, then thought better of it.  Nothing good could come from that kind of question. 

     Milton finally discarded a card that Harold didn't want. 

     Harold drew a card that was useless and threw it down on the pile. 

     Milton drew again and added the card to his hand.  He discarded a card that Harold didn't want, and they continued taking turns, neither of their hands seeming to improve. 

     Harold took another nervous sip of prune juice.  It looked like if he didn't say something, then nothing would ever get said, dammit.  "We get women in the store," Harold offered, "A lot of women, if you think about it."

     Milton paused, pleased that Harold had made the opening bid.  "That's a thought," Milton said, and left it at that, hanging.

     "What do you think?" Harold finally said.  "I mean, the store is called Harold's Menswear."

     "But everybody just calls it Harold's.  Right, Harold?" Milton said pointedly.

     Harold was half-inclined to let the jealous remark slide, but Milton had this sardonic smile, challenging him.  "Hey, we pulled the name out of a hat," Harold said diplomatically.  "That's ancient history."

     His parry answered, Milton was happy to continue to game.  "Actually, recently, someone very interesting fell into our laps," Milton said.  "Someone with just the right personality to sell."

     Harold looked expectantly at Milton and asked,  "Dorothy?"

     They kept playing out the hand.  Milton kept picking up and discarding, reworking what he had.  It was hard for Harold to keep track of what Milton was after.  Harold was still trying to build on the pairs that he had been dealt.

     "Maybe we should try setting up a ladies' department," Milton said noncommittally.  "Not sportswear or casual, but couture, dresses, cashmere sweaters.  The kind of thing with a decent profit margin."

     "Dorothy might not be interested," Harold said, quite pleased with himself for this bit of shrewdness.

     "Then we'll find someone else.  I'm sure Lillian knows someone," Milton said.

     Harold felt depressed.  Maybe Dorothy really wasn't seriously interested in the job.

     Milton saw Harold's dour perplexity.  Hell, they both wanted Dorothy and they both wanted Dorothy in the store.  "A ladies' department would take, say, at least three hundred square feet, probably four," Milton speculated.  "We could put it in the north end of Western Wear.  You want to take a flyer?"

     "Sure, what have we got to lose?" Harold said with a sense of relief.  He had lost track of what cards Milton was after, but he held a queen of spades that wasn't doing him any good, and all the other cards held possibilities.  He cautiously laid down the queen.

     Milton gleefully picked it up, then laid down his hand.  "Gin!"

      "Hi, I'm Harold.  I dress seventy, I talk eighty, and I shoot ninety--when my putter's hot."  He was wearing loud golf clothes, a marigold Banlon shirt and cerulean blue slacks.  The big colors showed up well on TV.  So did Harold's big smile.  "Y'all come on down to Harold's in the Heights.  We've got everything from three-piece suits to three-par gold slacks."  The camera panned to follow Harold into the Ladies' Department.  "And ladies, we've got a new department just for you, with the finest in summer fashions.  Right, Dorothy?" 

     Dorothy stepped on camera next to Harold, in her own big colors, with her own big smile.  "That's right, Harold!"

     "So y'all come on down to Harold's in the Heights."  Harold started to put his arm around Dorothy, but didn't.  There had only been one complete take of the commercial, costs being what they were, you could never get one where everything was perfect, so the awkward moment was still there, but you really couldn't see it, not unless that was what you were looking for.

     "You'll feel right at home," Dorothy said.

     Harold turned off the little TV.  He was watching it by himself back in the stockroom.  He wanted to see it alone, without any unwelcome comments.  From anyone.  And he had to say, it looked pretty good.  He and Dorothy had looked awfully good standing together like that.  Like a couple.  Maybe he should have put his arm around her.  It might have been a nice touch.

     As Lillian smoked a cigarette she stared pensively past Jolene.  Through the window she could see the newly elongated fiberglass awning.  Underneath it, protected from the scorching summer sun, sat Harold's Cadillac, Milton's Continental, Lillian's Electra and Dorothy's Thunderbird.  Lillian shook her head; the awning was for family cars and in no way was Dorothy family.  If the boys wanted to give awning privileges to an employee, then they should give it to Plotkin for god sakes, he sold enough clothes to put an awning over the whole parking lot.

     In the utility closet behind Lillian's desk there was a hammer.  Lillian wanted to take that hammer and smash all the windows in Dorothy's smug blue Thunderbird.  She knew that she would never do it, but it was pleasing to daydream about.

     That was some brilliant idea, Lillian thought, bringing Dorothy to the Christmas Party.  As she reflected back on that fateful encounter in the delicatessen when Dorothy had unfortunately reappeared in her life, Lillian realized that it was Dorothy who had invited herself to the party, half-joking--"You should bring me as a birthday present, Lil, I'm looking for an eligible bachelor." 

     I sure took the bait, Lillian thought.  She and Buddy liked to go crabbing down in Keemah when they could get away.  Hook a piece of horse meat on a string, throw it into the bay, and pull up the crabs, too dumb to let go.  But weren't Harold and Milton the crabs hanging onto the horse meat?  Or was Lillian?  One thing was certain, Dorothy was pulling on the line.  Harold and Milton weren't hooked so much on the idea of a ladies' shop as they were hooked on the idea of Dorothy.  She was kind of a hooker, come to think of it.  So did that make her a hooker throwing the hook into the water?  Of course, with a hooker the guy got some sex as part of the bargain and from the looks of it, Dorothy had closed the deal without putting out.  Such a nice Jewish girl. 

     Harold and Milton were already steamrollered when they presented Lillian with Dorothy's idea for a ladies' shop.  It was a done deal and there was nothing Lillian could do about it, except to complain, if she cared to.  Dorothy tried to get Lillian to believe that they had both had the idea, that Dorothy might have given Lillian the idea, but either way Dorothy still wanted to be friends and let bygones be bygones.  Yes, Dorothy had a heart of gold, as long as it was someone else's gold--the Wiesenthal's in this case.  Lillian felt powerless.  It was the family store, and even though she was the oldest, Emmanuel had set up the store for Harold and Milton.  It wasn't her store, it was her job, and if she didn't like it then she should go get another one.  The Leff Brothers, just on the other side of Heights Boulevard, would be glad to have her. 

     But it rankled her leaving Dorothy queen of the roost.  That wasn't like a Wiesenthal.  Wiesenthals weren't quitters.       

     Jolene looked across her desk at Lillian, determined to say something, just as soon as she finished with this column of numbers, or maybe the next one.  The phone rang.  Lillian usually liked to answer it, but when she didn't stir, Jolene took the call, from Murray at Sans-a-Belt verifying an invoice number. 

     After she finished the call, Jolene was ready to talk to Lillian, but thought that a cigarette would help.  It would make it more like a cigarette break with both of them smoking.  "It's just not fair," Jolene finally said.

     Lillian looked at her.  They both knew exactly what Jolene was talking about.

     "You were always talking about how we should sell ladies clothes," Jolene continued.

     "Just to you," Lillian said.

     "And Dorothy," Jolene added.

     "And Dorothy."

     "She stole your idea, Lil."

     Lillian didn't say anything.  She felt herself getting angry all over again, very angry, and what good would that do?

     Jolene felt hesitant again, but was determined to press on.  Lillian had done so much for her, teaching her how to do the books, how to place the orders, do the collections.  It was the least Jolene could do, to encourage Lil.  But it was hard for Jolene to tell someone like Lillian, someone who knew everything, how to deal with a creature like Dorothy.  "Aren't you going to do anything?" Jolene persisted.

     "They've already made up their minds," Lillian quietly said.

     "But they're your brothers.  They'll listen," Jolene encouraged.

     Lillian took a thoughtful drag from her cigarette, as if she were a prisoner in front of a firing squad, savoring her last smoke.  "They don't want me out in the front.  They want me in the back office.  Goldie is their Mommy at home and I'm their Mommy here at the store."

     "But why Dorothy?" Jolene said, disgusted.  "I mean, what was Harold thinking?"

     "Thinking has very little to do with it," Lillian said with a rueful smile.

     "And what about Milton?  He always uses his head."

     Lillian smiled with some of her old twinkle.  "Jolene, which head are you talking about?  The big one or the little one?"

     Jolene didn't understand Lillian's joke.  And then she did, coughing smoke as she laughed.  "You're so bad!"

     "It's the little heads that Dorothy's talking to," Lillian added, and they both laughed together, not without bitterness.  At least she and Jolene were still together, Lillian thought, and back here in the office there wasn't quite as much doggy doo to step through. 

     Harold came in, carrying an invoice, and they quieted down.  "I'm glad that y'all are having such a good time--"

     "So am I," Lillian said abruptly.

     "--because have you seen this invoice?" he said with some urgency.

     "I see everything," Lillian said, unimpressed.

     Harold handed her the invoice from Oscar de la Renta, waiting for her to share his outrage.  "Four thousand dollars!  Jesus H. Christ, what was Milton thinking?!"

     "Dorothy ordered these," Lillian calmly said.

     "Oh," Harold quietly said, his wrath suddenly gone.  He wasn't sure what to think.  But he was thinking.

     "Oh?  That's it?  Oh?" Lillian pointedly asked.  Harold's abrupt and ridiculous about-face spurred her to attack.  Enough was enough.  Enough was in fact too much.

     "Oh...well..." Harold stammered.  He couldn't exactly attack Dorothy, not at this delicate juncture.

     "Oh, well?" Lillian mockingly repeated.

     "If...they're selling..." Harold said, trying to put the matter in a business perspective since after all this was a business and they were talking about a business issue.

     "If?" Lillian challenged.

     "The Ladies' Department is doing very well," Harold said, hoping this would successfully quell her challenge.

     "It's doing okay sales.  The inventory could choke a horse," Lillian said.  She handed the invoice back to Harold. 

     He had hoped Lillian would take care of things.  That was how they had always done it before.  But now he held the invoice unhappily.  He couldn't hand it back to her, much as he would like to. 

     "Milton approved those invoices.  Complain to him, not to me."  She stubbed out her cigarette, and picked up her pencil, determined to get some work done.

     "Has Mom called?" Harold asked, eager to change subjects.

     "She wants you to pick up some canned peaches," Lillian said without looking up from her spread sheet.

     "Canned peaches...canned peaches..." Harold repeated distractedly as he walked somberly out the door, the offending invoice still in his hand.

     Lillian sighed and lit another cigarette, trying to lose herself in her work. 

     Jolene lit a fresh cigarette and shook her head.  "It's just not fair," she said again, not that Lillian needed any more reminding.

     Harold walked across the sales floor pensively studying the invoice.  He saw One Iron at the cashier's island ringing up a customer.  "Where's Faye?" Harold asked.

     "On her break.  The pause that refreshes," One Iron said ironically.

     Emmanuel was sitting in the shoe department, wearing a new sport shirt.  He liked to come out to the store at least once a week.  The chairs in the shoe department were comfortable and he could watch everything from there.  He saw Tim Stugeon come out of the stockroom, hitching up his pants like a proud cowboy fresh off his horse.

     Stugeon saw Emmanuel watching him.  He put on a big good-old-boy smile and came over to kibitz with the old man.  "Mr. E!  Got any hot tips?" Stugeon cheerfully asked.

     "Plant your corn early," Emmanuel said.  It was his joking advice for all occasions.  He had spent his boyhood on a farm in Poland where they had grown potatoes, not corn, which is maybe why Emmanuel thought the advice so absurdly humorous.  Emmanuel saw Faye come out of the stockroom, straightening her blouse.  He nodded to himself, putting two and two together, or rather one and one together to make a temporary if clandestine two. 

     Stugeon glanced nervously at Faye.  Mr. E. always made him nervous.  "Plant your corn early," Stugeon repeated with a polite chuckle.

     "And be very careful where you plant your corn," Emmanuel added.  That was the great thing about farming advice, it always seemed to apply.

     "Come again?" Stugeon asked.

     "Plant your corn on your own property," Emmanuel explained. 

     Tim Stugeon reddened, embarrassed and, if truth be told, a little afraid.  If the old man could see that he was getting some nookie then Stugeon supposed that anyone could.  Then again, maybe Mr. E. was the only one watching closely.  Stugeon promised himself to keep his hands off Faye on Mr. E's visiting days.

     Emmanuel thought that Tim Stugeon was slow on the uptake for a bookie.  But then again Stugeon probably wasn't much of a bookie, which made him exactly the right kind to have out at the store.

     Faye gave Harold a nice smile when she returned to the cash register.  But he wasn't in any kind of a mood for a nice smile unless it came from a customer or from Dorothy.  He especially didn't care to see a smile from his wandering cashier.  Half the time One Iron forgot to add in sales tax and the store had to eat it.  Once Harold had tried to get One Iron to pay for his mistake but One Iron had raised holy hell that he wasn't the cashier and Milton had backed One Iron up.  Harold gave Faye a dirty look.  "That's the  second time this morning that you've left the register," Harold said testily.

     "Give me a break," Faye said, still feeling tingly from Stugeon's hurried stockroom attentions.

     "I do," Harold shot back, "Two a day.  One in the morning and one in the afternoon."

     "Sorry," Faye said.  "I've got the curse, and, well, I needed to go to the little girl's room again."

     Faye saw Harold start to blush like he always did when she mentioned the curse.  But it wouldn't do to mention it too often.  She saw One Iron smirking at her ploy and gave him a dirty look.  One Iron shrugged it off, inured to Faye and her curses.

     Harold smiled hello to a couple of cardiologists that Plotkin had snagged as they came through the door. 

     "How have y'all been?" Harold drawled and shook the doctors' hands.

     "Business is good, Harold.  Lots of heart transplants to do."

     "One Texas industry feeds another," Harold said with a smile.

     "How's that, Harold?" asked one of the doctors.  He always got a kick out of visiting Harold's in the Heights.

     "Well, the more Texas steaks folks eat, the more work for you boys at the medical center," Harold said.

     The cardiologists got a good laugh out of that one.  Harold had been saving the joke, but he couldn't really enjoy its effect because the damnable invoice vexed him.  "Is Milton in his office?" Harold asked after Plotkin had steered the doctors into Sports Wear.

     "The king is in his counting house," One Iron said.

     Harold walked out of the main room with the disputed invoice in hand.

     "What's his problem?" Faye asked.

     "He needs to get laid," One Iron said.

     "Lord knows that he's trying," Faye said, and tried again to smooth out those fresh wrinkles in her skirt.

     It annoyed Harold that he had to walk upstairs and through the tailor shop if he wanted to talk to Milton.  And it annoyed him that Milton could so pleasantly sit around with his shoes off while Harold was on his feet all day on the floor.  Downstairs was a lot more area to cover than an upstairs office.  They were after all partners.  Harold threw the invoice down on Milton's desk. 

     Milton put aside the bank statements he was studying and looked at the invoice.  "Why did you order so many sweaters?" he asked.

     "I didn't order them," Harold said.  "Dorothy did."

     "So?  Talk to Dorothy about it."

     "I'm talking to you because I thought we agreed that you were going to authorize all the Ladies' Department orders that Dorothy wanted to place.  But four thousand dollars?  For sweaters?  In the summer?  That's more than we spend on men's sweaters from a single vendor in the winter!"

     "Don't lose your shirt," Milton said, amused by Harold's ire.

     "I'd like to lose some of those sweaters, but Oscar de la Renta has a no return policy.  I think you should talk to Dorothy about this," Harold said.

     "I thought you liked to talk to Dorothy," Milton teased.

     "Not about this," Harold said, nibbling at his lower lip.  "It's not fair to make me the hard guy, just because I'm down on the floor."

     "Being the hard guy with everyone else," Milton said.

     "Someone has to," Harold said, feeling put upon.

     "And someone has to deal with the bank and the loan company and the city inspectors and the vendors.  You want to trade places?"

     "Jesus H. Christ," Harold said, feeling a little less put on.

     "Would you like me to talk to Dorothy?" Milton volunteered now that Harold was acting a little more respectful of Milton's duties and obligations.

     "Yes.  Please."

     "My pleasure," Milton said.  He picked up the chrome-and-leather shoe horn and slipped on his calfskin loafers without bending down.

     Harold left without saying thanks or good-bye.  They rarely said thanks or good-bye to each other.  Some things were just understood.  But this was a different kind of dirty work and Milton thought that it wouldn't have hurt Harold to say thanks, just this once.  Sure, it would have been a break in routine, but he was breaking his routine to go downstairs to read Dorothy the riot act.  Of course he'd have to make it sound like a bedtime story.

     As Milton crossed through Western Wear, which had been reduced to half its former glory, into the Ladies' Shop, he felt like he was walking though an Old West saloon and into a fancy bordello.  The two departments faced each other.  Western Wear was decorated with raw redwood paneling, ropes and fancy saddles.  The Ladies' Shop was white and frilly.  Dorothy sat at a curvy white desk that held displays of boldly patterned silk scarves and chunky decorative jewelry.  Stugeon eyed Dorothy warily from his diminished domain, like a cowboy watching the plains getting fenced in, wondering if his extinction was finally at hand now that civilization and womenfolk had arrived.  Cochise had relocated his custom shoeshine stand to the far corner of Western Wear.  Despite his superficially Indian nickname, Cochise was a black man and a survivor, and he didn't care to intertwine his fate with a pissant white trash peckerwood such as Stugeon.  Even when Western Wear disappeared--and from the looks of Dorothy and the looks that Mr. Harold and Mr. Milton gave her, it was when and not if--when that day came, his shoeshine concession would retreat across the Rio Grande into Sports Wear. 

     But Milton paid no attention to Cochise and Stugeon as he went up to Dorothy's desk, with the controversial invoice in hand.  "How's business?" he cheerily asked.

     Dorothy pointed to the ladies' dressing room and motioned Milton to bend down so she could whisper, "Sophia Fratelli is in there trying on a two thousand dollar Bill Blass."

     Milton tried to act suitably impressed as he showed her the invoice.  "I want to talk to you about these sweaters."

     Dorothy lowered her eyes.  She had always found looking through her eyelashes to have a positive effect on a man during an argument, or even a mild disagreement.  The proper comportment could always make the conversation less disagreeable for the man.  "I've been a bad girl.  But I can explain," Dorothy said contritely but flirtatiously.

     "You can explain anything," Milton suavely replied.

     "But I can especially explain that," Dorothy said.  She hadn't expected her eyelashes to completely do the trick, not with Milton.

     "Dorothy, line one," Faye said over the speaker box.  Dorothy smiled then quickly remembered to turn the corners of her mouth down. 

     "Oh.  Shoot.  I wonder if that's the call."  She composed herself, for Milton's benefit, and picked up the telephone.  "Hello?"  She held her breath and strained her chest muscles in a way that she knew made her face flush red.  "This isn't a good time to talk," she said into the telephone, then covered the receiver and looked up at him.  "Excuse me, Milton.  I've been dreading this call."

     Milton had been annoyed, but now he was intrigued.

     "Yes, I got the notice in the mail..." Dorothy said quietly, her eyes getting watery.  "I've been talking to a lawyer..."

     Milton nodded a quick good-bye and walked away, retreating through Western Wear.  Dorothy looked quite pleased with herself as she watched him go.  "You're doing great, Fred.  Keep it up," Dorothy whispered quickly into the telephone.

     Milton hurried back into his office.  He unlocked his credenza, put on his headphones, and flipped some switches, in quick, practiced motions. 

     "...I don't give a good goddamn what your lawyer says.  You're going to be out of that house in a week!" Milton heard a man yell.

     "If you could just give me a little more time..." Dorothy meekly replied.

     "No," the man said curtly.

     Milton was shocked by what he heard, and concerned.  He certainly hadn't expected this.  But that was the magic and the mystery of telephone calls, they could be so surprising.  That was what made the effort so worthwhile.  Milton hunched forward, his hands holding the headphones tight to his ears, caught up in the drama. 

     "Just give me, say, two weeks while I look for another place.  Please.  And I've got to pack and there are expenses that I just don't have the money for right now.  A little time would help me out so much.  Please," Dorothy pleaded.  Milton heard the tears in her voice.  And it hurt.  It surprised him how much it hurt.  Maybe that was love, a sign of love, Milton wondered.

     "No, no, no, no, no!" the man said in loudly mocking sing-song.  "You've been served your papers, and if you need some help vacating, the County Marshals will be glad to assist!  Now good-bye!"  The line clicked dead.  Milton thought he heard a sniffle before Dorothy's end clicked off.

     Milton took off the headphones and leaned back in his leather chair.  What he just heard certainly changed the nature of his relationship to Dorothy.  He had paid big bucks to install the wiretap, but it was cheap at any price for the edge it had given him these last four years.  Milton was staring ahead as he had these musings, and it dawned on him that he was staring at the photograph of himself shaking hands with Richard Nixon.  It was one thing to listen to conversations, but it was damn stupid to tape them.  The dumb son of a bitch had been too smart for his own good.  But people were impressed with the photograph, so what the hell, he had to put something up on the wall.

     Milton was startled to see Dorothy standing at his office door, staring into the one-way mirror, trying to hold back tears as she dabbed at her eyes.  Milton put his wiretap equipment back into the credenza and locked the cabinet.  When Dorothy finally knocked, Milton was ready.  "Come in," he said.

     Dorothy stepped into the office.  Milton stood and saw that her eyes were puffy and red.

     "I'm sorry that we got interrupted by that call," she said, her voice a little ragged.  "I can explain about the invoice.  I know I said that I was only going to order six of the cashmere sweaters, but..." 

     "Is something else wrong?" he said, and came around the desk.

     "Why...nothing.  Nothing that I'd care to talk about," Dorothy said, her voice trailing off.  Milton was a smart guy, he was a sensitive guy, and he was an overly-confident guy.  He would pick up a clue, and take charge.  Dorothy knew that he would do the manly thing, what with her providing the perfect opportunity.

     "Dorothy, I know that you're upset about something.  You might as well tell me," he said with a friendly smile.  "I find out everything anyway."

     She smiled back at him, not gaily, no, that would be inappropriate, but grimly.  Yes, she knew there was such a thing as a grim smile and it was exactly the right smile for Milton right now.  He was the kind of man who knew what to do about a grim smile.  Why, get rid of the grim, turn it into a grin.  "We're like two peas in a pod, you and me," she confided.  "Always prying out secrets."

     "Spill the beans," Milton said gently, and lightly touched Dorothy's arm.  Almost like the way Harold had wanted to put his arm around her when they were filming the commercial, except that Harold didn't and Milton did, Dorothy thought.  They were both lovable, but in different ways.  She was fond of both of them, as far as fondness went, and fondness only went so far.  Dorothy liked Harold's gentle charm.  Milton was charming too, but in his own way, without the same gentleness as his brother.  That was the problem with ladies' men, the gentleness always seemed to get a bit frayed, like a rope that had pulled the bucket up from the well too many times.  But Milton was the brother who had built a castle, and every castle needed a princess.

     Dorothy took a deep breath and looked at Milton, her eyeliner streaked with tears.  "I'm getting evicted from my house.  It's a crummy house, and it's all my fault.  I've always been terrible with money, especially now that I'm on my own.  And people expect me to dress like a queen, especially now that I run the Ladies' Shop."

     She dabbed at her eyes.  "But you don't need to hear all this.  Please don't yell at me about ordering those extra sweaters.  Not today.  You can yell at me tomorrow, if you like."  Dorothy stopped.  She'd seen enough shows during her Las Vegas years to know that you always left the audience wanting more.  That was the only way to get an encore.

     "You should have come to me sooner," Milton said in a tone of mild reprimand.

     "No, I couldn't," Dorothy said, shaking her hair.  Even now, in the middle of this, she could admire how nice the down light was from the recessed fixtures that Milton had in his office.  "I respect you so much.  And I want you to respect me." 

     She wiped away the last of her tears, before they had overstayed their welcome.  "You shouldn't have gotten me started," she said, as if playfully accusing Milton for all her troubles.

     "Stop worrying," Milton said, attracted to this vulnerable side of Dorothy that he was now seeing.

     "How can I not worry?" she asked.  She tried to laugh, but not too hard, just enough to remind Milton of her pluck.

     "Stop worrying because I'm going to help you out," Milton said.

     Dorothy looked up at him and smiled gratefully.  "God, my face must be ruined.  How can you even stand to look at me?"  She took out her compact, which she had conveniently slipped into her pocket.  She'd met very few men who didn't like to watch her fix her make-up, because it gave them a chance to look at her unobserved, or so they thought.  She could have done a better job of it if she had used Milton's wall mirror, but that would have meant moving away from him, and he was standing the perfect distance from her, close enough to smell her Chanel perfume, but not kissing close.  "I've got to get back to Sophia Fratelli.  She's had plenty of time to squeeze into that Bill Blass.  Thanks for listening."

     "Dorothy, stop worrying about your problems," Milton soothed her.  "Worry about selling Sophia Fratelli that dress."

     She smiled gratefully up at him.  She had always liked tall men, and she especially liked tall princes.  "You're a love," Dorothy said.  She squeezed his hand, letting her fingers linger as she walked away.

     Milton watched through the one-way mirror as Dorothy walked through the tailor shop and disappeared down the stairs, his red-headed angel descending. 

     He plopped down in his chair and recklessly kicked off his loafers without benefit of the shoe horn.  What a morning, he thought.  Thank god that Harold had given him the dirty work.  Or he might never had known.  He idly wondered what love might have been like before there were telephones.  Those must have been disadvantaged times Milton decided.  Tricky Dick seemed to be smiling right at him.  Funny how he had the kind of eyes that seemed to follow you around the room, just like George Washington's eyes on a one-dollar bill.

     Milton lounged in the shoe department while One Iron finished with Kenny Meltzer, a dentist who was finicky about his pleated slacks.  Harold hadn't said anything, but Milton could tell just from the way that Harold stood at the cashier's island that he appreciated that Milton had been the one to reprimand Dorothy for overspending.  Harold even looked a little smug about having sidestepped the thorny issue of having to discipline Dorothy's spending while dating her.  Finally, One Iron was done with the sale, but he wasn't too happy about leaving early with Milton; after all, he needed the commissions, as Milton sometimes failed to notice.

     They stepped out of the air conditioned store and into the muggy August air.  Houston seemed swampiest than on these summer evenings when the humidity soared near one hundred percent.  Milton was perspiring before they got to the car.  Like most Houstonians, weather was something that was experienced as one moved between different air conditioned environments.  One Iron put the Continental's air conditioning on maximum and Milton gazed wistfully at Dorothy's powder blue Thunderbird as they drove away.  Once they were cruising down West Nineteenth, Milton slouched down and lit a cigarette, staring up at the live oak trees passing by overhead.

     "Back home?" One Iron asked.

     "No, drive over to the new house," Milton said.

     One Iron turned onto Heights Boulevard.  As the Continental approached the mansion, One Iron took a remote control out the car's center console.  The garage door slid open and the Continental glided inside.  One Iron had a remote control for the garage, but only Milton had a key to the house.  He unlocked the door and they went inside. 

     Milton admired once again the enormous semi-circular couch flanked by the two huge stuffed armchairs.  He was glad that the architect had persuaded him to go with off-white.  But as he walked the length of the baronial hall, it didn't seem like his house.  It reminded him of a hotel lobby.  A very nice hotel lobby, mind you.  But it just wasn't homey, though it seemed a bit late in the day, with everything done, to start worrying about homey.  Milton wandered through his house like a middle-aged Hamlet, with One Iron his Horatio, still deciding how much he liked the house, and persuading himself that he really, really did.  He had read "Hamlet" twice, once in college and once after, and it had stuck with him.  There was something to Shakespeare.  He was outsize.  Shakespeare would have been a pretty good Texan, Milton decided.

     "So when are you going to move in?" One Iron asked, breaking Milton's reverie.

     "Soon," he answered.

     "You've been saying that for weeks," One Iron said.

     Milton didn't reply.  He almost mentioned Shakespeare to One Iron, but it wasn't the kind of thing they ever talked about.

     "This place is a pussy palace," One Iron marveled.  "Why don't we bring chicks here instead of to the apartment?"

     "No," Milton said.  "The apartment is the apartment.  This is my home."

     One Iron nodded like he understood, but he really didn't.  If this was Milton's home, why didn't Milton just move in and be done with it?  And if it was his home and they didn't have to worry about Goldie, then why didn't they bring chicks here?  Hell, last President's Day he and Milton had gotten looped and brought a swell pair back to Aberdeen, sneaked into the sauna and things had gotten really hot.  And that was right under Goldie's nose, even though it had been a one-time pretty wild kind of deal.

     Milton nodded to himself.  He kept seeing Dorothy crying in his office.  What a day.  One Iron was right to ask him when was he going to move in. 

     They reached the glass elevator.  Every house should have one.  One Iron pressed the button and the glass and chrome doors slid open.  But for once Milton didn't get on, breaking the routine of their visits.

     "Let's go," Milton abruptly said.  He started the long walk back to the front of the house.  "I need to pick up some canned peaches on the way home."

     "Do you mind if I bring a chick here?" One Iron asked, thinking it worth another try.  "I mean, it's tragic, letting this place go to waste.  Come on, Milton, be a sport."

     Milton smiled to himself.  He couldn't remember ever hearing One Iron use the word tragic. 

     As Harold drove down Aberdeen, he saw the Oldsmobile Cutlass and the Ford Fairlaine in the driveway, and remembered that it was canasta night.  He was feeling good after the Rotary Club mixer.  The barbecue was tasty and the fellows were nice.  None of them were big spenders, but they were loyal, and they were regular customers. 

     Harold parked his Cadillac on the street behind the Continental.  As he walked up the sidewalk he saw that he had parked two feet from the curb.  He didn't want to scuff up his whitewalls, so better safe than sorry.

     Goldie and Emmanuel were at the dining room table playing canasta with two other couples, Philip and Rena and Emil and Sara Ida.  Philip was Emmanuel's brother and Sara Ida was Goldie's sister.  There was a spread of nosh food on the sideboard.  Goldie had laid down her cards and was busy refilling everyone's plates.  She was always worried that her guests were afraid to take extra helpings.      

     "I knew you shouldn't have raised," Goldie told Emmanuel as she sat back down and picked up her cards.

     "You didn't see my hand," Emmanuel said.

     "I knew," Goldie insisted.

     "If you know so much, then why am I winning and why are you losing?" Emmanuel asked.

     "Because you're lucky," Goldie said.  Emmanuel frowned, then Goldie imitated Emmanuel's grumpy expression.  Philip and Sara Ida laughed.

     "I'm moving out," Emmanuel said, furious that Goldie questioned his card playing, and when he was winning, no less.  "I swear to god, I'm packing a suitcase and moving out."

     Goldie smiled at him, unperturbed.

     "Emmanuel," Philip said soothingly.  He took the threat seriously.  Emmanuel had packed his suitcase a number of times, and twice in the last twenty years he had indeed moved, and to Philip's house.  Three days the first time, and a day and a half the second time.  Philip also knew that any discord with Goldie only made Emmanuel play cards even better. 

     "Goldie, let him play his cards like he wants," Rena added.

     "I let him play his cards," Goldie said and lovingly touched Emmanuel's arm.  "But I can make a comment if I like, it's a free country."

     "Always with the comments!" Emmanuel said loudly, refusing to look up from his cards.  He shook his arm free of Goldie's fingers.

     "Kids, grow up," Emil said.  "Deal another hand."

     "I win a hand and she complains," Emmanuel said, wanting the last word. 

     "You win and she complains.  You lose and she complains.  She likes to complain.  She enjoys complaining," Emil philosophized.

     "Emil, it's not for you to say," Sara Ida told her husband.

     "I'm sitting at the table, I can say," Emil said.

     "Fine," Sara Ida said, hoping to shut him up by agreeing with him.

     "Goldie can talk, I can talk.  So deal the cards," Emil said, fond of the last word himself.

     They dealt the cards in silence.

     "Come here," Goldie said urgently to Harold when she saw him come in.

     He didn't understand what could be so urgent, but came over just the same.

     "You didn't kiss me good-bye this morning," Goldie said and gave him a kiss on the lips.  She didn't care if her sons said good-bye, but a kiss she always expected.

     "Mom," Harold said, embarrassed.

     "It's bad luck not to kiss me good-bye.  Did you have bad luck today?"

     Harold thought about the question.  "No," he finally decided.  The day had been pretty good.  Even the unpleasantness about Dorothy's over-spending had been smoothed over.

     "Then you were lucky.  But don't forget again," Goldie said and pulled affectionately on his ear as if he were still five years old.  Putting out all that nosh food always got Goldie in a frisky mood.

     "So who's winning?" Harold asked.

     "Don't ask," Rena said. "It's a touchy question."

     "Emmanuel is winning," Philip fearlessly stated.

     "But he could be winning more," Goldie fearlessly amended.  "Are you hungry?" she asked Harold.

     "No, I just had barbecue.  And I'll eat something at the game."

     Goldie started to protest but the card game got her attention and Harold seized the moment to quietly escape without a plate of food.  

     In the kitchen, Nellie stood at the sink peeling carrots.  She always stayed late on canasta night, in case Goldie needed some extra help.  She usually didn't, but Nellie enjoyed staying late.  Over the years she had developed a powerful taste for lox and pickled herring and every second Thursday was her chance to freely indulge the vice.  She also used the time to get ahead in her carrot peeling.

     Michael and Daryl were playing cards at the kitchen table with two of their friends.  "The bank always gets ten percent," Michael explained as he dealt.  "That's how they play in Las Vegas.  Right, Uncle Milton?"

     Milton was slouched on the couch reading the Houston Chronicle in a white T-shirt and chinos.  He looked up from his newspaper, amused.  "That's right, slick."

     "Why are you the bank?" one of the kids asked.

     "Because I own the chips," Michael explained.

     "Since when?" Daryl protested. "They're Goldie's chips."

     "I brought the chips to the table tonight, so tonight I'm the bank," Michael said.  "Ten percent.  That's one blue chip apiece.  Ante up."

     "Hi, boys," Harold said as he came in.  Michael and Daryl offered him tepid hellos, caught up in their card game.  Harold walked past Milton without saying anything.  And Milton didn't look up from reading the Houston Chronicle because he knew it was Harold.  Milton knew that Harold was taking Dorothy to the Astros game tonight and they spoke little to each other on those nights when one of them had a date with Dorothy.  Harold supposed that was what you would call an unspoken agreement.  But Harold was suddenly seized by an idea and he doubled back to sit down beside Milton on the couch.

     "Can you do me a favor?" he asked in a lowered voice.  "Can I borrow the key to the apartment?"  Harold knew all about the apartment.  He had even borrowed the key a couple of times, but that had been years ago.  He had never had much luck there, but he hadn't had much luck with women, period, after the divorce.  It wasn't that he couldn't talk to women, or at least start a conversation.  It was that most of the women he met, at the country clubs or the parties, were in the same social circle as his customers, and it would have been awkward to get, well, intimate, sleep with them, so to speak, because then he might have to get serious, which might mean getting married, and his one try at that had been a cold hell on earth.  No, the awkwardness that a night or two of fun might cause business-wise wasn't worth it.  Hell, he'd rather help himself to Milton's stack of Playboys than do something that would take the fun out of going to River Oaks Country Club or Westwood Country Club.  He hadn't met the woman who was worth that. 

     Until Dorothy. 

     And he could never get a chance to talk to her, not alone.  Somehow he could never maneuver her into the right situation.  Boy, was she ever hard to maneuver.  She didn't want him to come into her house.  She said she was embarrassed by it, lord knows why, and besides, she said it was improper for a divorcee to ask a man into the house, and Harold had to respect that, he supposed, even though he wasn't sure exactly why.  But it wouldn't do to press the point, not with Dorothy.  Harold had tried to kiss her in his car, but she just giggled and pushed him away saying that she promised herself the day she graduated from San Jacinto High School to never again kiss boys in cars.  Milton's apartment was nice enough, as Harold remembered it, and it had a wet-bar.  It would be just like going to a cocktail lounge, except that they would be alone.  Harold was sure that Dorothy would never allow herself to be kissed in a real bar.  But she just might let him kiss her at the apartment.  Hell, Harold was willing to have a drink himself if that would loosen things up.  He was already thinking about proposing to Dorothy, but it seemed like they should at least do a little serious kissing first, that would be the proper prelude to popping the question.  He had to at least see if she really liked kissing him and vice versa.  That was the sensible way to approach marriage, he had to agree with the Playboy Philosophy on that one.

     The question startled Milton.  He lowered the newspaper and gave Harold his full attention.

     "It's not what you think," Harold said hurriedly to Milton, detecting a lecherous smirk.  "We just need a quiet place to go and talk."

     "Talk?" Milton asked with a smile.

     "Talk and have a drink," Harold amended.

     "Whatever you say," Milton said with a skeptical shrug.  He took out his key ring and detached the key.  "It's been a long time since you've been over to the apartment," he said hoping to draw Harold out a little bit.  But Harold just waited in silence for Milton to hand him the key.

     "Thanks," Harold said and went into his bedroom, pleased with the key and with the night ahead.

     Well, give 'em enough rope, Milton thought.  He had just handed Harold quite a sufficient length of rope to competently hang himself.  If Harold had asked his advice, Milton felt fairly certain that he would have told his brother that taking Dorothy to the apartment was a bad idea, a very bad idea.  Fairly certain, because all's fair in love and war, and it wasn't his duty to educate the enemy even if that enemy was his brother.  Harold's claim that he just needed a quiet place to talk, as ludicrous as that sounded, was probably true.  The funny thing, Milton thought, was that Harold was fairly smart about people.  He could make people like him and had a real flair for getting folks out to the store.  He was also good at riding herd on the floor, keeping things running smoothly.  But people skills weren't exactly lady skills, because ladies weren't exactly people, not where guys were concerned.  Something more complicated was going on with the ladies.  It required being a bit devious and indirect and Milton knew that those tactics came more naturally to him than to Harold.  Milton knew that much, just as he knew that compared to Harold he wasn't regarded as the people person.  Milton could imagine that the spotlight felt pretty nice, but he was making do okay without it.

     The Astrodome glowed against the night sky, the self-proclaimed Eighth Wonder of the World, bigger than the Roman Coliseum, but lonelier looking, standing forlorn in an enormous flat parking lot.  Inside the great dome, contained within the white steel girders and milky white panes of fiberglass, was an enormous mass of chilled air.  The Astrodome was a great monument to air conditioning.

     At the upper ring of the stadium, high above the green baseball diamond, at the apex where the domed roof closed in the sky, were the Skyboxes, luxury boxes with royal blue seats.  Harold and Dorothy were sitting in the swanky Skybox of Sam the Rocketman, Houston's biggest Oldsmobile dealer.  Dorothy was wearing a sequined Oscar de la Renta jacket that she had bought at cost when she placed the store's last order.  For Harold, Astros' baseball games were just a distant distraction from the schmoozing here at the upper elevations of the Dome, but tonight was much more about Dorothy than about schmoozing.

     "Dorothy, I've got to say, that is a gorgeous jacket," Harold complimented.

     "Well, thank you once again," she said with a pleased smile.

     "It really brings out the color of your hair."

     "I'm glad you noticed, Harold.  I wanted to look nice for you."

     He felt bashful again.  "Well, thank you," he replied, uncertain if he was complimenting her or vice versa. 

     "What would you do if you were invisible?" Harold suddenly asked.

     "I don't know.  Listen to secrets?  Why, what would you do?"

     Harold brightened.  He had been waiting for Dorothy to ask him that.  "If I were invisible, I'd walk up behind people and whisper in their ear: shop at Harold's, shop at Harold's, shop at Harold's."

     Dorothy threw back her head and laughed; it was such a funny thing to think about.

     He was glad that he had saved the jokey idea just for her.     

     A white-jacketed waiter offered them little hot dogs in puff pastry from a silver tray.  Harold felt both proud and distracted with Dorothy by his side.  He ate one of the little hot dogs carefully, wiping twice with one of the cocktail napkins with the Rocketman logo, just to be sure there were no pastry crumbs left on his lips.  Dorothy seemed to eat her hot dog in a single bite, and took another one from the waiter for good measure.  Dorothy didn't have to worry about crumbs.  Harold thought that she lived magically apart from such nuisances.  There was the distant crack of the bat and a cheer from the crowd far below.

     "What just happened?" she asked.

     He looked down at the playing field.  "The Astros just got a hit.  A double."  Harold was intent upon doing the manly thing and answering Dorothy's sporting questions quickly and decisively.

     "Could you explain baseball to me?" Dorothy asked, feigning helplessness.  "Max never had the patience."

     "Sure," Harold said, grateful for the opportunity.  "How much do you know?"

     "Well...I know that it's played with bats and balls," she said coyly.  "And I know about first base and second base and third base.  And scoring."  She smiled at Harold.  "Those are terms I've heard for years.  Guys are always trying to get to first base.  But then they're not happy with first base, in fact, they're quite desperate to get to second base.  Guys always like getting to first base or second base, but they seem to like scoring a whole lot better."

     Harold smiled at Dorothy; he could take a hint, he was a grown man.  He felt the key in his pocket and was awfully glad it was there.  "You already seem to have a pretty good grasp of the game."

     "Of the game," Dorothy teased.  "But what about baseball?"

     "I had no idea you were this interested," Harold teased back.  "We could have sat down in the field boxes."

     "Oh, no, I like it way up high," Dorothy said.  She didn't feel like sitting in the bleachers, or whatever they were down there.  No, it was much nicer up here with the canapés on the silver trays.  That was the kind of all American pastime that Dorothy preferred.  The white-jacketed waiter was headed their way with a tray of the cutest little hamburgers.  It was funny how much more appealing a hamburger looked if you put it on a silver tray.

     "I thought you'd like the Skyboxes," Harold said.

     "You were right," Dorothy smiled.  "This is just heavenly."

     "Or the closest thing to it in Houston," he smiled back.

     Oh, he can be a charmer, she decided, once he relaxes.  She devoured one of the little hamburgers and quickly reached for another.  After all, they were small.

     Milton cracked opened his eyes and drowsily looked at the clock, surprised that he had fallen asleep in the sauna.  Even in August he used the sauna regularly.  Sure, all of Houston was a sauna, but a half-assed one.  The city's climate was muggy, but it lacked the cleansing, penetrating heat of a real sauna.  He picked up the telephone and dialed the apartment.  When it took six rings for One Iron to pick up, Milton knew that something was up.  "You can't use the apartment tonight," Milton said, even before One Iron said hello.

     "But I am using the apartment," One Iron replied.  He was standing in the den with his shirt off and his belt unbuckled.

     "I know it's a drag, but you've got to get out of there now," Milton said in a way that didn't brook argument.  But reclining in the sauna, he had to smile to himself as he visualized One Iron's agony.

     "You don't understand, Milton," One Iron pleaded, his voice getting reedy as it rose in register, "I've already got this broad in bed--and undressed.  You're going to make me blow the whole deal."

     "Take her to a motel.  I'll pay for it," Milton said.  He shared One Iron's taste for the pleasures of the flesh.  But this time One Iron would have to bend to a higher sense of strategy.  "This is important.  Just get out of there now."

     "Christ," One Iron muttered as he looked forlornly toward the bedroom.  "If I make her put her clothes back on it's going to be a bitch trying to get them back off.  You know how that can be, Milton.  Timing is everything."

     "I'm not asking you to do this.  I'm telling you to.  And straighten things up.  Make it look like no one has been there.  Got it?  Comprendé, partner?"

     One Iron knew better than argue.  This broad wasn't worth it.  And maybe he could get her clothes off a second time.  She'd been willing enough in the first place.  "Can I take her to your new place?" One Iron asked hopefully.

     "No way, Jose."

     One Iron shook his head.  That was the last of his good ideas.  Well, next time he wouldn't answer the phone.  "This is cold.  What've you got cooking?  Can't you use the new place?" One Iron pleaded.

     "Don't press it," Milton said impatiently.  "Now get a move on."

     "I had a move on," One Iron said bitterly.  "Shoot."  He hung up the phone and looked toward the bedroom.  Now what the hell was he going to say?  And what the hell was her name?  Lois.  Right.  Because they had been joking about Lois Lane and Superman.

     "Where'd you go, hon?" Lois called from the bedroom.  "I want to see your putter, One Iron."

     One Iron painfully buckled his belt and reluctantly went back into the bedroom, and not for anything fun this time.

     Sam "The Rocketman" Schwartz was short and bald, but he stood tall in his Skybox, as if he was standing at the peak of a mountain of the seven thousand three hundred and thirteen Oldsmobiles he had sold to get here.  His blue suit was one of Harold's finest, but Sam the Rocketman would always seem like an ill-dressed car salesman.  "Harold!  How do you like the game?"

     "It's a very interesting match," Harold said, with a glance at Dorothy.  She smiled appreciatively at the teasing.  Flirting, really.  Hell, Harold was flirting like mad and it wasn't too hard not when the other half helped.  "Sam, I want you to meet Dorothy Rosen."

     "Dorothy!" Sam beamed.  "Were you married to Max Rosen?"

     "Yes, I was," Dorothy said.  "Pleased to meet you, Sam."

     "I'm sorry about Max," Sam said, consoling her as if he couldn't get a Cutlass for her in the color she wanted.  "He and I went way back.  Way back."

     "Max had so many friends," she said, sounding as sincere as a car salesman in her own way.  "He was a real people person.  Like Harold.  And like you, I think."

     "Now what makes you think that I'm a people person?" Sam smiled, and gestured expansively at his crowded Skybox, at the bounty of little hamburgers and hot dogs on silver trays.  They all shared a laugh up there at the top of the Dome.

     "Dorothy is running the Ladies' Department at Harold's," Harold said proudly.

     "Great!" Sam said, and he might even have meant it.

     "You need to come on out to the store with Marilyn," Harold cajoled.

     "Dorothy, Harold could sell ice to the Eskimos."  He touched her shoulder lightly.  She was his new best friend.  "I thank my lucky stars that Harold didn't become a car dealer."

     "Sam, take it easy, or Dorothy will think I paid you," Harold said, though he would have paid Sam, or at least discounted a sport coat, if that would have helped his pursuit of Dorothy.

     Sam put an exaggerated hand to his mouth.  He was famous for his bad acting.  His TV commercials were even worse than Harold's.  "You should have paid me a little less, Harold, if you wanted the soft sell."

     "Will you gents excuse me?  I need to go powder my nose," Dorothy said and sashayed up the aisle.  Sam watched her admiringly.  Too admiringly, Harold thought, feeling possessive.

     "Harold, I am impressed," Sam said.

     "Isn't she something?" Harold said proudly.  Hell, maybe he'd pop the question and then do some serious necking.  If the necking didn't work out he could always back out of the deal.

     "A pistol.  A real pistola.  Criminy, you've got balls dating her.  Once you're married to the mob, then you're always married to the mob.  Whew!"  Sam shook his hand like he had just gotten burned.  "That's too hot for me to handle!"

     "What do you mean?" Harold asked, nibbling at his lower lip, suddenly troubled.

     "The late, great Max Rosen was in the mob.  The Jewish Mafia."

     "That's just a rumor," Harold said, but he'd heard stories before.  Stupid stories.  Silly stories.

     "Rumor, shumor.  Max's Dad worked for Meyer Lansky, back in Brooklyn.  That's a known fact.  Max was running numbers when we were in AZA together.  That's right, Harold, Max and me were in the same AZA chapter.  Max was the number two guy at the Stardust when he got caught with his hand in the till.  He was the shark that got eaten."

     "You don't believe that crap," Harold tried to bluff, but he was shaken.

     "And remember when he died?"

     Harold shook his head no, dreading Sam's next tidbit.

     "My buddy Bernie who retired to Vegas, he told me it was a big story out there.  The newspapers said Max had a heart attack that caused him to crash his car.  Whoosh!  Bernie says to me, sure, if you consider an ice pick as a legitimate form of heart attack.  Kind of hard to tell with the body getting accidentally cremated like that," Sam cackled.  Then he saw Harold's long face.  "Hey, Max was always a putz.  No one cried.  Hey, it is what it is.  And she is a pistol, but..."
     "But what?" Harold asked, not that he looked forward to the answer.

     "You know what they say about pistols," Sam leaned close to Harold.  His Brut after-shave was overpowering.  "Pistols go bang!"  Sam cackled at his own joke and patted Harold on the back. 

     Harold smiled uncertainly.  Sam could see that this was all news to Harold, and bad news at that.  Well, Sam thought, if I've got to suffer with a wife like Marilyn, Harold can stand to do a little suffering himself.  As Dorothy slinked back down the aisle, Sam thought how very much he would like to see her with that sequined jacket off. 

     "What did I miss?" she cheerily asked, her fresh red lipstick glistening in the light of the Dome.

     "They left a man stranded on second.  They couldn't bat him home," Harold said and smiled uncomfortably, still flummoxed by Sam's tale.  But Sam the Rocketman was a short man who had told tall tales before.  Well, fuck Sam and the rocket he rode in on, Harold decided, because looking at Dorothy, she looked a whole lot prettier to believe in than Sam.  But Harold still felt uncertain and unsettled.

     "You kids enjoy," Sam said with a smile and a pat good-bye on the back, letting his hand linger for a friendly second or two on the back of Dorothy's sequined jacket before continuing making the rounds of his Skybox.

     "Deep In The Heart Of Texas" began playing over the loudspeakers, and the crowd stood up for the seventh inning stretch.  As everyone more or less sang along, the music and voices echoed through the cavernous Dome.  Dorothy clapped gaily at the places where you were supposed to clap and sang loudly, right to Harold, like she was serenading him.  Dorothy did everything gaily.  Harold had never been serenaded and it was a heck of a thing.  He could see Sam four rows up, beside his sour-puss wife, looking down at Dorothy, jealous as hell.  Harold guessed that standing up there made Sam feel taller--that and the tall tales.

     "Do you want to stay for the whole game?" Dorothy asked brightly.

     "Nah, we've pretty much done this deal."  He hesitated now that it was time to suggest what he had been waiting and wanting and dreading to suggest all night.  "We could go somewhere and have a drink."

     "You don't drink," she teased; Harold's abstemiousness was common knowledge at the store.

     "You inspire me," Harold said.  Dorothy smiled; she was never one to mind a compliment.  "I know a quiet place," he added.

     Dorothy looked around the crowded and noisy Skybox.  "I like quiet places," she told him.

     "Let's work the room and get out of here," Harold said. 

     Dorothy smiled at him.  She liked to work a room and had never been with a man who said and did just that.  Sure, she'd been with outgoing men, but Harold was more of a kindred spirit, he was both shy and outgoing, and Dorothy preferred to think of herself as that way too.  If you were going to think of yourself, why not think of yourself in the most flattering light?  

     Harold offered Dorothy his hand to help her up.  They turned their back on the game.  "That's Bobby Liebowitz and his wife Leslie," he whispered to her.  "He's got the biggest plumbing supply in Houston."  Harold put a hand on Bobby's shoulder and shook his hand.  "Hello, Bobby!  Helluva a game, huh?"

     "Too bad the season's already shot," Bobby said.

     "Bobby, Leslie, I want you to meet Dorothy.  She runs the Ladies' Department at the store."

     "You've got a Ladies' Department?" Leslie asked, after they had said their hellos to Dorothy.

     "Haven't you seen our new ads on TV?"

     "I guess I have, Harold--I just tried to forget them," Bobby joked.  "Of course, compared to Sam the Rocketman, I suppose you deserve an Oscar."

     "I like that sweater, honey," Leslie said.

     "I bet I've got one in your color," Dorothy beamed.

     "And what's my color?" Leslie said.

     "Why, blue, like those beautiful eyes," Dorothy said.  It wasn't too tough of a guess, because Leslie did have nice blue eyes, even though her mascara was much too thick.  And that hideous silk blouse she was wearing was blue.  It didn't take a genius, and Dorothy knew from experience that no one ever questioned a compliment too closely.

     "Why haven't I seen you out at the store?" Harold needled Bobby, but in a friendly way.

     "I've been meaning to get out there,"  Bobby sheepishly replied.

     "Leslie, if you come out to the store some noon, I'll take you down the street to Rosenberg's for lunch," Dorothy said.

     "You better watch out, Bobby," Leslie laughed.

     "Harold you're killing me," Bobby said.

     "See you out in the Heights," Dorothy trilled good-bye.

     They walked down the curving corridor of steel and concrete to the elevators.  God, Harold thought, was it ever fun having a cutie like Dorothy by his side beating the drum for Harold's.  He'd spent enough years beating the drum alone.  With Dorothy's natural gifts, she had the potential to be as effective a salesman as Gary Plotkin.  Harold felt proud and lucky and excited all at once, and it felt good to have feelings.  He put his arm around Dorothy's shoulder and gave her a little hug.  She smiled in mild surprise at the display of affection.  The exit corridor of the Astrodome wasn't the most romantic of places.  "You did good back there, Dorothy.  I bet Leslie will be out to the store by the end of the week.  You're a natural."

     "But only my hairdresser knows for sure," Dorothy teased and tossed her hair back to catch the light, such as there was up here in the Dome.

      Harold drove his Cadillac along the gently undulating curves of Braeswood Boulevard.  An unseasonable wind was blowing from the north, and the night was warm but not hot.  Dorothy asked Harold to roll the windows down; she liked the effect of the wind in her hair.  Dorothy could smell the sluggish waters of Brays Bayou, but she couldn't see the bayou, just the eternally green grass of Houston.  Harold's was a Houston institution, and Dorothy felt pleased that she was now part of Harold's.  It had been a smart move coming back to Houston, Dorothy decided, as she enjoyed the balmy night scenery.  The Spanish moss hanging from the live oaks had never looked prettier.

     She wasn't paying much attention to where Harold was driving.  She expected they would wind up at someplace predictable and hopefully elegant, the bar at the Warwick Hotel perhaps.  It confused her when Harold parked in front of a rather tacky apartment building.  Dorothy was immediately suspicious of any place in Texas that called itself the Bali Hai.  "What is this place?"

     "We keep it for out-of-town customers, sales reps, that kind of thing," Harold extemporized.  He was still glowing from being in the Skybox with Dorothy, from working the room with her.

     Dorothy looked skeptical when he came around the car and held open her door.  But he had always behaved properly, Dorothy reasoned, as she followed him through the courtyard.

     Harold's palm felt sweaty holding the key.  As he fumbled to get the key in the lock, he had a moment of panic that Milton had fucked it up, maybe intentionally, by giving him the wrong key.  But the key worked fine once he had it turned right side up.  It was just nerves.  Harold found the light switch and escorted Dorothy inside. 

     She looked suspiciously at the tacky decor and sized the place up for what it was--a fuck pad.  The air conditioning was set on low.  The air was only slightly cooler than outside, but it was damp and smelled stale.  She thought she could smell cheap perfume.  And the residue of a thousand cigarettes.  She was very surprised at Harold, but with men you never knew.  Except that you always knew.  Yes, that was the surprising thing, that they really were all the same once you cut through the bragging or the bashfulness.

     "What are you drinking?" he asked, feeling rather excited and grown-up as he slipped behind the wet-bar.

     "Chablis," Dorothy said coolly, frowning demurely as she deigned to sit on one of the imitation leather barstools.  Harold opened the little refrigerator and was thankful that there was an open bottle of white wine.  He was pretty sure that Chablis was white.  He found a couple of glasses and poured two drinks.  He hadn't had wine since, well, the Merchant Marines, and that hadn't even been wine, but tonight was special.

     He came around and sat on the barstool next to her.  It seemed awfully quiet in the apartment, just the hum of the air conditioner, but he felt awkward stepping away from her to try and get the stereo working.  He usually didn't have much luck with gadgets, so he didn't even try.      

     Dorothy took a sip of wine and puckered her lips because it tasted so vinegary.  "Why did you bring me here?"

     "To talk," Harold said and sipped his wine.  It tasted terrible, but he'd never liked the taste of alcohol so it was probably fine.

     "To talk?" Dorothy repeated, with raised eyebrows.  Well, that was one word for it.

     "And for a little privacy," Harold replied nervously, though feeling a bit suave with a wineglass in hand.  "When we're at the store there's always someone else around.  It seems like we're never alone."

     "Well, we are now," Dorothy said in a way that she thought clearly conveyed how displeased she was with the situation.

     But Harold wasn't listening closely.  He could smell her perfume.  This moment had been so long coming, he knew what was expected of him, she was too much a lady to be brazen about it and Harold knew that she liked him or she wouldn't be here alone with him like this.  Harold wanted to do it.  He just had to do it. 

     He kissed her.

     Dorothy looked more amused than surprised.  That wasn't what Harold had expected, not at all.  He thought she would kiss him passionately back and all the rest would be happily ever after, or that she would shut him down flat and that would be that.  But this was something in between and Dorothy was looking, well, cryptic, in a way he didn't know how to read.  What a fool he had been to think anything like this could ever be simple.  He wasn't sure what to do next so he took another sip of the wine--god, it tasted awful.  "You know I have...feelings for you," he finally declared.

     Dorothy looked amused, but not in a friendly way.  "Is this our baseball lesson?" she asked. 

     Harold didn't understand. 

     "First base," Dorothy explained, "Second base?  Scoring?  Harold, I have feelings for you too," her tone softening just a little.  It was a delicate balance, keeping him wanting her without getting her--until she got what she wanted.  And Harold had gone too far, even just bringing her here.  There was a protocol for treating princesses properly.

     Harold saw that Dorothy was thinking and was sure that she was thinking of him, that he was in her thoughts.  That felt nice, almost as nice as those red, red lips of hers.  How long it had taken him to get her alone?  And how long would it take to get this far along again?  He kissed her again, meeting her unyielding, pressed-together lips.  He tried to hug her, but leaning from his barstool to hers was awkward, and she wasn't helping. 

     "Let's not go too fast," Dorothy said and easily broke apart his hug, just like Willie breaking a tackle.

     "Fast?  It's August.  I've been seeing you since Christmas, for chrissakes," Harold said, his voice rising in a way be couldn't quite control, "You've let me kiss you before."

     "That was different.  Those were goodnight kisses," Dorothy said.  She found that once you started talking about kissing, debating about it, then there was very little likelihood that any more actual kissing would get done just then.  Harold was a polite and reasonable man, and she had found over the years that reasonable men were the easiest to reason with.

     "Well, these can kind of be goodnight kisses too," Harold said.

     "I define goodnight kisses as what happens on a respectable lady's doorstep, or in her parlor, if you're polite enough to be allowed inside," she said with prim finality.

     "Dorothy..." Harold said tenderly.  He put a lot of feeling into her name, real feeling, and he tried to hug her again, putting his hands discreetly on her appealing torso where he hoped to get a better grip than on those slippery shoulders.  Harold wished that they were drinking their wine over on the couch instead of on these damnable and slippery barstools where their knees knocked and being close didn't offer all the advantages that being close on a couch did.

     "Did you lose something?" Dorothy asked.

     "No...why?"   He was disappointed that holding her torso, the middle road so to speak, offered no advantage over the high road, the traditional shoulder hug, which had already failed.

     "Because your hands seem to be searching for something," she said curtly. 

     Harold let go and retreated to his barstool.  He'd never really left his barstool, but he was no longer touching Dorothy, not even his knees knocking against hers.  She seemed very close and very far away, at the same time.  It was certainly vexing.  Especially since she was smiling.  Though her smile was prim, her lipstick was its characteristic unprim red.  Didn't she know that he noticed so many things about her?  Certainly that should count for something.  Harold took another sip of wine, for lack of anything better to do, and it tasted even worse.  The wine wasn't helping at all.  He wished he had iced tea or a Dr. Pepper instead, but it was too late for that.

     Dorothy looked at her distorted reflection in the awful mirrored tiles behind the wet-bar.  What was Harold thinking, bringing her to such a tacky, stale-smelling room?  "It is very important that you respect me.  I'm beginning to suspect that you have brought me to this place with less than honorable intentions," she said, striving to sound both peeved and even-toned at the same time.  "Harold, I work for you.  That makes things a little complicated."

     "You work for yourself--you're on commission," Harold countered.  He'd had too much ice tea in the Skybox and there really hadn't been a good time to go to the bathroom up there and now she'd gotten him excited without that really going where he hoped it might go and Harold suddenly found it impossible to think with all the pressure on his bladder.  The way the conversation was going, taking a break might help.  "Will you excuse me for a moment, I need to, uh..."

     "Powder your nose?" Dorothy teased him, with the cutest, sweetest smile.

     "So to speak," Harold smiled back, marveling again at how damn sweet she could be, as long as you weren't asking for the wrong thing.  He slid off the slippery barstool and went down the hallway.  Harold wasn't sure exactly where the bathroom was, but it couldn't be too hard to find in a two bedroom apartment.

     Dorothy fanned her face.  No air conditioning would be better than this tepid, fetid air.  She took off her sequined jacket; underneath, she was wearing a sleeveless linen blouse.  Dorothy wasn't very concerned about Harold misinterpreting her removing the jacket, it was just too stuffy in here to keep it on. 

     She got off the barstool and looked for a place to lay the jacket down.  In an ashtray on the coffee table, Dorothy saw a cigarette butt with lipstick marks.  Well, she'd like to hear Harold explain that before he talked anymore about kisses, goodnight ones or otherwise. 

     Dorothy decided to hang the jacket in the front closet, if there was anything other than a wire hanger in this uncouth place.  She was surprised but then not surprised that all the hangers were wooden, and bearing the red Harold's logo.  As Dorothy reached for one she saw an airbrushed nude, the Vargas calendar girl for August.  She pushed the hangers aside, fascinated with the discovery.  Why keep a calendar in the closet, she wondered.  It seemed more of a bedroomy thing, and not her kind of bedroom at that. 

     Then she saw the annotations in the squares for various days.  Janice.  Susie with two exclamation marks.  Eve.  Janice again with the initials "bj."  BJ, Dorothy wondered.  BJ?   Harold kept track of blow jobs on a calendar?

     And here you are playing like a bashful schoolboy, Dorothy thought.  And men thought that women were devious.  Really.  Really!

     Dorothy didn't care to spend another second in this awful place.  She walked straight out of the apartment, preferring to put her jacket on outside where at least she didn't have to endure the smell of some floozy's cheap perfume. 

     Dorothy looked around the neglected courtyard.  Dead magnolia leaves were floating in the pool.  She really didn't care to imagine what tawdry scenes this courtyard had witnessed.

     Harold came out of the bathroom feeling better, feeling relieved, certainly.  But Dorothy wasn't on the barstool where he had left her.  "Dorothy?"

     He didn't see her in the kitchen.  It was hopeless, but still he hoped.  Was she waiting for him in the bedroom?  Then he saw the open closet door. 

     He walked over, wondering what Dorothy was doing over at the closet.  And inside the closet, he saw the Vargas calendar.  He'd heard One Iron joking about that calendar once.  The dishonor roll he had called it.  Harold felt his heart skip a beat. He spun around and saw the open front door, feeling dizzy.  No woman liked to look at naked girls.  "Dorothy?" he called out in a worried voice.

     Harold hurried outside.  "Dorothy?" he repeated, desperately.  He saw her standing beside the Cadillac with her arms folded.  Even her red hair looked angry now.

     "I can explain," Harold said as he hurried toward her.

     "I don't want you to," Dorothy said, her voice so calm and flat and cold that it scared him.  How could everything change so totally in one single, stupid minute?  And over something that he had nothing to do with?  Nothing.

     "I can explain, really I--"

     "And I told you that I do not want you to explain.  Please respect my wishes and drive me home immediately, or call me a cab."

     Harold started to speak again but thought better of it.  He unlocked the passenger door in silence, and in silence his passenger got in, never uncrossing her arms.

     Dorothy rode home in silence.  Harold had tried to talk to her, then given up. 

     She got out of the car without saying goodnight. 

     Harold spent the rest of the night lying awake in the top bunk. 

     Maybe it was all for the best if the Mafia business was true.  Life was too short to risk having it further shortened.

     There wasn't enough room to toss and turn in the bunk bed.  He stared sleepless at the ceiling, occasionally reaching up to touch it to break the monotony.

     Harold got to the store early the next morning in the hope that Dorothy might have spent her own sleepless night.  But she had waltzed in her usual fifteen minutes late and had walked right past him without even acknowledging his good morning.  He was determined to clear the misunderstanding up before lunch and eventually saw his opportunity.  Cochise was out on a liquor run and Dorothy's last customer had just stepped out into the parking lot, her double-knit dress nicely packaged in a Harold's red and white vinyl hanging bag.  The sky was cloudless and the parking lot was as hot as hell, but it felt more hellish here in the central air conditioning to Harold.

     He made the long walk back to the Ladies' Department.  Dorothy was alone.  She sat at her curvy white desk greedily studying the St. Johns' catalog.  When she looked up at him her look was cold and clear and brooked no small talk. 

     He smiled contritely, but his smile remained unanswered.  "Dorothy, that was not my calendar," Harold said emphatically.

     "I do not want to hear about it," she said brightly, so bright she was brittle.  Even her hair looked stiffer to Harold, hairsprayed into place.  Today there was nothing soft about her.

     "It's not even my apartment," he said, trying not to sound like he was pleading with her even as he was.

     "That's not what you said last night," Dorothy reminded him.

     "I said it was the store's apartment, not my personal apartment, god no.  And it's not really even the store's apartment," Harold tried to explain.  Dorothy smiled at him in a blank way that Harold thought shouldn't even count as smiling even though it deceptively looked like it was.  "I lied about that," he added, desperate for her to know the truth.

     "Then you could have lied about other things."

     "But I'm not lying.  It's not my calendar," Harold said, eager, desperate, to get to the real truth.

     "I don't want to hear about it."

     "It's Milton's," Harold said.  There.  Done.  The obvious truth.

     "I said I don't want to hear about it," Dorothy repeated, acting as if she indeed had not heard.

     "I swear it's Milton's," Harold emphatically repeated.

     Dorothy looked Harold in the eye.  He met her gaze. Solemnly.  The truth.  And the truth shall set you free, Harold remembered that from somewhere, school maybe, or a Optimists Club luncheon.

     "Harold, the more you say, the deeper the hole you dig," Dorothy finally said.  "It's enough that you brought me to such a disreputable place.  Then to have to slander your brother."

     "But it really is his place," Harold said meekly because the belated truth wasn't working too well with Dorothy.  "I just borrowed the key."

     "I don't want to hear any more sordid details."  Dorothy picked the St. Johns' catalog back up.  "If you please, I have work to do."

     "But you work for me," Harold said, almost to himself, trying to reckon with this new and terrible situation.

     "I thought I worked for myself.  That's what you said last night when, apparently, you would say anything to try and get your way with me.  Now if you please," Dorothy said, and resumed browsing the catalog. 

     Harold didn't feel that she was avoiding looking at him.  No, it was like he just wasn't there anymore.  She was acting like he was invisible.  And in his own damn store.  He stalked away, or maybe it was more like slinking, or both at once, because he felt both angry and defeated, the one feeling mixing with another in a confusing, maddening way.

     It was a long walk back to the cashier island, through Western Wear, Sports Wear, and the Big Man's Shop.  The walls of the main sales floor felt as if they were closing in, squeezing him, and there was Milton, cool as a cucumber in the shoe department, shooting the breeze with Howard Chen, a trim Chinese businessman.  Harold watched Gary Plotkin working Chen.  Even as the world was feeling out of kilter, there was Plotkin, as aggressive and relentless as the Texas sun, chipping away at a customer.  Harold was anxious to go over to talk to Milton, more than anxious, but with Chen there he painfully bided his time, feeling trapped inside the Formica counters of the cashiers island.

     "Mr. Chen, I've got your shirts and ties boxed and bowed and ready to go," Plotkin enthused.  "Tony'll make the alterations lickety-split and I'll deliver the suit to your house myself this evening.  Anything else, sir?" Plotkin asked, deferential and assertive at the same time.

     "I don't think there is anything else," Chen said.

     "Sport shirts," Plotkin quickly added.  "How about a couple of real sharp sport shirts for the Sunday golf game.  You've got to dress for success even out on the links."

     "This guy, he never stops," Chen laughed and shook his head.

     "Let me pick one out for you," Plotkin said, giving Chen a smile filled with too many teeth.  "Just one.  The pick of the litter.  Take it home and if you don't like it, I'll take it back when I deliver the suit."

     "Okay, Barracuda," Chen said.

     Milton waved away Plotkin, who quickly and quietly obeyed.

     "So what do you think about Post Oak Boulevard?" Chen asked Milton.

     Milton saw Harold percolating over by the cashier's island, pacing back and forth, and talking to himself, or at least muttering.  Milton would have felt sorry for him if it wasn't so funny.  Harold was in over his head.  A woman like Dorothy, that was the big leagues of the man-woman thing, and amateurs got burned in the bigs.  "Post Oak is a nice street," he answered Chen.

     "What do you think about the parcel?" Chen said and slapped Milton's knee.

     "That's what I call a deep pocket property," Milton said pleasantly.

     Chen nodded thoughtfully.  He knew that Milton could not be rushed. 

     Harold couldn't stand it any longer; they could spend the whole day slouched in the shoe department horse trading real estate.  He came over, nibbling away on his lower lip.  "Hi, Kenneth.  How y'all doin'?" Harold asked tensely.

     "Plotkin's got all my money.  I came here to get Milton in a syndication.  Now I've got another suit that I don't need, but no syndication," Chen said stoically.

     "Can I talk to you, Milton?" Harold abruptly asked.  He was really ready to burst.  Surely Milton could see how badly he needed to speak to him.  Milton was further maddening Harold by acting like nothing was up.

     "Do you want to buy a unit in Ken's deal?" Milton asked amiably.

     "Not about that," Harold tersely replied.

     "See, Kenneth?" Milton said and touched Chen's knee.  "I'm trying to sell for you.  What's my commission?"

     "Another Barracuda," Chen laughed mirthlessly.

     "Barracudas work too hard," Milton mused, "I like to float.  I'm more like a jellyfish."

     "A Man of War," Chen amended.  "You float but you sting."

     "I like that," Milton laughed.

     "So I'll start calling you jellyfish."

     "Man of War," Milton corrected Chen.

     Harold hovered nearby.  Milton could see that he was making Chen uncomfortable.

     "Well, I better go make some money to pay for this expensive visit," Chen sighed and got up from the comfortable oxblood leather chair.

     "You got a bargain, Chen.  I bet you sell ten units in that new suit," Milton said.

     "But not to you," Chen chided.

     Milton fluttered his hand in a gesture of maybe.  "Send over the prospectus."

     Chen brightened at this and said his good-byes.

     "Y'all come back to Harold's," Harold said, almost chasing him out the door.

     "Harold, you were making Chen nervous, and nothing makes Chen nervous," Milton said.

     "We've got to talk," Harold said anxiously.

     "We are talking," Milton casually replied.

     "In private."

     Milton slowly stood up, as if it took great effort, and leisurely walked toward the stairs up to the tailor shop.  Harold knew better than to try and hurry him; it would only slow Milton down even more.

     Back in his office, Milton took off his Bally loafers and propped his lisle socks up on his desk.  He thought that Harold failed to grasp the concept of the home court advantage, even though he attended far more sporting events than Milton.  Harold paced the pile carpet, riled about the apartment, another of Milton's home courts where he had foolishly ventured.

     "You've got to tell Dorothy it's your calendar, you've got to tell her the truth," Harold demanded without any preamble.

     "Hey, I just loaned you the key.  I didn't take an oath or make any warranties.  Buyer beware," Milton nonchalantly replied.

     Harold took the key out of his jacket pocket and slammed it down on the desk.  The sound it made wasn't nearly loud enough to suit Harold's black mood.  "Here's your goddamned key back.  I hope you choke on it."

     "I'm very particular about what I put in my mouth," Milton said and left the key where it was.

     "But it's your fault!  She won't even talk to me!" Harold implored.

     "It's your own damn dumb fault for taking her there.  Dorothy at the apartment?  Forget it!"

     "But you knew what I was doing," Harold countered.

     "You wanted me to tell you not to do it?  Not to take her there?"  Milton felt his temper rising--he'd heard quite enough stupid accusations from Harold for one morning, thank you.  "You would have been pissed off at me.  And you wouldn't have listened."

     "Not if you had explained it," Harold said.

     Milton knew that to be the truth, but he'd never admit it, certainly not now.  He could remind Harold that all was fair in love and war, but Harold might jump over the desk and go mano á mano.  Milton thought that unduly, but kept the chrome shoehorn handy just in case he unwisely provoked his brother.

     "For chrissakes, she thinks it was my calendar," Harold lamented again.

     Milton felt himself weakening.  Maybe he should have talked Harold out of taking the apartment key last night, or at least tried to educate him a little, warned him of the perils.  Level the playing field.  After all, Harold was his little brother.  It might be a little late to begin educating him in the facts of life, but women were a fact of life, and it probably was never too late to learn.  Too bad he couldn't have educated Harold before Dorothy came along, before their romantic self-interests had collided.  But they'd never talked about stuff like that, there had been no reason to.  And now that there was a reason, it was the reason that kept them from talking.  Like the song said, that's life, riding high in April...

     Milton saw Harold looking expectantly toward him.  "She thinks it was my calendar," Harold repeated, feeling self-righteous.

     "And what did you say?" Milton asked.

     "That it was yours."

     Milton sat very, very still as he absorbed Harold's words.  It was as if his body could not move while his emotions were shifting.  The sympathy he had started to feel for Harold's plight was completely gone.  He was getting steamed about this whole dumb deal of Harold's.  "So you have told her," Milton finally said.

     "But I want you to," Harold demanded.

     "No," Milton said, his voice cool and steely, but tempered with anger, "because I wasn't stupid enough to let her see it and I don't have to embarrass myself because of something dumb that you did."

     "She won't speak to me," Harold said.

     "I thought she just told you off," Milton replied.

     Harold was angry too, and Milton would just have to deal with it, in one way or another.  "I can't work with Dorothy, not under these conditions."

     "Don't blame Dorothy for something you did," Milton corrected him.

     "But I didn't do anything except get her mad," Harold said plaintively.

     "You did that much," Milton said.

     "Well, this is no good," Harold said and shook his head.  "It's just no good.  And you're going to take her out tonight, aren't you?"

     "We've got a date," he said and teased Harold with just the hint of a smile.

     "What's more important--Dorothy or the store?"

     "Wait a second, Harold," Milton said, folding his hands on his oak desk, the epitome of a sensible executive.  "Now let's say that you had screwed Dorothy's brains out last night and given her an engagement ring, or given her an engagement right and then screwed her brains out--"

     Even in his turmoil, Harold flashed on the idea that this is what he should have done, given her an engagement ring first, that's where Milton would always be a step or a base ahead of him.

     "--and I was shit out of luck.  What then?" Milton rhetorically asked.  "What then?  I wouldn't be too happy today but I'd live with it."

     "You'd live it?" Harold asked skeptically.

     "I'd live with it," Milton adamantly repeated.  "Be an adult.  Accept disappointment.  If you lose one deal, move on to next one.

     "So after all this, you're still going to take Dorothy out tonight?" Harold asked, incredulous that he would even consider such a thing.

     Milton shrugged, untroubled by Harold's troubles.  "You took her to the ball game.  Now it's my turn at bat."

     Harold had stopped pacing.  He folded his arms and stared at Milton. 

     Milton stared back.  The contest seemed to wear easier on Milton, maybe because he was sitting in a padded leather chair. 

     Harold turned and left without saying another word, but as far as Milton was concerned, Harold had spent too long making the wrong argument for his silent exit to seem righteous.

     Ernie the Cop held the door open for Lillian and Jolene.  "Goodnight, ladies," he said. 

     "Goodnight, Ernie," they both replied.  They were the last to leave because it was the end of the month and they had to close out the books.  The sun had set over an hour ago, but the August heat had not yet broken.  A squall had passed over the Heights in the afternoon, and what little moisture remained was steaming up from the hot parking lot.  It was the acrid smell of damp, hot asphalt that Lillian inhaled as she walked over to her car.  She saw that the Cadillac and the Continental were gone, but Dorothy's Thunderbird sat next to Lillian's Electra, as if the car's were still friends and companions even if their owners weren't.

     "Will wonders never cease?" Jolene clucked.  "Is Dorothy working late?"

     "That depends how you define working."  Lillian didn't have to tap phones to know what was going on in the store.  It was just like in that movie on TV last Friday, about the two reporters who nailed Tricky Dick.  "Just follow the money," this character they called Deep Throat kept telling the reporters, and wasn't that the truth.  Well, Lillian followed all of the money that went through the store, and all of the people who followed the money.  Dorothy was with Milton, and, judging from his Diner Club statements, Lillian could even guess what kind of joint they were at this Friday night--Italian--and not just for the marinara sauce; Dorothy's rumored connections ran deeper than a fondness for spaghetti. 

     Not that anyone was asking her.

     The Continental had moved from its daily perch under the fiberglass awning at Harold's to the concrete and plaster porte-cochére of Tony's Restaurant off Post Oak Road.  Only the best shopping centers in Houston had porté-cocheres, and the red-jacketed valets had given Milton's car a prominent parking spot underneath this one.  The car's headlights faced across the street towards a promising-looking vacant lot that bore a sign for Howard Chen Investments, as if the Continental were contemplating making an investment in Milton's stead.

     Inside, the Italian restaurant was dark and well-appointed.  It was supposed to be Old World Charm with capital letters, but that transplanted awkwardly to Houston.  The most successful transplants in Houston were performed down the road at the Houston Medical Center.

     Tony Lambrusco, a Neapolitan whose Italian accent was intact after twelve years in Houston, came over to Milton and Dorothy's table.  It was a very good table, but Milton considered all tables good after years of dinner from a wobbly TV tray. 

     "Mrs. Rosen, how nice to see you again.  How very nice.  I hope to see you at the restaurant often now that you've come back to Houston.  I was sorry to hear about Max."

     "Why, thank you, Tony," she said with stoic charm, as the occasion demanded.

     "Mr. Wiesenthal," Tony bowed and shook Milton's hand.  "How is Goldie?  I haven't seen your mother since the party."

     "Fine, thanks for asking," Milton said. "She'll outlive us all."

     A waiter brought over two champagne cocktails.  "With my compliments," Tony said.

     "Why, thank you, Tony," Dorothy said. 

     Tony smiled back and returned to his podium near the front door.

     "Max used to go to Tony's first restaurant, when it was over by the ship channel," Dorothy said.

     "Max liked Italian food, didn't he?" Milton asked.

     "Max liked all kinds of food," Dorothy wistfully replied.

     "But Italian had a real hold on him," Milton said with a sardonic edge.

     "I know you've heard the rumors," Dorothy said with her own sardonic smile and devoured a breadstick. 

     It would take more than a couple of insinuating questions to put a dent in her appetite.  Milton admired that.  He picked up a celery stick from the glass boat on the table and matched her crunch for crunch.  "What rumors?" he asked, feigning innocence.

     "Milton, I know that you know everything," Dorothy reprimanded and flattered.  She picked up a celery stick, took a tentative bite, then made quick work of it. 

     Funny how some women were shy about eating in front of men, and how other women weren't.  Milton always hoped that it correlated with lack of shyness in other areas, but it never seemed to.  "What rumors?" he blandly repeated.

     Dorothy leaned close to whisper.  Milton leaned close to accommodate her.  Leaning close to a gorgeous woman was always a pleasure.  "That Max was in the, you know, the mob," she murmured.

     "It's not a rumor," Milton said as matter of factly as announcing that the black olive he picked up and popped in his mouth was black.

     Dorothy went back to the breadsticks.  She liked to eat things that had a crunch.  Milton marveled that she never made any crumbs.  Maybe that was part of the magic of princesses. 

     Dorothy had long ago realized the folly of trying to bullshit Milton.  She gave him the kind of smile that said yes you're right but let's not be blunt.  Dorothy remembered reading in Cosmopolitan that the Eskimos had over a hundred words for snow.  She had over a hundred smiles, any woman needed at least that number to properly maneuver around men. 

     "Well, that is not something that Max and I ever talked about," Dorothy finally said, since it always seemed to take at least a little talking to put disagreeable topics to rest.  "He was a good provider.  I personally don't care to know every little disgusting thing about a person.  I prefer things to be sunny and pleasant and there's no reason why they shouldn't be, no reason at all.  Surely you didn't ask me out to supper to dwell upon the past."

     "Surely not," Milton agreed, impressed with how smoothly she had answered his question while avoiding it.  He picked up his drink and clinked her glass.  "Salute," Milton toasted, just to remind Dorothy that he wasn't easily sidetracked.

     Dorothy had sunk back into the dreamy white leather of Milton's Continental, feeling post-prandial contentment.  "The veal picata was divine," she said.

     "Mmmm," Milton distractedly agreed.  He still wasn't used to driving and found that it took all of his attention, even at a reduced speed on a street as serene as the gently curving Braeswood.  It would send the wrong signal to have Dorothy drive, that was too fundamental a violation of the girl-guy thing.  But there must be some way that One Iron could chauffeur them, Milton mused.  One Iron in a chauffeur cap, that would be a hoot, but it would take one hell of a bribe.

     Dorothy thought the Spanish Moss looked even prettier than last night, which made her sit up straight.  This was the same route that Harold had driven last night, but surely they weren't driving back to the Bali Hai. 

     She studied Milton for some clue; he looked inscrutable though faintly amused in the green glow of the dash lights.  Milton sensed that she was looking at him and he turned to give her a wink, or did he?  Because in a blink his eyes were back on the road.  The only thing poky about Milton was his driving.

     "I want to show you something," he said.

     "Where are we going?" Dorothy suspiciously asked.  If Harold could blunder so crudely, then she supposed Milton could too.  But over the same thing?

     "It's a surprise," he said.  She waited for more, but Milton had fallen quiet.  He was enjoying the unspoken drama.  As the Bali Hai approached he even let the speed drop below thirty-five miles per hour.  God, it was fun making her wonder. 

     And then they were past.  Milton dared not look at Dorothy, and he dare not smile.  He was acting coyly oblivious to what thoughts and feelings he might be provoking in the passenger seat.  Even out of the corner of his eye he could sense her tensing, then relaxing as they drove past the Bali Hai, the leather creaking as she sank back into her seat, now that the moment of crisis was past.  Milton was hearing that tune in his head from "South Pacific,"  Bali Hai above, Bali Hai below.  He started to hum the tune when he caught himself.  The beauty of unspoken things was keeping them unspoken.  Dorothy breathed a sigh of relief, just loud enough for Milton to hear, as she glanced over at him, wondering what was next.

     Dorothy was thrilled when Milton turned on to Heights Boulevard and pulled the Continental into the driveway, misjudging the turn and bumping over the curb cut.  She wasn't surprised but she had to act surprised.  Dorothy was pretty sure that Lillian hadn't said anything about their secret visit to the mansion, but she could no longer be sure of anything where Lillian was concerned.  Dorothy thought that Lillian could be a little more forgiving and a little less short-sighted.  Sure, the whole thing with the Ladies' Department had been a bit sticky, but Lillian could have it all to herself one day, Dorothy didn't plan to permanently park her butt behind that white desk.  The big deal with Lillian had been to marry off one of her brothers, and Dorothy had pushed both of them in that direction.  Even if she didn't marry one or the other, Lillian couldn't deny that they were both at least thinking about marriage, and that was the necessary first step.

     Milton parked in the driveway.  He wanted to park in the garage but he couldn't find the damn garage door opener.  He came around the car and opened Dorothy's door for her.

     "What a beautiful place," she said.  "Who lives here?  One of your friends?"

     "No one lives here.  Yet."

     "Whose house is it?" she asked in perfect innocence.  Dorothy had always loved playing make-believe as a little girl.  And men so loved it when you had a touch of the little girl.

     "Mine," Milton said and proudly unlocked the front door.

     "Milton!" Dorothy cooed.  It very much helped that the house was newly furnished.  The furniture gave her something fresh to react to.  "Oh, it's marvelous," she said, letting her hand linger over the couch that was just too big and masculine.  That would have to change.  But she smiled like Dorothy in Oz as Milton gave her the grand tour.

     "I bought the property two years ago, and started remodeling last year," he explained.  She was his first visitor, not counting One Iron.  "It was a big job.  Structural work.  There's been subsidence all along the boulevard.  It was a big job."

     "How long have you lived here?" she asked.

     "I haven't moved in yet."

     Dorothy very much wanted to ask why not, but that violated the rules of the dance, how they were both careful to talk around certain topics.

     "Let me show you something," Milton said and led her over to the glass elevator.  He opened the filigreed glass door.  "I put this in for when Goldie visits.  She hates stairs."

     "Your own elevator," Dorothy marveled.

     "My very own everything," Milton said as he placed his hand lightly on the small of Dorothy's back to guide her onto the elevator.  They stood quite close in the tiny enclosure.  Sort of like a glass slipper, Dorothy mused, as the glass elevator rose slowly toward the second floor.

     Dorothy let Milton lead the way down the upper hallway.  All the rooms were furnished, but with such blah personality.  The interior decorator had an unfortunate fetish for beige.  Dorothy tried to see it all anew, willing herself into a state of feverish enthusiasm for all she saw.  She was accustomed to keeping her wits sharp around Milton, but in his house his guard was relaxed.  He was too damn proud to calibrate her compliments.

     Dorothy took special interest in what she proprietarily regarded as the "sewing room."  It had twin beds in it, and a frown passed uncontrolled and unbidden across her freshly powdered face, quickly replaced by the delighted smile she wore like a mask.  She lingered in the sewing room, mentally removing the inappropriate furniture.  A window had been left open and the balmy night air wafted through the room like a warm perfume; the earthiness of Houston, redolent of wet leaves and rotting pine wood and thick Bermuda grass mingled with the crisp, centrally-cooled air.  To stand in this cool room and enjoy those warm smells, it was almost perfect, Dorothy thought.  With the right furniture, of course.

     "Dorothy, I know that you need a place to live and I've got plenty of room here," Milton said, finally speaking what had remained carefully unspoken all through dinner.  Milton preferred being direct, when it was the right time to be direct.  Now.  In this room, alone, with Dorothy.

     "Milton," she said in mild protest.

     "Let me finish," he insisted.  "This is a huge house.  You can have this whole floor.  The whole enchilada.  No rent.  And no strings attached."

     "No, I could never accept that," Dorothy said without much conviction, just enough to show that she did have her pride.

     "This is way more than what I need.  And I want to help you," Milton said.

     "You are the sweetest man.  Just the sweetest," Dorothy enthused.  Before Milton knew what was happening she melted in his arms, remarkable because she seemed to step forward and melt at the same time, a heady mixture of opposites, like the warm and cool air that was lacing through the room.  Dorothy kissed Milton passionately, without coyness, as if promising things to come.  She came up for air like a diver who has gone too deeply too quickly, then melted in his arms again, but in a different way that made it very clear that whatever delights might lie ahead for them, things would go no further tonight.  But the kisses had been a surprise and Milton took them for the gift that they were.

     Dorothy regarded him closely, her hands lightly on his cheeks, their eyes so close.  "Are you sure this is okay?  I mean, both of us living under the same roof?"

     "It's a big roof," Milton demurred.

     "I mean, people will think that we are living in sin," Dorothy said coquettishly.  She kept her body close enough for him to feel, but not so close that they were coarsely connected.  Their contact was light and teasing, with decorum and limits set by the ruling princess.

     "Why?  Do you think we'll sin?" Milton said softly and pressed lightly toward her, unashamed of the erection he knew to be obvious.

     Dorothy danced delicately back, as fluidly as if doing a tango, and fluttered gracefully out of his arms.  "I didn't say that," Dorothy told him as she took a careful step back.  "But I've got my reputation to think of," she teased.

     Those kisses that had been so chaste and passionate in the same sweet breath.  Oh, he knew that she played games, but he played games too, and he was ready to gamble on their playing games on each other and playing games together.  "Do you want to get married?" he asked with candidness and confidence.

     "Is that a proposal?" Dorothy asked back.

     "Do you want it to be?" he tested.

     "Milton, you're positively making my head spin tonight," Dorothy sidestepped.  She studied him closely, working her own calculus: the situation, the consequences.

     "Do you want to get married?" he asked again, challenging her.  She found his self-confidence both maddening and reassuring.  Dorothy was annoyed by surprises, like insistent questions that she wasn't ready for.  Surprises that weren't surprises, such as acting like she'd never been here in the sewing room, well, those were fine.  "I'm not sure of anything right now," she said.  "Except that I would just die to live in this gorgeous house.  But what about my furniture?  All the rooms already look so full."

     Milton didn't mind that the marriage question had been deflected.  He hadn't asked "Will you marry me?"  No, his question had been a tad more hypothetical, but specific enough for him to get a read.  Marriage aside, if she agreed to move in, she would be living here with him.  He did not want familiarity to breed contempt, not here in the dream house, not between them.  "You can put this stuff in storage, if you like," Milton said.  "I'm easy."

     "Oh, you're anything but easy," Dorothy laughed.  "Really, no strings attached?" she asked just to get that part crystal clear.

     Milton smiled kindly at her kindred tactics, how smoothly she had moved to closing the deal she wanted.  Harold had said Dorothy had the potential to be as good as Plotkin, but he had that part wrong.  Dorothy had the potential to out-Plotkin Plotkin.  "You take the upstairs.  I've got an extra bedroom downstairs.  It'll all work out.  I really want it to," he smiled.

     Dorothy smiled sweetly back and looked around at the offending furniture, soon to be banished.  "Me too."

     She gave him a brief kiss.  A kiss Milton fully expected, but he politely acted surprised.

     As they descended the tiny glass elevator, close enough to feel each other's body heat, Dorothy thought that the glass slipper fit perfectly.

     "So when do you want to move in?" Milton asked as they neared the ground.

     Dorothy hooked her arm lightly through his, though she needed no help with her balance.  "Tomorrow."

     It was a mother of a hot damn day, Cochise thought, and he didn't even have a handkerchief with him.  Sweat was dribbling into his eyes and he blinked at the salty sting.  He wiped his brow with his hand and flung the sweat away, but now his hand was wet and his eyes still stung.  With his hand raised, Cochise saw the sweat stain under his armpit.  "Sonofabitch," he muttered, worried that his silk shirt was ruined.  The shirt had all kinds of crazily colored flowers on it and was one his favorites.  Cochise kicked half-heartedly at the balding tire of the heavily laden U-Haul trailer that sat in the driveway of Milton's bungalow.  That's what Milton liked to call it, the Bungalow on the Boulevard.  Cochise shook his head despondently; it was already the heat of the day and they weren't nearly half done moving Dorothy's shit in.

     Ernie the Cop was huffing up in the trailer, trying to move a dresser by himself.  Cochise took some small consolation that the sweat rings that darkened Ernie's blue H.P.D. uniform were bigger than those on Cochise's own shirt.

     "Christ, Cochise, give me a hand up here, I'm dyin'," Ernie complained.

     "Sonofabitch," Cochise muttered as he put his shoulder to the dresser, "she's got a lot of shit.  A lot of heavy shit."

     They hauled the dresser all the way back to the elevator, but the bastard wouldn't fit on.  At least it was air-conditioned in the house, but Cochise and Ernie were both sweating like pigs.  They humped it back to the front of the house and worked the dresser up the stairs, careful not to ding the walls, both of them quite reasonably fearing the wrath of Milton.

     Dorothy was waiting for them upstairs, fresh as a daisy, wearing a flowered blouse with a matching scarf in her hair that reminded Cochise of Lucy Ricardo.  But Dorothy wasn't smiling like Lucy, no sir, Cochise thought, feeling miserable about the stack of shit still left to haul up.

     "Where do you want this?" Cochise asked, breathless.

     "In the sewing room," Dorothy said and pointed to the far end of the hall.

     Cochise and Ernie looked at each other, a shared moment of martyrdom, and put the dresser down where they were standing.  Would it kill her to offer them a fucking glass of ice tea?   Even draught horses got a regular drink on a day like this to keep from dyin'.  "Sewing room?" Cochise asked, feeling prissy just saying it.

     "The one with those cute bay windows," Dorothy explained, smiling blandly, cool drink of water that she was.  "Right across the hall from the elevator," she explained.

     Cochise and Ernie unhappily hoisted the dresser back up.  It was a long walk back to the elevator.  Sewing room, shit, Cochise thought darkly.  Dorothy would poke you with a needle and smile, but the only thing she sewed was her pants shut.

     Out in the Wiesenthals' driveway, One Iron knelt backwards on the front seat of the Continental trying to squeeze one last suit on to the clothing bar that ran the length of the back seat.  One Iron had been careful to keep the suits in order, and Milton's dozens of suits hung from the bar in harmonious shades of gray and blue and brown.

     Inside, Milton stared into his closet.  It had been stripped bare, except for odds and ends, like the gold-plated Playboy putter.  He'd spent so many hours standing exactly like this as he selected what to wear, it felt odd and unsettling to be doing it for the last time.  He found a wayward set of cuff links and pocketed them. 

     Milton stepped aside as Michael squeezed past him and dropped a load of his stuff into the closet.  The rest of the room was intact; Milton was leaving the Scandinavian bedroom set behind.  Michael unrolled a Jethro Tull poster and climbed up on the bed to tack it up behind the headboard.

     Milton was amused by the quickness of Michael's invasion.  "You're not even waiting until the corpse is cold."

     "What do you mean?" Michael asked.

     "It's just an expression," Milton said and gave Michael an affectionate hug.  "See you, kid."

     "See you," Michael said, preoccupied with hanging up the poster.  He didn't stop to ponder Milton's leave-taking.  The Wiesenthals weren't sentimental, and Michael was excited about finally getting his own room where he could hang up his own posters.  Photographs of Harold took up most of the wall space of the other bedroom.  "Does this look level?" he asked.

     "As level as anything else around here," Milton answered.

     When Milton came into the kitchen he saw Goldie standing at the stove, overcooking a pot of egg noodles.  Emmanuel had the Wall Street Journal spread across the kitchen table and was underlining stock prices while he ate a bowl of canned peaches. 

     Milton went to stand beside Goldie, but she didn't look up from the boiling water.  Her lips were tightly pursed.  He knew that she was upset.  He could stand here all day and she would too, until the noodles just boiled down to glop.  "Mom, I really want you to come see my house," Milton finally said.  "It's a great place to live."

     "It's a great place to live in sin," Goldie said, without a trace of the needling and wheedling that she used to con her boys into shopping safaris to Weingarten's.  Goldie knew in her heart that one day Milton would leave.  All boys did, eventually.  But it should be the day after his wedding, with Milton leaving to go live in a real house, with a real wife.  Dorothy didn't even seem Jewish; maybe some babies had gotten mixed up at the hospital. 

     Emmanuel just shook his head sadly.

     "I'm not living in sin," Milton protested.

     Goldie slowly stirred the pot with a wooden spoon.  Not that it needed stirring, but she had to do something.  When Milton had announced his big plans to move into the Bungalow with Dorothy, Goldie had gone right into her bedroom and lain down.  She'd had a migraine even before all the words had left Milton's lips, that was the god's truth.  And then all the talking afterwards.  She didn't like Dorothy, and she didn't like talking about her.  "And I said I don't approve," Goldie repeated.

     "Mom.  Please," Milton pleaded.  "Don't be like this.  This is a big step for me.  It's a big house.  Dorothy will be living upstairs.  I'll be living downstairs.  It's ten times the size of this house and there's only two of us.  There's too much room for sin."

     "She's not family," Goldie said, unshakable.

     Milton was about to say that he had proposed to Dorothy.  He had wanted to tell Goldie that.  But it would come to no good, because how could be explain why Dorothy wouldn't just marry him?  That would be something, trying to explain the Jewish Mafia to Goldie.  That mob widows were taken care of, kind of like social security.  But supposedly only until they married again.  Hell, Milton could only half explain it to himself, why Dorothy didn't want to get married yet.  Maybe she just didn't want to jump in.  Maybe she didn't love him--yet.  Maybe she wanted it all--what Milton had to offer and the Ladies' Department and the under-the-table mob social security money.  And what was the rush if she was living in the Bungalow on the Boulevard rent-free?  Milton had seen it from that angle, and from a lot of other angles.  But since when was love rational?  Look at Goldie and Emmanuel, for god sakes.  Well, it wouldn't get solved now.  Goldie wouldn't let it get solved, not in the way that Milton would like.  Just a smile, a little approval, that's all Milton wanted.  If Goldie saw that glass elevator, that might help do the trick, Milton thought.

     "It's a big mistake," Goldie quietly insisted.

     It was her quietness that upset Milton more than anything, because she was never quiet, not like this.  It wasn't like he could just turn around, put the suits back in the closet.  Or get Cochise to go rent the U-Haul again and move Dorothy back to West University.  Milton found that he was nibbling on his lower lip.  He couldn't remember ever doing that before.  Maybe it ran in the family.  He gave Goldie a hug, but she held her body stiff.  He tried to kiss her on the lips, as they had always kissed good-bye, but she would not turn her head, so he had to settle for her dry, powdery cheek.

     Milton sighed and went over to Emmanuel, who didn't mind a hug.  He didn't like Dorothy either but not so much that he would begrudge his boy a hug and a kiss.

     "Well..." Milton sighed.  He took a last look around, as if he were a political prisoner going into exile.  "So long."

     After he had stepped out the kitchen door and the screen door had creaked shut, Goldie turned off the burner and looked accusingly at Emmanuel.

     "What?" he asked.

     "Why didn't you say something?" Goldie accused.  She knew that Emmanuel agreed with her.  They had lain in bed talking about it last night, and then again this morning.

     Emmanuel just shrugged.  "Because you said plenty."

     Milton had never been married, but he soon realized what married life might be like.  It was probably something like the store, or living on Aberdeen Way, the day to day thing, the daily routine.  And he wasn't even married to Dorothy.  That part remained uncertain.  The rest of it too.  Those kisses the first night he brought her to the house hadn't led anywhere, they certainly hadn't led her into his bed or vice versa.

     In the daytime her Thunderbird was parked next to his Continental.  In the evening, the cars migrated from the store on Nineteenth Street to the house on Heights Boulevard, where they sat side by side in the garage.  And now Milton had to drive that big Continental back and forth to work himself because he feared Dorothy's reaction to having One Iron chauffeur him such a short distance.  At least the cars were sleeping next to other, Milton mused ruefully and swirled the scotch in his glass so that the ice cubes clinked against the heavy glass tumbler.

     He was sitting in the redwood-paneled TV room.  Milton had never quite owned up to it, but this TV room was just like the den in the Wiesenthal house: a small room with a couch and several arm chairs circled around the television.  Milton and Dorothy were siting in neighboring armchairs watching the last few minutes of "M*A*S*H."  Hot Lips always got Milton horny, not that he needed much help with Dorothy so close by.  He was wearing cotton slacks and a cashmere V-neck sweater.  Living with Dorothy made lounging around the house more formal than lounging around really ought to be.  She was wearing a quilted robe over her nightgown with the belt pulled tight.  She was dressed for bed, but primly so, and Milton admired the effect even though it ran contrary to his romantic aspirations.

     When the show ended, Dorothy stood up and stretched.  "I am dead on my feet," she said.

     "Me too," Milton faked.

     Dorothy padded out of the room in her white leather slippers.  He turned off the TV and followed after.  But Dorothy was already getting on to the glass elevator.  Milton clucked his tongue, disappointed that he had missed his opportunity for a goodnight kiss.  The best thing was to act like he was headed for his bedroom, to remove any hint of puppy love awkwardness.

     "See you," Milton called to her.  "Sweet dreams."

     "That's sweet," Dorothy said with a tiny smile as the elevator started to rise.  "You have sweet dreams too."

     He reached the door of the downstairs guest bedroom.  It had been called the guest bedroom on the plans, and Milton supposed that it still was, in that he was starting to feel like a guest in his own house, while Dorothy was up in the master bedroom.  That was a neat trick, come to think of it, but then he remembered that it had been his suggestion.  Why, he could just have easily have said you take the downstairs, I'll take the upstairs.  But that sounded wrong.  Princesses always lived at the top of the castle, with the balconies and the trellises and the ladies in waiting.

     Milton went into the room, grateful that at least it was bigger than his bedroom back on Aberdeen.  It had French windows opening to the side yard.  From the garden fountain a concrete Cupid burbled water from his bow.  Milton reminded himself to point Cupid out to Dorothy at the right moment.  For now, he stood back in the doorway and watched her ascend in the elevator to the upper floor. 

     He plopped down on the bed, and ran his hand along the smooth mahogany night stand.  He felt like he was sleeping in a hotel room.  Bored, Milton picked up the telephone.  He dialed the number at the apartment.  When he didn't get an answer, he tried One Iron's home number.  "Hey, it's me," he said into the receiver.

     "Hey, Milton," One Iron said from the other end of the line.  "How's life in the Bungalow?"

     "Great.  So you're not using the apartment tonight?" Milton asked One Iron, secretly pleased.  He didn't like the idea of One Iron getting something that he wasn't.

     "Oh, I used the apartment.  Big time.  Wham bam thank you, ma'am," One Iron bragged.

     "Great," Milton said, trying to be appropriately enthusiastic.

     "And then you know what happened?"

     "No.  What happened, One Iron?" Milton asked, looking forward to some tale of romantic disaster.

     "Wham bam thank you, ma'am, all over again!" One Iron crowed.

     "Great," Milton said, starting to feel pretty down.

     "Man, this Denise is a piece.  I think you'd like her.  And I know she'd like you."

     "Mmmm," Milton said, acting bored.

     "If you were still in the market," One Iron diplomatically added.

     Milton wondered about slipping out.  It wouldn't be like he was getting it on the side, because he wasn't getting anything here.  But how to break the news to One Iron?  Because One Iron would never believe that the King wasn't making time with the Queen or the Princess or whatever she was.  And if One Iron did believe him, then Milton's stock would go down.  Way down.

     "So tell me what she's like, Milton," One Iron said with a giggle.  "Paint me a picture in words, man.  Compare Dorothy to a known quantity, so I can relate."

     Milton carried the telephone over to the doorway.  He craned his neck and saw Dorothy walk down the upstairs balcony in her nightgown, the quilted robe long gone.  He watched her disappear behind the bedroom door.  "One Iron, that would be kiss and tell," he said smoothly, but the yearning in his eyes contradicted his telephone braggadocio.  

     "But it's always been kiss and tell between us," One Iron reminded him.

     "Yeah, but this one might be serious," Milton said and added a salacious laugh for good measure.

     "That's what I was afraid of," One Iron sighed.  "Shit, I'd trade a dozen Denise's for a night with Dorothy."

     "Mmmm," Milton said, sounding convincingly content with his good fortune, but willing to settle for just one Denise right now himself.

     It was a drizzly fall day; the sky was the same dull gray across the entire soggy horizon.  Ernie the Cop stood forlornly under the door awning in a yellow rain slicker.

     Business was quiet at the store this morning.  Tim Stugeon stepped out of the stockroom between Sportswear and the Ladies' Department, smiling like that cat that just ate the canary.  He checked to make sure that the coast was clear, then hitched his belt in a prideful fashion, and sauntered off to Western Wear.  If Cochise wasn't too busy, he might have him put a little buff on his ostrich skin boots, which were looking a bit molted, what with all the wet weather this last week.

     Faye, the canary, stepped out of the stockroom, trying so hard not to look guilty that she looked very guilty indeed.  But Harold was upstairs in the tailor shop this morning, giving them hell over some damn thing.  He was on a tear most days lately, and she was thankful that her morning break had escaped notice.  Faye smoothed her skirt and hurried into the Ladies' Department.

     Gary Plotkin and One Iron were watching the action from the cashier's island.  Business was so slow that Plotkin only had one eye on the back door.  With the other he glanced at his watch and said, "Now that's what I call a quickie."

     "The pause that refreshes," One Iron added.

     "When Faye takes her morning break tomorrow, I'm going in that stockroom for a size forty-two Sans-A-Belt," Plotkin sniggered, "That should be a sight."

     "Sans-A-Belt is only half right, Barracuda.  Sans panties too," One Iron amended.

     Faye emerged from the Ladies' Department with some papers in hand and walked purposefully past the cashier's island, avoiding eye contact with One Iron and Plotkin as she took the supposedly important papers into Lillian's office.

     "Faye the Lay," One Iron whispered.  But Plotkin saw the back door open and joke time was over as he moved like his moniker to grab on to a lanky oil man who always spent big.

     "Al!" Plotkin beamed, pumping Al's rain-dampened hand.  "When did you get in from Midland?"

     "I flew in from the oil patch yesterday noon," Al answered.  He liked all the attention Plotkin paid him and thought him awfully amusing for a Jewish fella.

     "I've been holding some boots for you, baby turtle with a deerskin inlay, so soft you'll think you've died and gone to cowboy heaven," Plotkin enthused.

     Lillian could hear Plotkin's sales patter through the door, as steady as the rain.  She tensely smoked a cigarette, and stared out the little window, feeling as gray as the rain and as forlorn as the wet, empty parking lot. 

     Jolene helped herself to one of Lillian's Salems.  Sitting across from her day after day, Jolene was affected by Lillian's mood, and found herself smoking a lot more cigarettes these days to get through the morning to lunch, then smoking to get somehow from lunch to quitting time.

     Faye wouldn't have minded a cigarette herself, but she would rather have smoked it with Stugeon stroking her inner thigh.  Faye had already tempted fate once today, and she was in a hurry to get back to the register before Harold did.  But Lillian just wasn't cooperating.  "But these are from Dorothy, closing out the month," Faye said again and tried for a second time to hand Lil the billings.

     Lillian handed the billings right back, holding them at arm's length, as if they had cooties.  "No thanks.  No way.  Dorothy has to close out her own paperwork."

     "She never has before," Faye protested. 

     "Plotkin closes out his month.  So does Stugeon.  So does everyone else.  And what are you doing delivering Dorothy's papers for her?" Lillian asked, turning her attention to Faye.

     "It's no big deal," Faye stammered, feeling flustered by Lillian's intransigence and still a little lightheaded from her recent dalliance in the stockroom.  It was so unfair for Lillian to be difficult about this.  "I was back that way," Faye said and laid the papers on Lillian's desk.

     Lillian handed the papers back to Faye.  "Here you go," Lillian mimicked, "No big deal."

     "It wouldn't hurt you to be a little friendlier to her," Faye said, with the self-righteousness of someone who liked to think of herself as everyone's friend.

     "I was friendly to her," Lillian said regretfully.  "And it did hurt."

     Faye frowned, but frowns worked much better with susceptible men.  She unhappily left with the papers still in hand.

     Stepping out of the office, Faye saw that things had gotten busy again.  Harold gave her a withering look, furious about having to ring up a sale himself.  But Harold was all smiles for the customer, the Jekyll and Hyde of the Heights, Faye thought as she slipped back into the cashier's island.

     "Mel, you say hi to Marlene and I'll see you at the tournament," Harold effused and gave Mel a gold-braided Harold's cap.  "This is one of the special dealies, just for you." 

     Mel put the cap on his bald head.  "Thank you, Harold.  Why, thank you much," Mel said, looking as pleased as if he had been asked to join the River Oaks Country Club.

     "Nice seein' ya, Mel.  Y'all come back to Harold's," Harold said to Mel, the chorus he always sang to departing customers.

     Harold's smile faded as the red Harold's cap that Mel was now wearing disappeared into the gray drizzle outside.  "Where the hell have you been?" Harold said, turning on Faye.  "I'm not the damn cashier around here."

     Faye looked appropriately contrite but felt secure in her excuse as she handed Harold the paperwork.  "Dorothy gave me these to give to Lillian," she explained.

     "So why are you giving them to me?" Harold asked in annoyance.

     "Lillian wouldn't take them," Faye said, sharing his annoyance.  "She said that Dorothy has to close out her own month."

     "Damn right," Harold said.  "She needs to carry her weight like everyone else."

     "She's never closed out a month," Faye explained.  "She doesn't know how."

     "And what are you doing with these?  Are you Dorothy's errand girl now?" Harold accused, his anger rising.

     "Jeez, I was coming back from the bathroom and she asked me if I was going up to the front," Faye said defensively.

     "Well, I'm goddamn good and tired of people doing favors for Dorothy.  Is she with a customer?" he asked.

     "I don't think so," she answered, surprised by his vehemence.

     "Get her up here," Harold ordered.

     Tim Stugeon sauntered over to the cashier's island.  He avoided looking at Faye, but when Harold's back was turned Stugeon gave her a pat on the butt. 

     Faye smiled coyly at Stugeon.  She bent down to speak into the intercom and said, "Dorothy, could you come up to the front, please?"

     Stugeon was looking at Faye's legs and feeling a little horny again as he picked up the telephone.  "Two C's on the Phillies to sweep the doubleheader..." he said softly into the receiver.

     Harold was extremely annoyed with the whole Dorothy thing, not just the romance deal, that was done, but having her in the store every damn day.  This wasn't some game, this was it.  This was the store.  And Harold had had enough of Stugeon's bookmaking, tying up a business line.

     Plotkin carried an armload of purchases as he led Al over to the register.  "Harold, you remember Al?" Plotkin asked with a smile.  Plotkin thought Al was a perfect customer; he shopped fast and he shopped big.  In fifteen minutes Al had bought enough clothes to make up for a piss poor morning.

     "Of course I remember Al," Harold said with a strained Lone Star smile. "How are things in the oil patch?"

     "Can't complain, Harold, can't complain," Al said amiably.

     "Well, that's just fine," Harold absently replied.  His smile tightened as he saw Dorothy clickety-clacking toward him, her heels an angry staccato on the terrazzo floor.  She stopped and looked up at Harold with a brittle smile.  "Yes, master?" she mockingly asked in her best Barbara Eden style.

     Harold and Plotkin both gave Dorothy dirty looks.  She had crossed the line, acting unpleasant and disrespectful in front of a customer.  Al was smiling at Dorothy, he never minded smiling at a pretty lady, but Harold positioned himself in front of her.  "You make the Barracuda take good care of you," Harold drawled, the Texas in his voice thickening as it always did in moments of crisis.

     "I'm watching out for my friend," Plotkin said, moving around Al's other side, completing the quarantine from Dorothy, the bitch.  People had died for less.  "I'm always snaggin' Al the good stuff."

     "He's my man," Al said affectionately.  Al had to kick butt out on his rigs to make the show run right, and he sensed butt kicking in the air here.  He wouldn't mind watching that pretty redhead's butt get kicked, but he had some leases to sign over at the Petroleum Club.  "I better mosey on down the road," he said picking up his packages.

     Harold gave Al a firm handshake and a big smile and said,  "Nice seein' ya, Al.  Y'all come back to Harold's."  Plotkin escorted Al toward the door. 

     As Harold turned back to Dorothy his smile tensed and disappeared.  He grabbed her by the elbow and took her aside.  "You can't turn these in like this," he said and slapped the disputed paperwork into her hands.

     "This is how I've always done it," she peevishly explained.

     "Well, it isn't how we've always done it.  Every salesman is responsible for closing out his own month."

     "I'm not a salesman," Dorothy protested.  She didn't care for the tone of voice that Harold was using with her, no she didn't, not one little bit.

     "Excuse me," he said corrosively.  "Saleswoman."

     "I'm not merely a sales anything," Dorothy said, taking exception with his words and his snippy tone of voice.

     Harold sensed Faye and One Iron and Stugeon looking over at them, straining to hear every word.  The Greek chorus had assembled to watch, ready for either a comedy or a tragedy.  It was all entertainment to them.  Harold did not want to have this conversation, which had been building for ages, within earshot of either the chorus or the customers, but here it was, it was happening, and he could not, would not back down, no ma'am.  "Oh, really?  And what are you?" he asked Dorothy with a fury that left her a little stunned.

     "I'm, well, head of the Ladies' Department," she said, at a loss.

     "A department of one."

     "Quality, not quantity," she curtly replied.

     Harold was trying hard to control his temper, but she was so tenaciously vexatious and she was so out of line.  "Well, excuse me Miss Department Head, you're responsible for your own paperwork."

     Dorothy looked annoyed.  Her glossy red lips sagged into a pout.  "Lillian does the bookkeeping.  I don't know why she's being so difficult."  Dorothy was grateful to now have a target more malleable than Harold.  Lillian had been troublesome ever since she had come to work in the store, but Dorothy was confident she could bend Lillian, certainly enough to help with something as little and silly as this paperwork.  Looking put-upon, Dorothy stalked towards Lillian's office with the stupid papers.

     Harold stalked off into Sports Wear, swearing to himself under his breath.

     The Greek chorus of salesman watched this latest development with interest.  "Gentlemen, place your bets," Stugeon said with a smile.

     "I'll take Lillian," One Iron said with confidence.

     "Lillian in the first round," Faye agreed.

     "Hey, Barracuda, you want to bet?" Stugeon asked.

     Plotkin frowned, more unhappy than entertained.  "I want to make some money selling clothes and this bullshit is fucking with that," he said and went back to his post by the door.  He'd much rather snag another customer than shoot the shit with salesmen.

     Dorothy went into the back office, with a big smile for Lillian.  She had avoided the office after she came to work at the store, what with all the unpleasantness and petty jealousy.  Dorothy always made it a point to smile at Lillian, and Jolene too, and let bygones be bygones.

     Lillian and Jolene looked up when Dorothy came in.  The click of her high heels had announced her presence.  They weren't impressed with Dorothy's artificial smile and both turned back to their work without saying a word.

     Dorothy sensed their frosty mood, but chose to ignore it.  "Good morning," she said pleasantly, hoping that they would reciprocate her high-mindedness.

     Lillian and Jolene looked back up at Dorothy, but neither of them spoke.  It wasn't like they had ever planned to give Dorothy the silent treatment, but they had no desire to exchange pleasantries with her.

     "Lil, you know how helpless I am with numbers," Dorothy said in light-hearted self-deprecation.

     "Hon, I don't think that you are helpless with anything," Lillian said, uncharmed.

     "Lord, if that was only true!" Dorothy pressed on, certain she could win Lillian over, at least on this one little bitty thing.  She brought the papers over, but Lillian showed no interest. 

     "You could do this in two shakes, Lil.  It would take you less time than it takes us to talk about it.  Be a pal and I'll buy you lunch," Dorothy said, positively oozing appreciation.  Maybe it wasn't worth quite so much as having to sit through a lunch with a long-faced Lillian, but Dorothy was determined to walk back out of the office with the paperwork done.  After all, she had to close out the month to get her commission.

     Lillian smoked her cigarette and regarded Dorothy coldly.  She did have chutzpah, there was no denying that.  "No appetite," Lillian replied.

     Dorothy sighed, not too thrilled with the alternative but she willing to be a good sport.  "Then I guess you'll just have to teach me how."

     "Well, let me just drop everything and help you right now," Lillian said.

     "Oh, would you?" Dorothy said brightly, eager to be done with the whole boring business. 

     Lillian laughed harshly.  "You're a piece of work," she said, shaking her head in amazement.

     "Why are you being so difficult?" Dorothy pouted.  Lillian wasn't being at all fair about this.  She was being quite, well, petty.  And downright bitchy, Dorothy thought.

     "Why?  Because it feels so good," Lillian said with a smile.  And this conversation was really the most fun that she had had in the store in she couldn't remember how long, it really was.

     Dorothy stood staring at Lillian, forgetting to smile.  She was at a complete loss because for once her charm wasn't working.  "That's very unladylike," Dorothy said with, to her mind, more than justifiable haughtiness.  Really, with the way that Lillian was acting there was no reason for Dorothy to keep bending over backwards to be polite.  "I'm very disappointed," Dorothy added, "Very, very disappointed."

     Dorothy turned sharply on her heels and left in a huff.  She looked back as she was going through the door and was yet again disappointed by Lillian, who was smiling.  She should at least have the decency to respect real moral indignation when she saw it.

     "That was some tempest in a teapot," Jolene said now that the tempest was gone.

     "And a cracked teapot at that," Lillian added.  She and Jolene shared a smile.  Lillian was grateful for that small pleasure.

     Dorothy passed close by Plotkin as she marched out of Lillian's office.  She was too perturbed to remember to smile, but Plotkin gave her only a passing glance.  His eye was on the parking lot.  An H.P.D. cruiser screeched to a stop and, Bert, Faye's husband headed for the door, the drizzle dampening and darkening his police blues.  Bert held little interest for the Barracuda, who was trolling for a paying customer.

     At the cashier's island, Stugeon and One Iron and Faye watched Dorothy walk past, papers still in hand.  Dorothy gave them a tense smile and they all smiled politely back.

     "Lillian," Stugeon announced as the winner once Dorothy was out of earshot.

     "In a first-round knockout," One Iron added.

     Milton came down the stairs from the tailor shop, smiling.  This month's sales were up, the market was up, and he was overall up.  Dorothy turned the corner into the stairwell and bumped right into him.  He felt her breasts against his chest from the head-on collision, but while he was still sorting out the not entirely unpleasant sensation, she grabbed his hand and tugged him into the Big Man's Shop.  There were no big men shopping this rainy day and Dorothy and Milton were all alone.

     "Your sister's put a bee in my bonnet," Dorothy blurted out.

     "And such a cute bonnet," Milton said and gave her a kiss on the forehead, which Dorothy was too agitated to even register.

     "She's always closed out my monthly paperwork and figured out my commission," Dorothy rapidly explained, "and now she won't close out the month and she won't even teach me how to do it and Harold's acting the same way but Lillian's the bookkeeper and she should just do it because it's her job, for god sakes and, and--"

     "Wait a sec, hon, slow down," Milton interrupted.  He tried to put a comforting arm on her shoulder, but she would have none of it and stepped away.

     "They're making me crazy!" Dorothy complained, feeling every inch the victim now that she had a sympathetic ear.  "All I did was very politely ask for a little help because I'm terrible at math."

     Milton took the papers and looked at them.  "This is nothing," he reassured her.  "I'll teach you how to do this in two minutes."

     "See?  That's what I mean?" Dorothy said, pressing her case.  "They wouldn't even give me two minutes, Harold and Lillian both."  She folded her arms     for punctuation, having successfully made her case.

     "I'll bet you could be a whiz at math," Milton cajoled.  "You just never had the right teacher.  Until now."

     "The hell you're not!  The hell you're not!" came from the front of the store; Milton and Dorothy turned toward the commotion.

     "What's that?" Milton asked as he hurried out of the Big Man's Shop.  He stopped short when he saw what was going on.

     Bert, his uniform wet from the rain, was at the cashier's island.  He had Tim Stugeon backed against the Formica counter and his police issue .38 was pressed against Stugeon's nose.  Stugeon had the red nose of a daily drinker, but the pressure of the muzzle had turned his proboscis white.  Stugeon's black Stetson had been knocked to the floor and there was a crease in his hair where the hat always sat.  Faye stared at Bert, terrified and impressed.  The other salesmen stood perfectly still, afraid to move. 

     Harold hurried in from Sports Wear and stopped when he saw the gun.  Lillian and Jolene peeked out from the office.  Ernie the Cop thought it best to stay outside in the rain and turn the other cheek for a brother on the force.  Harold wanted to call the police, but Bert was the police, wasn't he?  Harold thought the day of reckoning for all Stugeon's book-making was finally here. 

     "Tell me that you're not fucking my wife!"  Bert yelled into Stugeon's face.  "I want to hear you tell me that!"  Faye blushed at Bert's words.

     "Hold your horses, Bert, hold your horses," Stugeon said hoarsely.

     "Don't you tell me what to hold, you miserable sack of shit!" Bert hissed and pressed the gun harder into Stugeon's nose.

     The name on the sign said Harold's, and Harold felt it his sworn duty to do something.  "Bert, please," he said and took a step closer. 

     "Bert, put the gun down," Milton said and moved closer, impressed by Harold's courage and wanting to help his brother get things back under control.

     "SHUT THE FUCK UP!  EVERYONE JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Bert screamed at Harold and Milton, and they both stopped instantly.  Bert turned his attention back to Stugeon and yelled in his face, "Tell me that you're not fucking my wife!"

     Stugeon's Adam's apple bobbed as he took a gulp that everyone could hear in the deadly quiet.  "Bert--"

     Bert cut him off and took hold of Stugeon's stubbly chin, looking him dead in the eyes.  "Because if you tell me that you're not fucking my wife and you're lying then I'm going to blow your brains all over your boots."  Bert wiggled his pistol against Stugeon's nose and asked, "Are you going to lie to me, Stugeon?  Are you going to Lie?!"

     Stugeon's throat was so dry with terror that he didn't think he could get any more words out.  He finally managed to croak, "Bert, please--"

     "What are you going to say to me, Stugeon?" Bert said, his voice no longer raised, and everyone, especially Stugeon, thought this quiet voice of Bert's was even scarier than the yelling. 

     Stugeon thought about the question.  He figured that he might only get one chance at the right answer.

     Faye was still scared, but Bert seemed awfully sexy to her, taking charge like this.  He must really love her.

     "What are you going to say?" Bert impatiently asked again.

     Stugeon tried gulping again but his throat was now too dry and his Adam's apple would no longer cooperate.  "Whatever you want to hear," Stugeon said hoarsely in desperation.

     "That's right," Bert said, pleased with the answer, playfully squishing the gun into Stugeon's nose, "whatever I want to hear."

     Emboldened by Bert's turn toward a better mood, Stugeon, an inveterate gambler, pressed his winning bet.  "I don't know what you think happened, Bert--"

     "Don't tell me what to think!" Bert yelled.

     "I'm not telling you to think anything," Stugeon said quickly, feeling a warm wetness in his pants, realizing that he had peed his pants, that he had lost control of his body  and now his mouth was dribbling words desperately, shamelessly, "I'm just saying that whatever you think, you're right, and I'm wrong, and whatever you say goes.  Whatever you say, whatever you say, whatever you say," Stugeon kept repeating as if his brain was skipping like a broken record.

     "And not just because I've got a gun to your head," Bert said, seeking clarification.

     "Whatever you say goes," Stugeon repeated.

     Bert eased the gun away from Stugeon's nose and it flushed crimson from the release of the pressure.  Bert took a step back, but Stugeon was still afraid to move.  "If you touch my wife," Bert said quietly, "I mean, if you bump into her at the cash register or if you even shake her hand, I'm going to hear about it and I'm going to do more than just come in here and talk to you, like this.  I'm serious, Stugeon.  Next time I take action."

     Harold nibbled at his lip.  It didn't look like Bert was going to kill Stugeon, not today anyway.

     "Yes, sir," Stugeon said, his voice returning now that a reprieve seemed imminent.

     "This is your warning," Bert said.

     "Yes, sir," Stugeon quickly replied.

     "I'll only give you one warning," Bert said flatly, with utter conviction.  "Either you get it or you don't."

     "I get it.  Loud and clear," Stugeon said earnestly.

     Faye couldn't imagine why she'd ever found short little Stugeon attractive.  He was the pushover, the wimp, not Bert.

     Stugeon flinched when Bert stepped forward and pressed the .38 forcefully back into Stugeon's broken-veined nose.  "Feel this?" Bert asked.

     "Yes, sir, I do," was Stugeon's nasally answer.

     "This is the nicest this gun is ever going to feel.  Get it?"

     "I get it," Stugeon said.

     Bert lowered the pistol and stepped back.  He looked around for the first time at his audience.  Bert was pretty pleased with how things had gone but he didn't smile.  He holstered his gun and hitched his belt.  "I'll talk to you later," he said testily to Faye.  She nodded solemnly and obediently, secretly thrilled by her husband's take-charge boldness. 

     As Bert started walking toward the door, everyone in the store breathed a collective sigh of relief.

     Bert turned to Harold and said, "Sorry if I interrupted business, Harold."

     "No problem," Harold said.

     "See you," Bert said.

     "Nice seein' ya, Bert," Harold said by rote, "Y'all come back to Harold's."

     The next day Milton was back on Aberdeen Way for Thanksgiving dinner.  Dorothy had gone over to her sister's house and no one questioned her absence or even mentioned her name.  Milton didn't need Thanksgiving to talk to Harold or Lillian about Dorothy.  He could talk to them at the store, and even so, Dorothy wasn't a topic that they were talking about. 

     It had been a long afternoon for Milton as he bided his time to talk to Goldie alone.  Lillian and Buddy and a handful of others were still in the dining room gabbing and noshing.  Harold and Willie were watching the U.T. - A&M game with Emmanuel and Emil and Philip.  Willie had been the backfield star for U.T., and having him over to watch the A&M game was like having Mickey Mantle come over to the house to watch a Yankees game.  Goldie and Nellie were fussing around the kitchen. 

     Milton waved Nellie out of the room, and with the Texas Aggie marching band blaring from the TV he had enough privacy to talk confidentially to Goldie.  He had wanted everyone to come to the Bungalow for Thanksgiving.  The house was built to entertain.  But Goldie had turned the idea down flat.  Thanksgiving aside, Milton just wanted to get her in to see the place.  Maybe he could offer to take her to Weingarten's and then steer the Continental north and hijack her.  No, he'd have to do that at gun point, and Goldie wasn't his idea of a cooperative hostage.  She was unapologetic and she wasn't afraid of anything except having coupons for Folger's wastefully expire.

     Goldie stood at the refrigerator, putting away the leftovers.  The Frigidaire was full and she had to deploy the containers with surgical skill to make everything fit.  She knew why Milton was lingering in the kitchen.  He'd been watching her all day.  But Goldie had been watching him too.  She had seen how Milton and Harold weren't speaking.  They had never really done much talking to each other, but now the way they weren't talking was different.  Something was wrong, and Goldie was sure that that something had red hair and red lips. 

     "Mom, I want you to come and see my house," Milton said, jumping right to the point.  Beating around the bush with Goldie never helped.  "I want you to come visit.  I'll drive you there and back.  It's important to me.  I know how you feel about Dorothy, but if you got to know her..."

     "Do you want me to visit your house or visit with Dorothy?" Goldie pointedly asked.

     "Well, both," Milton said, caught up short by the sharpness of her question.

     "I don't have to go all the way to the Heights to visit Dorothy," Goldie said, a bit put out, at her age, to have to come calling on someone who was living in sin.

     "Forget about Dorothy.  She doesn't have to be there.  I want you to see the house I built," Milton said.

     Goldie nodded, but Milton wasn't saying anything new.  He was smarter than Harold, there was no arguing that, but smarter in business.  Not smarter about Dorothy.  "I'm not going anywhere near that house until you send me an invitation," Goldie said.

     "Fine, I'll send you an invitation."

     "A wedding invitation," Goldie demanded.

     Willie let out a whoop from the den; the Aggies had just fumbled and lost the ball.  Milton knew how that felt.

     Thanksgiving evening, and the Continental and the Thunderbird were parked side by side in the garage, but Milton sat alone in the TV room.  He was eating turkey and dressing leftovers from Goldie on his inlaid oak TV tray, a step up from the dinged aluminum trays back on Aberdeen.  On TV they were rerunning the Aggie fumble for the umpteenth time.  Milton was talking on the telephone to One Iron for companionship.  It probably would have just been easier if he had had One Iron move into the Bungalow, but Dorothy would have no doubt objected.  Not that One Iron's presence would have put any kind of crimp in the so-called romance.

     "...No, with all the shit at the store, Dorothy had dinner at her sister's," Milton explained.

     "So Dorothy didn't get to experience Thanksgiving Day at the Wiesenthal house," One Iron said drily.

     "Yeah, well, this is a Wiesenthal house too," Milton said, sensitive about the subject, "and she'll experience Thanksgiving night right here," Milton added, careful to keep up appearances or at least innuendoes for One Iron.

     "And I'm sure there's a lot to give thanks for, depending of course on what all you eat," One Iron cracked.

     "Let's keep it clean," Milton half-scolded, protecting what so far needed no protection, Dorothy's honor and maidenhood.  As much as a widow could still possess maidenhood.  Celibacy, to be precise.  Milton could think of more satisfying pastimes than making these kinds of distinctions.

     "Clean and lean," One Iron said, careful not to step over the line.

     Milton heard the distinctive whir of the elevator.  From where he sat in the den he could see the glass elevator cab descending.  "Got to go, One Iron," Milton quickly said, anxious to wrap up the conversation.  "Tomorrow's a big day."

     "And tonight's a big night.  For both of us. I'm seeing Denise at ye olde pad," One Iron said, just so Milton knew that he wasn't the only one scoring.

     "Pick me up at nine sharp," Milton said and hung up.  One Iron was once again driving him back and forth to work.  Milton could only make so many sacrifices, and having One Iron drive him to and fro was a comfort that he had sorely missed.  If his romance with Dorothy could be said to have progressed, then it was only infinitesimally, frustratingly so, and that being the case, Milton figured what could it hurt to have One Iron driving him again.  If she needed a reason not to sleep with him, she already had plenty of those, it seemed.

     Nellie's sister Nola had started cooking for Milton, but it wasn't the same thing as eating Goldie's meals.  Going back to Aberdeen Way for Thanksgiving dinner had made Milton realized how uprooted he felt, how alone in his own house.  No, not quite alone.  But not quite with Dorothy, not yet.

     Dorothy came in just as Milton finished cradling the telephone.  She could see that he was silently admiring her matching pink and black Adrienne Vittadini slacks-and-blouse ensemble.  She had put a lot of effort into her evening casual look, mindful of keeping Milton's interest piqued.  Dorothy was equally careful about were she chose to sit, in a chair across from Milton, close by, but not intimately so. 

     "What a day," Dorothy sighed.  "Does everyone hate me?"

     "I don't hate you," Milton said.

     "Everyone else does," she said, rather enjoying her persecution.

     "I think that you're exaggerating," he soothed, hopeful that adversity would bring them closer together.

     "I bet they didn't miss me at your parent's house today," Dorothy said, looking pouty, acting as if she had been excluded from some marvelous party.

     "Sure they did," Milton told her, though he knew it was probably the last place on earth that Dorothy cared to go eat turkey.

     "I'll bet Lillian didn't miss me," Dorothy persisted.

     "I'll take care of Lillian," Milton reassured.  "And Harold.  Just leave it to me.  I'll go in early tomorrow and straighten the whole thing out before you get there."

     "Really?" Dorothy asked.

     She looked just like a hopeful little girl, Milton thought.  "Really.  I'll take care of you." 

     "I like being taken care of.  It makes me feel good. Very good." 

     Dorothy smiled at Milton in a way that he liked very much.  He was waiting for her to speak, but then it seemed like she was waiting for him.  "What?" he finally asked.

     Dorothy seemed to be deciding something.  "Very, very good," she said again.  She got up from the chair and in a fluid motion bent forward and gave Milton a demur kiss on the lips.  "Thank you," Dorothy said and she flowed back down into her chair before Milton had recovered from the shock of her spontaneous affection.  Yes, he wanted to take care of her.  Taking care of her, that was what really mattered, not whether he drove himself to work or One Iron did.

     "Happy Thanksgiving," Milton said.  It was late in the day but things were definitely looking up.  He warned himself to guard against presumption.  Dorothy seemed quite content just to smile at him from the safety and solitude of the armchair.  He thought about surprising her with a kiss of his own, but thought better of imitating her move.  Should he have caught hold of her bangled wrist and held on to her for another kiss?  Would that have been too aggressive?  Or had he not been aggressive enough?  "Would you like a drink?" he finally asked her, his voice level and offhand, but he felt as nervous as a schoolboy that kissing time had come and gone.

     "Ummm.  That would be heavenly," Dorothy cooed.

     Milton was thrilled and then he felt ridiculous, so ridiculous that he almost laughed.  A broad wanted a drink and his pulse was racing.  Well, okay, this was a different kind of deal.  Dorothy wasn't a broad.   Well, she was and she wasn't.  Milton wouldn't have asked a broad to move into the Bungalow with him. 

     He stood up to go make their drinks and on impulse, if there was such a thing as impulse after living under the same roof with a woman for so many nights and not having slept together or even seriously necked, he offered Dorothy his hand.  The Princess took his hand without hesitating and he helped her stand up. 

     There, they were standing together.

     "Dubonnet with a twist," she said with a smile.

     "Dubonnet with a twist for the lady," Milton said smoothly.  He wasn't feeling like a schoolboy anymore.  He didn't let go of her hand.  He was in no hurry; he felt slow and steady and moving in one direction.  Hell, he probably could have done this weeks ago, but the whole bullshit with the calendar, even though he and Dorothy had never spoken of it, had thrown him off his game. 

     Milton pulled Dorothy close to him, with the grace of an Arthur Murray dance step, but without the schmaltzy music.  Dorothy didn't resist, but she didn't exactly help.  She was friendly, but not too friendly.  Milton didn't mind standing with her like this, no, he didn't mind that at all.  "I've got some wine in the sauna," he said.

     "Milton..." Dorothy said in the spirit of protest, the loyal opposition.

     "There's nothing like a sauna to melt away the tension," Milton added.

     "I'm not dressed for a sauna," she said, showing him how truly practical she could be.

     "You don't dress for a sauna, you, well..." Milton let his words trail off, playing at being bashful.

     "Undress?" Dorothy teasingly completed the thought.

     Milton slipped his arm lightly around her waist, the subtle beginning of an embrace.  Like two seasoned warriors, they were engaging in battle carefully, cautiously studying the lay of the land, mindful of how they could retreat with a minimum of casualties should the conditions of warfare turn unfavorable.  "You could wear a bathing suit," Milton said in a flanking action.

     "I could?" Dorothy teased, as if mocking such prudery.

     "Or anything you like," Milton said.  Without over-thinking it, he kissed her.

     And she let him.

     He kissed her again, more passionately.  Dorothy enjoyed flirting with Milton and she very much enjoyed those kisses.  He kissed very well.  That was a gift.  It wasn't just kissing often, there were lots of men who kissed often but just were no darned good at it.  Dorothy had really liked kissing Milton in the sewing room, before it was even the sewing room, the first time she visited the house with him.  Dorothy knew that she had to decide, and very quickly, how far she wanted to go with this, how far she wanted to let it go.  And the consequences of saying no. 

     "Milton."  Dorothy said his name in a way that also mildly said stop.  She put her cheek against his, much as a fighter clinches an opponent to stop a flurry of fists, a softer kind of clinch, but the same holding action.  "Milton, things have been going so well for us," she said, as a way of reminding him that her kisses weren't inexpensive.

     "Exactly," Milton agreed, and not just because he wanted to kiss her again.  You have to keep sharp around Dorothy, Milton thought.  And he liked that.  On your toes, alert.  It made everything more intense.  He couldn't remember the last time that he had been quite so interested in kissing.  Or in the consequences of kissing.

     "Why do I feel like I'm sneaking around in my own house?" she asked.  "Not my own house--but--you know what I mean."

     "We're not sneaking," Milton said.

     "Oh, you're very sneaky," Dorothy said affectionately.  "You always get what you want," she added with a smile of complicity. 

     "And you don't?" Milton smiled back.

     Dorothy looked into Milton's eyes, both coolly and passionately.      She had made another decision.  She knew as well as Milton did that you could only spend so much time standing around kissing.  Dorothy stepped back from the embrace still holding his hand.  He could let go or he could lead her.  Dorothy's favorite story in school had been "The Lady and the Tiger" and right now she felt like both.  Certainly she would give Milton every opportunity to be a gentleman.  Any real lady would.

     Milton slid the glass door open and led Dorothy by the hand outside.  It was a crisp fall night, and the cool air was exotic and mysterious, being such a rare thing in the bayou city.  Water burbled softly from cupid's concrete bow, and as Milton led Dorothy past the statuary that ringed the shimmering blue swimming pool, he felt like a naughty Greek god himself.  He felt like he was holding hands with a goddess.

     Inside the colonnaded pool house there was a damp chill.  Dorothy shivered.  Milton liked to undress before getting into the sauna, but tonight was different.  He led Dorothy inside the cedar sauna, a grander version of the sweat box on Aberdeen.

     The sauna was fired up and ready to go. 

     "This heat feels divine," Dorothy said.

     "Mmmm," Milton agreed in not so many words; he was already starting to sweat.  It felt positively unkosher to be in the sauna in his clothes, but he was here with Dorothy in her clothes, that was why.  He had let go of her hand, but she was still waiting to be led.  Milton was sure that she wouldn't undress herself, that would be too unladylike.  As much as he wanted to get out of his own clothes, he gladly obliged her, politely unbuttoning her blouse.  "Ladies first," Milton said.

     "Such a gentleman," Dorothy said, as anxious as he was to get out of her clothes.  She'd forgotten how hot it could get in one of these things, and so fast.  Everything was so fast, so sudden, tonight.  She looked around.  "Where's the bottle of wine?" she asked.

     "I lied."

     Milton and Dorothy were lying in each others arms, spent and sweaty.

     "This was a mistake," Dorothy announced.

     "It was wonderful," Milton murmured and pulled her a bit closer.  She had been coy for so long that it was delight to discover that she wasn't shy.

     "I'm usually smarter than this," Dorothy continued, not allowing herself to be pulled any closer, not that there was much difference either way.  "I can't believe that you talked me into this."

     Milton lifted his head, alerted now.  She was sounding anything but frivolous.  "Talked you into it?" he asked, surprised that this was what she was talking about, after what had just happened between them, and how nice and, well, right it had felt.  How unhurried, in all ways, how long it had taken to get here, how many nights had led up to this Thanksgiving.

     "I'm not one of your calendar girls," Dorothy said flatly.  

     Milton was startled to have the unspoken said out loud, and now.  He raised himself up on an elbow.  Their sweaty torsos disengaged with a wet thwucking sound.  "I asked you to marry me," Milton parried.  "You never gave me an answer."

     Dorothy rewarded Milton with a smile.  No, he would never talk about the calendar, that was a sucker move, but a girl could never be sure unless she asked.  "I'm thinking about it," Dorothy said.  "Just don't rush me.  Right now I feel very cheap.  Very cheap and very sweaty."  But she made no move to cover herself, or wipe off the sweat, her legs entwined with Milton.  It felt very peaceful to lie still in the sauna's heat.  The only thing she felt like moving was her mouth, to talk, and to smile.

     "I meant it.  Marry me," Milton said and moved closer until they were slippery and together again.

     Dorothy snuggled against Milton and laid her head on his chest.  "Maybe," she said.  "Maybe," she repeated, as if that was the only thing she was thinking of in their closeness, but Dorothy was also thinking that she would have to wash her hair before she went to bed.

     Milton was thinking that it had finally happened.  Not the sex, but the calendar.  He figured that Dorothy would spring it on him at some perfect moment.  And she had.  She hadn't disappointed him yet.  This must be love, Milton got to thinking.  This must be love, the whole closeness deal.  So this was what love was like.

     The sky was low and gray.  Storm clouds were blowing in from the Gulf, but no rain was falling yet.  The storm front was moving so quickly there might not be any rain in the Heights.  The parking lot was mostly empty, except for Harold's Cadillac and Lillian's Electra parked together under the owners' awning.

     They had agreed at Thanksgiving dinner to both get here early.  Harold had thought a day was too long to wait and after a sleepless night had gotten to the store by eight.  When Lillian had arrived at nine, an hour earlier than usual and rushing even at that, what with her girls home from school and underfoot, Harold had already worked himself up into quite a state.  It was now a quarter to ten and he had been pacing back and forth in the small office for most of the last hour while Lillian sat and smoked.

     "This Dorothy situation has gone on for way too long," Harold ranted.  "Christ, who does she think she is?  I mean, really, who does she think she is?"

     "The Princess Whose Shit Does Not Smell," Lillian said, imitating that funny Karnak bit on Johnny Carson.

     "Oh, her shit smells plenty bad, believe you me," Harold said, completely missing her little jibe.  "We've got these goddamn battle lines in the store."  He stopped pacing as if to referee the feud.  "Faye likes Dorothy.  Plotkin hates Dorothy.  One Iron is on Dorothy's side because One Iron is Milton's whipping boy.  Stugeon likes Dorothy because he's sucking up to Faye, but after yesterday, Stugeon's probably off of Faye so he's off Dorothy too."  Harold started pacing again. 

     Lillian had heard it all before, and twice over this morning.  Harold never talked this much about one thing, and that in itself showed how unglued everything had gotten.

     "We can't have this, not now, not the day after Thanksgiving," Harold said, gloom coloring his anger.  The day after Thanksgiving was traditionally the biggest day of the year in retail.  It was Harold's favorite day, like the eight nights of Chanukah all at once, and Dorothy was ruining it.  "We can't have this, not the day after Thanksgiving..." he morosely repeated. 

     Lillian didn't like where this was headed.  When things weren't going well at the store, he started to feel blue, because it meant so much to him.  He could get so depressed that it scared her.  "Harold, Dorothy has got us just where she wants us.  Fighting among ourselves.  She's a schemer."

     Harold looked at Lillian, as if he was a little boy again who wanted his big sister's advice.  "What do you think will happen if we give her an ultimatum?" he asked.

     "You really mean what do I think Milton will think," Lillian clarified.

     "Well?" Harold asked.  He valued Lillian's advice as much as Milton's, but this was one time that only Lillian could be consulted.

     "He'll throw a fit," she said with a shrug.  "But that girl has got to shape up or get out.  And we've got to stay unemotional about this."  She took a contemplative puff from her Salem and said emphatically, "We've got to be all business with Milton.  You know what he can be like."

     "I'll be unemotional," Harold seethed.  "I'll be good and goddamned unemotional!"

     Jolene stood outside the office door with her oversized purse and grocery sack of Thanksgiving leftovers, but she was reluctant to go in while Lillian and Harold were talking, or yelling, so to speak.  Stugeon was standing beside Jolene eavesdropping, glad that gossiping about the Dorothy Crisis had supplanted the Bert-Pistol-Pokes-Stugeon-Incident.  Plotkin was there too, not to eavesdrop, although he was doing that, but because the door to Lillian's office was adjacent to the back door, and crisis or not, the back door was still where all the customers came in.

     "Gentlemen, place your bets," Stugeon said, his willingness to make wagers unaffected by yesterday's brush with death.

     "Christ," Plotkin scowled and looked at his watch, "we're opening in ten minutes.  I'm ready to get pretty fucking unemotional about that bitch myself!"

     Harold stood pensively at the small office window.  The gray November sky suited his mood.  Hell, the sky could have been black.  Harold saw the Continental glide into the lot and park under the awning.  Milton and One Iron got out.

     "He's here," Harold somberly announced, as if he were Wyatt Earp and the Clantons had just showed up at the OK Corral.

     "Let me do the talking," Lillian said with quiet authority and crushed out her cigarette.  "You're too agitated."

     Milton came through the back door with his jaw set, looking determined.  The eavesdroppers dispersed, but Plotkin stayed the course, remaining near the door as opening time was upon them.  "Day after Thanksgiving, Barracuda," Milton smiled tensely, "Your favorite day of the year."

     "Yes, sir," Plotkin said and smiled tensely back.

     "Where's Harold?" Milton quietly asked.

     "I think he's in there talking to Lillian."

     Milton nodded grimly, took a breath, and went through the office door. 

     He immediately saw that Harold and Lillian were waiting for him.

     Harold started to speak but didn't, because he'd promised Lillian to let her do the talking, and because once he got started, he didn't think he could stop.

     Lillian and Milton were evenly matched at gin rummy.  They were both excellent card players, and Lillian knew better than to throw down the first card with Milton, unless she had to.

     "We've got to talk," Milton finally said.

     "Yes, sir, we do," Lillian said hopefully.  Except regarding Dorothy, Milton was always smart.

     "Today is the start of the Christmas season," Milton said as if he were addressing a board of directors and not his brother and sister, "and we can't let personal feelings and petty jealousies interfere with business."

     Harold nodded in heartfelt agreement.  He stopped nibbling his lower lip and there was the beginning of a hopeful smile as it seemed that Milton had at long last come to his senses.  Lillian lit a cigarette, waiting to see the rest of Milton's hand.

     "I know there have been some ruffled feathers and bad feelings," Milton said and paused.  Harold nodded somberly.  Lillian was pokerfaced, but Milton had expected that. 

     "But the fact is that Dorothy is doing a great job and the Ladies' Department is turning a handsome profit," Milton continued, not realizing that he had just lost his audience.  "Quite handsome indeed.  I know that this is tough to hear, but you two have got to shape up."  There he had laid down the law, without pulling any punches.  It was tough, but it was the truth and they had to hear it.

     Harold's smile had evaporated and Lillian's pokerface had folded.  "Shape up?" Harold shrieked, completely flabbergasted. 

     "What? Us?!" Lillian howled.

     "Shape up and treat Dorothy with the courtesy and respect that she deserves," Milton said in an even tone, the calm hand on the wheel, the hand that would ably steer the store through this squall.  Last night had been magical, not just the sex, but the talking.  He could understand why Harold and Lillian were jealous, for their own reasons, but they were just going to have to accept Dorothy as a permanent fact of the store and of the family.  Milton was sure that Dorothy's saying yes was just a formality; he was determined to get to the bottom of the Mafia rumors and get the marriage deal settled before the end of the year, by his birthday preferably.  Hell, he'd been living under the same roof as Dorothy for months and it had taken him until last night to really see how great she was.  He knew that given time, Harold and Lillian would love her not just as a sister-in-law, but as a sister.

     "Have you lost your mind?" Harold said, beside himself with anger.  "You're telling me to shape up?!  Just because she's your girlfriend?!"  Harold clenched his fist.  He thought about hitting Milton in the stomach.  Just stepping right up and popping him one, wipe that smug look of I'm always right off his face.  Oh, he hadn't hit Milton or vice versa since high school but he was ready to step back and take a pop right now.

     "Harold, you're acting like this because she's not your girlfriend," Milton patiently explained just like he'd heard Dr. Joyce Brothers do it on TV. 

     "What were you thinking, moving in with a woman with mob connections?" Harold asked.

     "She didn't seem to have any mob connections when you were dating her," Milton sarcastically replied.  "It's obvious that you can't be objective and see what's best for the store."

     "I can't see what's best for the store?!  I can't see?!  That's outrageous!" Harold spluttered.  His fists were still clenched but he knew that he wouldn't hit Milton, even though thinking about it felt good.  No, if he hit Milton then Milton would look even smugger and start telling him I told you so all over again and Lillian would probably take Milton's side and then what was the point of even calling the goddamned store Harold's anymore?  Call the store Dorothy's and just be done with the whole damn deal.

     Milton turned to Lillian, acting calm, but his neck muscles were taut.  He was more than a little rankled by Harold's yelling, but he wasn't going to stoop that low, no he'd come here this morning on the high road.  "See?" Milton asked Lillian, expecting her to help him draw Harold back from the line that he'd crossed over.

      Lillian lit another Salem.  Of the three of them, she was the only one who hadn't been interested in kissing Dorothy.  But she was the dummy who had foolishly brought Dorothy into their lives--thankfully, neither Harold or Milton remembered that this morning.  "Milton, I don't think that you are seeing the full picture here.  I never dated Dorothy and I can tell you objectively that she's created more problems than we've ever had.  More problems than any employee is worth."  Lillian took a breath, hoping that she was getting through.

     Milton kept his cool.  Someone had to.  But there was no sense mincing words, some tough things were going to have to get said to get things back to the way they should be.  "Lillian, can you look me in the face and honestly tell me that you're not a little jealous of the success that Dorothy has had?"

     "That's not the point!" Lillian shot back, fed up with Milton's attitude.  He was so pussy-whipped that he didn't even know it, that's how good Dorothy was at pussy-whipping.  And he was supposed to be the big swinger.  Lillian had been furious when she found out two years ago that Milton had taken her daughter, Stephanie, to see the apartment--and Stephanie barely understood what sex was all about.  Heck, Lillian didn't really know herself, truth be told, and she had two kids from it.  But then Lillian decided that Stephanie could do a lot worse than to see the other side, it would only prepare her for god knows what when she went off to U.T. or wherever.  The fact that Milton was a swinger probably made him more vulnerable to whatever wiles Dorothy had concocted.  Milton figured he could handle any woman and Dorothy thrived on Milton's underestimation of the enemy, so called.

     "That's exactly the point!" Milton exploded, unable to keep his cool any longer.  "You two are ganging up on her!  And I won't stand for it!"

     "Milton!" Harold yelled back, yelling at Milton for yelling at him.

     "That's crazy!" Lillian yelled, violently pushing back her rolling chair as she stood up.

     And then they were all yelling. 

     Harold thought Lillian was going to slap Milton and to stop her from doing it he decided to slap Milton first, that might make him come to his senses, but when he stepped close to Milton slapping seemed stupid and wrong and anyway Milton looked confused because Harold looked confused and they were just yelling each other's names at each other anyway.  Harold didn't know what he was thinking because Milton had gotten him too damn mad to think so he just grabbed at Milton figuring he'd wrestle him to the floor and make him shut up.

     Lillian saw what was happening and was yelling at everyone to stop yelling and yelling at Harold not to grab at Milton.  He'd probably bite Milton's leg next, exactly as he'd done as a toddler.  But Lillian had plenty of experience stepping between Harold and Milton and stepping between Stephanie and Fredell and before Harold or Milton knew what had happened somehow Lillian had split them apart and everyone was out of breath and confused but no worse for whatever had just happened, which was hard to say exactly.  Except that they were all on the floor.

     "Wait a second," Milton said catching his breath, smoothing out the wrinkles Harold had put in his jacket, acting both pained about it and above such pettiness at the same time.

     "Jesus Christ, Milton," Harold said, pissed off and worn out.

     "Let me finish!" Milton insisted, determined to have the next word, which he hoped to god would be the last word because he had absolutely had enough of this shit.  Lots of thanks he'd gotten for taking the high road to straighten them out.  "Let me finish, goddamnit!  I've got a solution."

     Harold and Lillian fell silent.  This was something they wanted to hear.  Milton had their full attention.

     "Dorothy and I will open our own store," Milton announced.

     Harold and Lillian's mouths both dropped open.  Just like in a cartoon, Lillian thought, her jaw dropped, but that's the truth of a cliché for you.  Of all the things that Milton could have possibly said, from fuck you and the horse you rode in on to I'm sorry, this was the most astounding and unexpected.

     "You'll what?!" Lillian and Harold said together.  Just like a cartoon, really, but not half as funny.  No, not funny at all.  And Milton probably thought he was being as smart as the Roadrunner with this astounding idea, but he was more like the Wile E. Coyote, Lillian thought, with the stick of dynamite about the blow up in his face. 

     Dorothy sat on the enormous white couch, dressed for work in black and red.  If she had thought to wear her hourglass brooch that would have completed the black widow ensemble.

     Milton paced back and forth in front of her, still agitated as he recounted the fight blow by blow.  Pacing might have weakened the effect because he had stood his ground in Lillian's office even when Harold had violently attacked him.  Milton had quite thoroughly, but fairly reported that shameful part of the extraordinary morning.

     "What?"  Dorothy said breathlessly when Milton revealed the brilliant climax, the decision that he must have been formulating somewhere in the back of his mind for he didn't know how long because brilliant ideas like that didn't just come along on their own unbidden.  "You told them what?" Dorothy asked in a state of shock.

     The way that Dorothy was acting, Milton would have thought he had said the opposite, that he had said sayonara, Dorothy instead of hello to a new life, a better life, for me and my future wife.

     Milton stopped pacing and stepped closer to her.  If he kissed her then she would understand.  A kiss would help explain it.  Like last night.  They had done a lot of wonderful explaining then.  Maybe he had been thinking about the big idea last night, come to think of it, maybe that's when it had started cooking, out there in the sauna.

     "I told them that we were going to start our own store," Milton said again.  Dorothy was still frowning and this confused Milton, but he pressed on.  "We don't need them.  They need us.  Well, too late for them, they blew a good thing."  The more he thought about it, the more excited he got.  The more he wondered why he'd never thought of it before.  Because of Dorothy--she was the catalyst.  She helped him to see what he had never seen or dared to dream before.  "And guess what, hon?  I've got the perfect name for our new store.  The perfect name."

     Dorothy sat in disbelief, her red lips pressed tightly together.  Milton might at least have had the courtesy to notice her stony silence, he'd certainly seemed more attentive to the nuances of her moods before.  Before the sauna, she decided, before the unfortunate sauna episode.  Oh, that had been pleasant enough as those things go, but too sweaty for Dorothy's taste, though she was willing to be a good sport for a good cause.  No, the problem with fucking was that men lost their heads over it, their sense of judgment.  She thought better of Milton than that, but she had been wrong, she had seriously overestimated him.  That was dumb of her.  Men were stupid when it came to women, especially pretty women, and Dorothy was especially pretty, and Milton was a man and he now was apparently quite stupendously stupid.

     Milton had expected a little more excitement, a little more of the jump up for joy thing, but maybe Dorothy was more the let-it-soak-in-a-little type, the this-is-too-good-to-be-true kind of person.  He was glad she was paying such close attention to the best part, the icing on the cake.  No, they wouldn't pick a name out of a hat this time, because it was Milton's own damn hat.  "Milton's," Milton said proudly.  "We'll call our store Milton'sMilton's!" he laughed, thrilled with how great his name sounded when it meant the name of a store, his store.  "Milton's," he repeated fondly.

     Dorothy had had quite enough.  The silent treatment obviously wasn't working, and she was done with being quiet.  She jumped to her feet.  "Are you crazy?!" she yelled at him.

     Milton stepped back in shock.  The whole world had gone crazy.  "Don't you see?  This is my chance to go out on my own," he explained.  After all these years, he finally saw that chance.  He stepped toward her and took hold of her arms, reassuringly stroking her.  "You and me, on our own, together," he said, hoping that she would catch his enthusiasm, she just had to.

     "No!" Dorothy hissed and furiously pushed Milton's arms away.  She wanted no part of him touching her.  Oh, she had let him touch her, and she was certain that this idiocy had come from that.  "This was going to be my biggest day of the year!  My best customers are coming in today!  They've made appointments!"  The more she thought of it the madder she got.

     It finally hit Milton that she wasn't seeing it, not just his idea, not just how great Milton's could be, would be.  She also wasn't seeing the Harold's part of it, that they didn't want her there any more.  "Dorothy, that's all over," Milton said sympathetically.  "That deal is done and we've got to move on to something else."

     "But you said that you'd fix things," her eyes getting wet with tears of anger.  "You promised!"

     "I did fix things.  I did this for us,"  He touched her arms lightly.  He was still on her side, they were the same side, they were really a team now.

     She pushed his hands away from her with even greater violence.  "You go get me my job back!" she yelled.  She put her hands on his chest and shoved him back toward the door. 

     Milton was surprised by how strong Dorothy was, and she had been plenty strong last night.  He could feel her red-painted fingernails digging through his Oxford cloth shirt as she pushed like a Fury.  "Dorothy, they don't want you there," he half gasped as she pushed hard against his chest.  He was giving her the truth straight up, ungilded, anything to make her see.

     "Then you make them want me!" Dorothy shouted back.

     Milton didn't know what else to say except what he had already said.  Dorothy started to hit his chest with her petite fists.  They were little, but they were sure hard.  And those rings she was wearing hurt like hell.  But the fists weren't what hurt the worst, no.  Now Milton was the one who was stunned, more stunned than he could ever remember, too stunned to stop her from pushing him backwards, and what was the point of stopping the pushing if she didn't understand, wouldn't understand, couldn't understand.  How in the hell did he get from the ecstasy of last night to the agony of today, Milton wondered, and then he wondered what he was doing out on the porch, how had she managed to push him this far this fast?  He was bewildered to be standing out there.

     Dorothy saw Milton's puzzled look, but he was a big boy, let him figure it out.  She slammed the front door.

     When the shock wore off, or at least some of it, Milton felt his pockets.  He had his keys.  But if he unlocked the front door and went back in, what then?  Maybe Dorothy would come to her senses if she had a little time, maybe his words would finally sink in.  Milton felt his shirt pocket.  He also had his Pall Malls; extracting the pack he saw that it had been crushed by Dorothy's onslaught.  He removed a bent but unbroken cigarette, straightened it out and lit it.  That seemed a sensible thing to do. 

     There were two benches on the porch, one on each side.  They looked nice, but Milton had never sat on either one.  No one else had.  It was usually too damn hot, but they looked nice, they made the porch look homey, that's what the architect had said, and he was right.  Milton sat down and was pleased to discover that the bench was comfortable.  It was nice to discover one nice thing today.  As he smoked, he kept seeing Dorothy, two versions of her.  Version one was in black and red and was yelling insanely in his face.  Version two was naked and nice in the sauna. 

     The sky was gray and he felt cold; for once his suit coat wasn't enough to keep him warm.  He tried hugging himself and then stood up.  What good was it having a bench on a porch when you were either too hot or too cold sitting out here?  Maybe he'd have the porch glassed in and air-conditioned.  It was stupid to stand out here in the cold.  No, she'd had plenty of time to cool off.  He'd go back inside as soon as he finished his smoke.  No reason to rush back in.  He tossed the keys in his hand, reassured by their substantial jingling.

     Milton heard Dorothy's foot steps approaching.  Well, finally.  He knew she would come to her senses.

     Dorothy opened the front door.  Milton smiled at her, very friendly, so she'd know that there were no hard feelings, that she had a right to her temper.

     Dorothy saw his smile and smiled bitterly to herself, not to Milton, she was done smiling at him for today.  She threw Milton's suitcase out on the porch and slammed the door.

     Before he could even speak.  Milton shook his head sadly.  Before he could even speak.  Didn't that say it all?

     Milton returned to Aberdeen after it got dark.  He couldn't say exactly what he had done the rest of the day, except that he had done a lot of driving around in the Continental, more driving than he had ever done in his life.  He had wanted to go back to Harold's and had driven past the store several times, but he just couldn't bring himself to go in, not after what he said and after what he hadn't listened to that very morning.  He was afraid to drive too close to the parking lot because he didn't want to be seen, so he found himself driving in ever widening circles through the Heights.  He wasn't conscious of where he went, except that he avoided Heights Boulevard religiously.  He had no desire to return to the Bungalow on the Boulevard, not as long as Dorothy was there; he'd completely lost his taste for the place.

     After dark he began to feel hungry and before he realized it, he was driving back to Aberdeen Way.  He'd have to face Harold and Lillian and everyone else sometime and the longer he waited, the more awkward it would be.  It just had to be done.

     The hardest steps to take were from the car to the back door.  When he stepped inside, he saw the family sitting in its customary semi-circle around the television.  In Milton's prolonged absence, Harold had kept the same chair, but Michael had leapfrogged ahead of him in the rotation, taking the chair that Milton had vacated.

     Milton was shocked to realize that life had continued on in his absence from Aberdeen Way, but what did he expect?  He just hadn't thought about it, not in detail, until now.

     The Wiesenthals, all of them, from Emmanuel down to Daryl in that chronologically declining semi-circle, were shocked to see Milton, suitcase in hand, especially tonight.  They were so shocked that they all stopped eating.

     No one was sure of what to say.  Goldie opened her mouth to speak.  No silence with her could ever be even semi-permanent.  But Emmanuel touched her wrist and gave her a look of such force that for once she shut up without having said a single word.

     Milton was appreciative of the silence.  They weren't in the habit of saying hello to each other and this would be an awkward night to start, on top of all the other awkwardnesses that this dreadful day after Thanksgiving had already accumulated.

     Milton walked back to the bedroom that had been his.  He dropped his suitcase on the bed and looked around at the familiar surroundings with a bittersweet smile.  But he stopped short when he saw Jethro Tull staring back at him from the wall behind the bed.  He felt defeated, and reasonably sorry for himself, it being only reasonable to feel a little of that after what had happened today, granted that he had brought it on himself.  No one had put a gun to his head to make him do what he had done.  But he wasn't too defeated to push Michael back into the other bedroom.

     Milton thought about sitting down on the bed, just to think about things, but he'd spent all day sitting in the car thinking, and it wasn't thinking really, it was just having a thing on his mind and not being able to get it off.  He remembered that he was hungry.

     He didn't look forward to the walk from the bedroom back into the den, it was a harder journey than that walk across the patio to go back into the house.  It might be hard, but at least he would get some dinner out of the deal.

     He went back into the den and saw that the Wiesenthals had resumed eating.  Goldie was whispering dramatically to Emmanuel, and he was even more dramatically shushing her.

     When the Wiesenthals saw that Milton had returned and was standing uncertainly in the doorway, they all stopped eating again, except for Michael and Daryl, who knew something was wrong but not wrong enough for them to stop eating unless they were loudly told to, and no one had ever told them to stop eating dinner; they had always been yelled at to hurry up and start eating.

     Milton wasn't sure where to sit.  He could eat at the kitchen table, or he could pull a chair over and set up his TV tray next to Daryl.  That would feel a little strange, but everything felt a little strange right now.  He couldn't imagine eating in the kitchen, that was an exile almost as bad as being back alone in the Heights.

     Goldie went into the kitchen.

     Michael got up from the chair and moved his TV tray back to where Daryl was sitting.  Daryl said, "What?" but when Michael kicked him Daryl quit playing dumb and scooted his chair and his TV tray back to the end of the line.

     Milton wanted to say thanks to Michael but his throat felt thick and his eyes felt hot with tears.  He wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand like he was damping some perspiration.  He couldn't remember the last time he cried, and he sure as hell didn't want to now, but he felt torn up about a lot of things tonight, the last on the list being how disobedient his eyes were suddenly being.

     Milton sat back down in his customary chair.  He sensed Harold sitting to his left and turned and shyly smiled at him.  Harold shyly smiled back at him.

     Goldie carried a TV tray in from the kitchen.  Her jaws trembled with the need to speak, but whatever Emmanuel had shushed her with was working.  Even as he felt flooded with feelings of gratitude at just being here again, here where he had so stupidly left, Milton had to wonder what Emmanuel could possibly said to have so effectively shut Goldie up.  It had to be a one-shot deal.

     Goldie put the tray down in front of Milton.  No Wiesenthal ever waited for another Wiesenthal to start eating, but Milton waited until Goldie had reseated herself behind her TV tray.  For the first time he understood why everyone waited to start eating at the same time on Thanksgiving.  Suddenly it made complete sense.  Giving thanks.

     Milton took a bite of food.  Everyone else started eating again.  Milton understood this for the first time in his life as a moment of love.

     Goldie cleared her throat, breaking the silence.  "No carrots tonight, Milton," she said and gave Harold an accusing look, "because nobody bought me carrots."

     "Mother," Harold protested.

     "Well, it's the truth," Goldie persisted in her grievance.

     "I'll take you after dinner," Harold said wearily, willing to do anything to shut her up.

     "After dinner is too late," Goldie said with an air of persecution, but Milton detected a sly smile, as if she was performing just for his benefit, to make him feel more at home.

     "Goldie..." Emmanuel said peevishly.

     Milton began eating faster, but enjoying every single bite, grateful for the music of family life, grateful for Goldie's eternal yearning for more and more groceries, grateful to be spared, for the moment at least, from painful questions.

     Milton reclined on his bed with his tie off, just staring at the empty closet, for he didn't know how long.  After dinner he didn't know what to do.  He didn't care to do anything.

     Harold appeared in the doorway, jangling his car keys.  "The crisis is over," he announced.  "Goldie has got her carrots."

     Milton tried to smile about this, but he wasn't quite up to it.  He sat up a bit in bed.  Harold leaned against the doorjamb, not really looking at Milton, but reluctant to leave him alone.  For the first time, they didn't know what to talk to each other about.  And it wasn't the same as their old habit of just not caring about talking, or feeling the need of doing it.

     "I'm sorry," Milton said with some difficulty.  He wanted to say it, and badly, but it was still hard.  "I'm sorry about all that stuff I said this morning."

     Harold wanted to talk too, and he didn't find it any easier.  "Yeah, well..." he finally got out.

     "I'm sorry about the whole way the Dorothy deal went down," Milton said trying to close the books, to close out a very bad month.  "But that's all done now."

     Harold nodded in agreement.  "Where is Dorothy?" he asked.

     Milton shrugged.  For once he lacked the intelligence information to accurately comment.  He felt like he had shown a lack of intelligence, period, except for returning home.  That was a smart move, no question.  "She's still in the house, I suppose," he said with a tone of defeat that Harold had never before heard in his voice.

     Harold didn't like the sound of that at all, and was determined that he should never have to hear it again.

     Dorothy drove her powder-blue Thunderbird down Heights Boulevard.  The sky was clear and bright and Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass were on the car radio.  She felt very up.  She had slept very well alone in the house and was confident she could spend many more nights there comfortably alone.  Houston was too big a city for her to miss a little bitty place like Harold's very much.

     Dorothy pulled into the driveway and got a terrible fright when her car smacked into a U-Haul trailer that had no business being there. 

     Harold stood in the driveway, flanked by Ernie and Cochise and Faye's husband, Bert, in uniform.  Stugeon was there too, and even though he and Bert weren't speaking, the fact that Stugeon was lending a helping hand did some considerable fence-mending.  The U-Haul had been loaded with Dorothy's things, and not too carefully at that.  Cochise concluded that you sweated a lot less moving furniture in November than you did in August.  A locksmith was on the front porch changing the deadbolt.

     Dorothy got out of the Thunderbird and inspected her car for damage, disappointed that there was none to speak of. 

     "If you turn that car around, the boys will hitch up the U-Haul for you," Harold said.  He didn't see the percentage in any small talk with Dorothy, not at this late stage of the game.

     "Harold," she said sternly, with what she was sure was quiet authority.  "You can't talk to me like that."

     "I'm not talking to you at all.  If you don't want this trailer hitched, we're rolling your shit right out into the street."

     "That's...that's against the law," Dorothy spluttered.  Whatever had gotten into Harold could just get right back out, Dorothy frowned to herself.

     "If you'd care to call a policeman, Mrs. Rosen, we've got two within whistling distance," Harold said.  Ernie stepped forward, and so did Bert.  It felt just like "Walking Tall," Ernie thought, swear to god, it felt great.

     Dorothy got back into her Thunderbird, quite shaken.  She slammed the door but it caught her dress and only made a thump.     

      "Fuck you," Dorothy said to Harold.  She knew it wasn't very ladylike but he certainly wasn't being very gentlemanly.

     "If I've got the time.  Let me check my calendar," Harold said, with a smile just too damn big to be snide.

     "Hi, I'm Harold.  I dress seventy, I talk eighty, and I shoot ninety--when my putter's hot."  He was wearing a sophisticated gray suit, but his delivery was stubbornly unsophisticated.  Not that Harold thought so.  "We've got everything from three-piece suits to three-par golf slacks.  Right, Santa?"  He glanced nervously off-camera.

     Willie appeared belatedly beside Harold, dressed up in a red felt suit and a white cotton beard, a black Santa.  "Ho, ho, ho, Harold!" he said right to the camera, looking even stiffer than Harold.

     "And ladies, remember--we've got a department just for you," Harold said proudly.  "Right, Lillian?"

     Lillian appeared on the other side of Harold, wearing a flattering silk dress that was a festive red-and-green.  "That's right, Harold.  We've got couture and casual and everything in between," she said smoothly.  It was her first commercial and she already looked a lot more natural than Harold.

     "And we've even got candy canes for the kids," Willie read from a cue card.

     "So y'all come on down to Harold's in the Heights," Harold said.  Somehow what he said everyday sounded unnatural when he tried to say it to the TV camera.

     "A family store for a family time of year," Milton said as he stepped into the commercial and put his arm around Lillian.

     "Ho, ho, ho," Harold and Willie laughed together on cue.  It wasn't exactly spontaneous laughter, but it worked, it got the job done.

Christmas Day, 1974

     A knock on the door woke Milton from what he was sure must have been a pleasant dream.  But the sound of knocking was so loud and so persistent that he immediately forgot what that dream might have been.  He felt around in bed, just to make sure that he was alone.

     "Milton.  Milton!" Goldie called loudly through the door.  "Time to get up.  Time to start the barbecue."

     "Five minutes, Mom," Milton groaned.  He now knew exactly where he was.  The dream, whatever it had been, was long gone.

     "Now."

     Milton pulled the sheet over his head, "Five minutes."  He heard Goldie come into the room.  She pulled the sheet away and loomed over him, a forbidding presence to someone intent upon sleeping in.

     "Okay, Mom," Milton said grumpily.

     "Out of bed now," Goldie said without emotion, and he knew she meant business.  Milton sat up in his king-size bed.  It didn't seem like he should have to endure such a rude awakening, not on his birthday, and not in such a large master bedroom.  It seemed to defeat the whole notion of luxury.

     Milton was still sleepy after he had showered and dressed.  He kept wondering about that damn dream as he walked down the upstairs hallway.  Would it have killed Goldie to let him have just five more minutes of sleep? 

     Michael's bedroom was empty, only Jethro Tull was in there. 

     And Daryl's bedroom was empty; "The Partridge Family" smiled down from his wall.  That was the biggest difference about living in the Bungalow.  Everyone had their own bedroom now. 

     In Harold's room there was a life-size poster of Harold with Jerry Lewis.  He was the one who made the most of having all that additional wall space, filling his bedroom with pictures of himself with all kinds of famous people. 

     Emmanuel and Goldie's room had been transferred intact from Aberdeen Way; it was crowded with the heavy old-country furniture that they had bought the first year of their marriage.  Another advantage of living in the Bungalow was that when Emmanuel had his fights with Goldie he could credibly threaten to move out--and sleep downstairs until they reconciled.

     Yes, Milton thought, after a false start he had really moved into the Bungalow on the Boulevard. 

     But so had everyone else.

     Harold thought the Bungalow was a much better place for the Christmas party.  The television set was bigger than the one they'd had on Aberdeen, and he looked that much bigger and better when the Harold's commercial came on.  The off-duty cops were all appreciatively watching the commercial with Harold, wearing the unsalable Van Heusen shirts that they had been given once again as Christmas hand-outs.

     Willie had ditched the beard and the Santa suit, but rakishly wore the red felt hat as he tried to explain the finer points of broken-field running to Goldie.  Last year's feud was ancient history.  If Willie thought the Steelers were so tough, Goldie told him he should try getting a cart through the produce section of Weingarten's on a Saturday morning.

     Daryl was putting golf balls through the sea of legs.  This year the indoor fairway was a lot longer.

     Milton descended the glass elevator with a stack of Harold's envelopes in the pocket of his cardigan sweater.  As he walked through the living room passing out the bonus checks he was greeted with shouts of "Happy Birthday!" and "Merry Christmas!" from all sides.

     Lillian's girls ran through the front door and made a beeline for the buffet.  Then Lillian appeared in the doorway.  She gestured for Milton to join her.  "Milton, I'd like you to meet someone," Lillian said and turned back to the open door. "Judy?"

     Judy stepped through the front door.  She was attractive but conservatively dressed. 

     "Judy, this is my brother, Milton," Lillian said with a smile that Milton could only call mischievous.  "Judy's an old friend of mine who has just moved back to Houston."

     "Nice to meet you," Milton said nervously.  He didn't want to be impolite, not when Judy seemed at first glance to be so nice, but Milton's first instinct was to run quickly in the other direction.  The more he looked at Judy the more he liked her, and that in itself scared Milton, even though she was far more demure than Dorothy ever was.

     From across the room Harold's eyes darted from Milton to Judy.  As the people closest began to notice Milton standing next to Judy, a wave of quiet swept through the room, until the only sound was the Harold's commercial playing back in the TV room.

     Milton looked toward Harold and they caught each other's eye.  They had the same thought, at the same time, and neither of them wanted the same thing, the Dorothy thing, to ever, ever happen again.

     Another Judy stepped through the door, but wearing a different dress.  Milton blinked.  He hadn't had a single glass of Johnny Walker Black.  Not yet.  Harold blinked at the same damn thing, and he never drank.

     "And this is Marlene, Judy's twin sister," Lillian explained with a smile.  Marlene and Judy smiled.  Lillian had clued Marlene and Judy in on the family history, careful to explain how it was and wasn't funny.

     Milton relaxed, now that it was safe to be charming with the ladies.

     Harold relaxed and came over to meet them.

     Everyone else at the party relaxed.

     Harold really liked the look of Judy.  He hoped like hell that Milton favored Marlene.

     Dorothy was wearing a red velvet dress that was a little too tight, just the right amount too tight.  The neckline plunged a little too low, but in just the right way too.  She stood at the maitre d' station.  Being a hostess beat selling clothes.  She really believed that it did.

     Frank Sinatra's "White Christmas" was being piped over the loudspeakers at Tony's Restaurant.  Dorothy didn't really think about Christmas one way or another, except if it was to think about presents.  That is, if her gentleman friend or friends had given her the appropriate thing.  She was resolutely Jewish, but was ecumenical about accepting both Chanukah and Christmas presents.  The embraced all religions for the month of December, in the spirit more of getting than of giving.  Dorothy didn't give a single thought to last Christmas, to that dreadful party with those dreadful people; no, she had forgotten all about them, every single unpleasant detail.

     Tony, in his tuxedo, gave Dorothy a pat on the butt in passing.  But it was a discreet pat, because Tony's was a classy place.  "Dorothy, please show Mr. and Mrs. Fusilli to table six," he said pleasantly.

     Life was certainly more pleasant when one was pleasant, Dorothy thought.  Wearing a big smile, the hostess with the mostest, Dorothy led the way.