“That was wonderful,” Betty exclaimed, only releasing her hand from mine in order to applaud.
“I think it’s getting late,” I said after we spent some time together on the sidelines cooling off with refreshments. We stood close to each other, with the physical ease of lovers who knew the borders of their partner’s body. It was instinctive. It was comforting. It was, for both of us, a moment to be cherished.
“I think you’re right. There’s always another day.”
“And night,” I added guiding Betty carefully through the crowd and back out to the street.
Betty took a long, deep breath of the cool evening air. “Such a beautiful evening.”
I enjoyed dancing and, though I would never be what I once was, just the idea of being with a beautiful woman on a dance floor, moving her about in my arms, made me feel young and hopeful.
We started moving along the street back toward Broadway when a voice came up from behind. “Hey, old man.”
I recognized the predatory tone. It was the voice of a man reaching out from the grave. It was the voice of a violent malcontent. It was Frankie Williams, the voice of a failed society.
“I didn’t know you could dance.”
“And I didn’t know you could dance.”
“It’s in my blood old man,” Frankie announced throwing out his chest and stroking the narrow lapels of his purple satin jacket.
“It was in your grandfather’s blood, too. Jimmy came to Roseland with me many times. Now there was a hell of a dancer.”
Fire welled up in Frankie’s already unattractive face. “You should be more careful what you say, old man.”
“It’s Robert Hall. You know that Frankie.”
“I know what it is.”
“Then if you know his name,” Betty interjected, “you might be respectful enough to use it.”
“Who are you?”
“I am his date. And he told me all about you.”
Frankie nodded confidently, as would a matador who came into a swarm of admirers who were discussing his prodigious talent. “What did he tell you?”
“That you’re a plague on the neighborhood and that you have nothing better to do with your life than taunt your grandfather’s best friend.”
“Really? He said that?”
“He did, Mister Williams,” she answered, this time addressing the other couple standing off to the side.
People flowed into and out of the dance hall and moved past and around them on the street. Frankie was initially delighted to see the old man. It presented an opportunity, slight as it might be, to demonstrate his influence to his new girlfriend’s sister and her boyfriend. “He should watch what he says.”
“Why? Or you will kill him?”
The other couple looked questioningly at Frankie. “People who talk too much always learn too late what not to say.”
Betty’s body stiffened. “People who threaten and torment people for a living always learn too late. Period.”
I was startled. I wanted to drag Betty away from this menace. This was no time to test my luck, and certainly not here, in front of others where, even if I wanted to, Frankie would not be able to back off and save face.
“We should be going,” I said. taking Betty’s arm.
“No,” she said firmly and pulled away. “This is as good a time to have this out. I’m not leaving here until I’ve said my piece.”
“This is none of your business, lady.”
“You think you’re pretty tough, picking on school children and men fifty years older than you? Well, let me tell you something sonny, courage comes from sacrifice and from building a life, not by taking it away from others.”
“Lady, you’ve got me all wrong.”
“You’re a dime-a-dozen street predator Mr. Williams. Nothing more.”
“Really? Well, your boyfriend here got my grandfather killed. Or didn’t he tell you that?”
“That’s nonsense you hold on to, to feed your hate. Robert was your grandfather’s best friend and best friends do not try to destroy their friend’s lives to save their own. That’s what we have enemies for Mr. Williams. You are that man’s grandson and from what little I know about him you are sure to follow in his footsteps. And if you ever threaten my Robert again I will come after you.”
“And what will you do?” he asked through his typical sneer. But he was shaken by the confrontation and embarrassed in front of his friends and those milling about the quartet. “Gun me down?”
Betty reached into her purse and pulled out a small brown bag and flung its contents into his face. People stopped moving along the street to watch the confrontation between the heavy young man in the flashy clothes and the enraged old woman.
“I will follow you through the streets, to your house and to your friends’ and families’ houses and plague you with these bread crumbs which I use to feed the pigeons in the park, every remaining day of my life. The streets will be littered with my breadcrumbs so that everybody knows the trail of violence you have left behind. The streets are full of cowards like you, as are the cemeteries.”
“Let’s go,” I said, noticing how many others had turned toward us and were now completely caught up in the confrontation.
“My son was murdered by a bully like you, Mr. Williams. Murdered on a night just like this. He was my only son and he was fourteen years old when a misfit just like you cut him down. I will not let anything happen to Robert here. You take that thought home with you tonight. Because if you harm him or have him hurt in any way, you will have to deal with my anger and probably have to kill me just to give yourself some peace, but it will have been worth every breath in my body to do it.”
For the first time in a long time, Frankie felt uncertain and threatened. The sting of the breadcrumbs that had been flung in face was more painful than any humiliation he had ever endured. And the fact that it came from a woman, a white woman, only made it more unbearable. If he could, he would have ripped her head from her neck and thrown it into the street. He brushed the remaining crumbs from his jacket.
“You have a woman do your fighting now, Robert?”
“She speaks her mind as do I.”
“A last warning. Mr. Williams. Stick to dealing drugs and robbing liquor stores.”
She finally relented and we moved slowly down the block together. It was not until we had turned the corner and walked another block north along Broadway in silence that we stopped.
I wanted to know more about her than any woman I had ever met. I wanted to know about her husband, Alex, and the terrible tragedy of how she survived losing her son. Maybe someday she would trust me enough to confide in me. Maybe she would even introduce me to Felix.
“I will not let that man do you any harm, Robert. I’m sorry,” she said through the tears. “I have lived with brutes like them all my life.”
“I think you’re wonderful.”
Betty was as startled as she could be. “You do?”
“Well then, I’m glad I said what I said.”
“So am I.”
She leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “I think we should go have a soda. Something sinful. Something neither of us should have.”
“I know just the place.”
“Don’t tell me. Let it be a surprise.”
“I wouldn’t tell you. But I think we’ve both had enough surprises for one evening.”
She wrapped herself around my arm and tugged me to her side. “Then let’s make a night of it Robert Hall of Brooklyn and, thankfully, New York.”
Arthur Davis is a management consultant and has been quoted in The New York Times, Crain’s New York Business. He has appeared as an expert witness on best practices before The New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing. Over 50 stories have been published including “Conversation in Black,” which was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize.