Chapter 14

Bettina looked herself up down and sideways in the full-length mirror. She was wearing a black and white swing dress with a full skirt, red cuffs trimmed just below the elbows of the three-quarter sleeves, and a red collar at the top end of three big black buttons. Underneath she wore a Playtex bra and girdle. Along with the dress she had on a black belt, black shoes, and black gloves. 

    “You look good,” she thought. “Straight from the fridge.” 

    She had a black short-strapped handbag slung from her wrist and a broad-brimmed red hat on her head. She lifted her chin, looking down at the middle of herself. It was her ping-pong games that kept her fit and the girdle that made her look trim.

   She flashed a peek at her backside. Halfway out of her apartment door she paused, flipped the clasp on her handbag, and made sure she had an Anchor Life Insurance Company business card.

   “Swank,” she thought, once on Park Avenue, looking around Dr. Robert Baird’s waiting room. 

   Everything was white, except for the floor and the two Barcelona chairs. The floor was gray, and the chairs were brown. The round receptionist’s desk was white, as was the sofa and small round table in front of the sofa. The ceiling was white, and the fluorescent lighting was bright white.

   It was 8:35 in the morning on Friday.

   “I’m here to see Dr. Baird,” said Betty.

   “Do you have an appointment?”

   “I don’t, but this will only take ten minutes of the doctor’s time. It’s about the death of one of his patients.”

   She handed the receptionist her make-believe business card.

   “His first appointment at nine hasn’t arrived yet. Let me see if he can see you.”

   She was back in less than a minute.

   “The doctor will see you,” she said.

   “Thank you.”

   “I love your outfit,” she said. 

   “Why, thanks.”

   The receptionist was her own age.

   “I got the dress on sale at Macy’s, splurged on the bag at Henri Bendel’s down in the Village, and everything else, well, I just picked it up here and there.”

   Betty walked into Dr. Baird’s office. It was even whiter than the waiting room. The psychiatrist came around from behind his large desk, his arm extended, shook her hand, and offered her one of the two chairs at the front of the desk.

   “How can I help you, Miss Cross, is it?” asked Dr. Baird, swiveling around in his chair to face her.

   “Cross, Mrs. Betty Cross,” said Betty.

   “A working woman.”

   “Yes,” she said. “A working woman.”

   There’s something oily about him, Betty thought in a flash, as though he were tossing her a few crumbs by just seeing her. She tried to keep the turn off out of her voice and off her face. She crossed her legs and pulled a spiral bound flip pad out of her pocketbook.

   The receptionist sat doing nothing. She hadn’t gone to college for just a M. R. S. degree, meaning finding a husband and becoming a Mrs. She was in her mid-20s, neither married nor engaged. Everyone she knew had married right out of high school or while they were in college. Most of them got pregnant inside a year, and most of them were looking forward to their second and third child. 

   Her mother told her she was in danger of becoming an old maid.

   “Better to die an old maid, mom, than marry the wrong man.”

   She had her sights set on making money, a small fortune, at least, and stay a single woman, as sensible and respectable as anybody else. 

   She liked what she saw of the woman from the insurance company. That was what she wanted to be, someone on the go, not someone stuck behind a desk answering a phone and being polite to whoever walked in the door. She was going to make her own way or cry trying.

   “We carried a policy on the life of Jackson Pollack, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to just ask a few questions about him,” said Betty.

   “I don’t understand,” said Dr. Baird.

    “We aren’t asking you to violate the doctor patient relationship, but we would like to know if, in your opinion, he had suicidal tendencies.”

   “I’ve heard of Jackson Pollack, of course,” said Dr. Baird. “I’ve read about him in the papers, it seems he was larger than life, but I never treated him.”

   “Oh,” said Betty. “It was our understanding he was one of your patients.”

   “You were misinformed,” said Dr. Baird.

   “He wasn’t seeing you about his drinking?”

   “No.”

   Jackson Pollack drank heavy most of his life, starting when he was 15 years-old, on the road, when he was helping his father make topographic surveys of the Grand Canyon. He got psychiatric treatment on and off over the years to cure his alcoholism. Joseph Henderson, a Jungian psychoanalyst in Manhattan, found color sequences and symbols in the illuminated manuscript “Splendor Solis” and worked them into explaining Pollack’s dream images to him.

   Jackson Pollack didn’t give a damn about the “Splendor Solis,” except when he was drinking and pumping himself up with the splendor. Nothing under dream sun sun cured him of it.

   He got help avoiding patriotic mayhem from Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo. The war was on the horizon. She wrote the Selective Service System in 1941, after he got his draft notice.

   “I have found Jackson Pollack to be an inarticulate personality of good intelligence, but with a great deal of emotional insecurity, who finds it difficult to form or maintain any kind of relationship. It has become evident that there is a certain schizoid disposition underlying his instability. I venture to suggest that Pollack be referred for a psychiatric examination.”

   He was declared unfit for military service. He got re-acquainted with Lee Krasner. They went drinking and dancing. They went to house parties. They got married in a hurry. He broke through to the other side.

   After the war he slowed down, finally stopped drinking, and did his best work, but after the summer of 1950 he took his first drink in two years and from then on stopped painting and drank heavily until his death. Whenever he was soused at the Cedar Tavern up-and-coming artists walking past him always tried to touch him for good luck.

   “That’s a fucking mistake, get your goddamned hands off me!”

   The more he drank the less he worked. “I don’t have anything more to say,” he told his homeopathic physician Dr. Elizabeth Wright. “What’s the point?”

   “I’m sorry about wasting your time,” said Betty. 

   “That’s quite all right,” said Dr. Baird.

   Betty retrieved her hat from the coat rack stand. The wall on that side of the office was filled with a ball clock, diplomas, certificates, a letter from the mayor, artsy black-and-white photographs, and a small drawing in a steel frame at the far end.

   It was a pencil drawing of a man-beast, naked, on his haunches, leaning forward, his nose like a snout, and a snake winding out of his mouth. The initials JP in small squiggly letters were hidden away at the bottom, just in sight beneath the man’s calf.

    “That’s an interesting drawing,” said Betty, fixing her hat.

   “Oh, that. It’s creepy, if you ask me. It was done by one of those new city artists, the one who died a few months ago.”

   “The one who crashed his car?”

   “Yes, that one. I read all about it in the papers. He was a drunk. He killed one of the girls in the car with him.”

   “Did Dr. Baird know him?” 

   “Oh, yes, he treated him for months, from about March or April.”

   “That picture might be worth a lot of money one of these days.”

   “You think so?”

   “I would keep my eye on it,” said Betty.

   After she left, but before she had gotten to the elevator, the receptionist was giving the small drawing a long look, her finger to her chin. She turned back to her desk when she noticed the phone blinking.

   “Hold my first patient for a few minutes,” said Dr. Baird.

   “Yes, sir,” she said.

   He dialed the number he’d been given in case of an emergency.

   “Yeah?”

   “I had a visitor this morning, a woman who claimed to work for an insurance company that 

carried a policy on Jackson Pollack’s life,” he said.

   “What did she want?”   

   “She wanted to know if Pollack had ever exhibited suicidal tendencies, if I had been treating him for that.” 

   “What did you say?”

   “I said Jackson Pollack had never been my patient.”

   “That was a mistake.”

   It wasn’t a mistake from Dr. Baird’s point of view. He planned on being far from New York City by the end of next week, before whatever was supposed to happen happened, hoping to be more than a half million dollars to the good, almost a million with what he had squirreled away in Switzerland, far away in a sunny Mediterranean world in a villa where no one would ever find him for the rest of his life. He wasn’t even waiting to be paid the balance owed him for the work he had done on Tony de Marco. He suspected the rest of his life depended on getting as far away from New York City as he could, the sooner the better.

   “All right, sit tight, we’ll take care of it. What was the broad’s name and who did she say she worked for?”

   “He said Jackson Pollack was never a patient of his,” said Betty after getting back to the office.

   “We’ve got it from Barney Newman and the wife that he was,” said Stan. “Why would he lie about it when it’s easy enough to double-check through it?”

   “He might be buying time, for some reason.”

   “That’s a thought,” said Stan. “Let’s see if Ezra’s up for some second-story work, do a little digging, get into his files.”

   Ezra broke into Whistler Dental Specialists on the fourth floor twenty minutes after they locked up at four o’clock on the Wednesday the following week. He waited tilted back in a dental chair and five hours later broke into Dr. Baird’s office. An hour later he had Jackson Pollack’s file laid out on the receptionist’s desk in front of the Minox spy camera Otis had given him. When he was done photographing it, he returned the file, and removed the film from the camera. 

   He was wearing a black t-shirt, dark khaki’s, and a brown newsboy cap. He taped the film to the top of the cap’s brim and snapped the bonnet securely to the brim. He put a fresh roll of film into the camera. He tucked the camera away behind the fabric divider in his right front pocket. He waited until it was more than an hour after midnight. He took the fire escape to the first floor and walked out the back door.

   He hadn’t taken two steps before he felt, not yet hearing or seeing them, the two men. A slapjack broke his nose. He hit the ground like a bag of potatoes. A big man yanked him to his feet and slammed him against the wall.  He turned him around. A smaller thick man with sharp front teeth and a black felt pork pie hat stepped in front of him.

   “Hey, don’t I know you,” he said, talking to Ezra’s broken nose.

   “No,” said Ezra. 

   “Sure, I do, you’re the zigzag man from down on the docks,” he said, and hit Ezra twice fast high on both sides of his face with the jack. 

   “Fuck you!” Ezra spit, screaming, and the man hit him in the mouth. Ezra tried to kick him, flailing his legs, but the man danced away, and then darted in, jabbing him hard in the ribs with the butt end of the slapjack. Ezra felt something crack and slumped in the big man’s arms.

   “You’re in a world of hurt, Jew man,” the pork pie man sneered. “What were you doing in there? You tell me or we will take you to another world.”

    Bumpy Williams was suddenly behind them, tense.

   “Let’s beat feet,” said Bumpy. “Radio car just pulled up, blocking that way, they’re coming fast. We got to go the other way.”

   The big man let Ezra flop to the ground and the three men walked away, quietly briskly melting away.

   One of the Radio Motor patrolmen rolled Ezra over.

   “Mother of Jesus, you got a bad dose of it,” he said, looking at his face.

   The other policeman came back.

   “Gone,” he said. “They must have had a car waiting.”

   “Let’s get this one to the hospital.”

   They helped Ezra to their green, black, and white Ford Tudor RMP, a lit-up ‘Police’ sign on the white roof, one of the policemen sitting in the back seat with Ezra, his battered head in his lap, the other, siren wailing, making the short fast drive to the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital.

   It was half past three in the morning by the time Stan and Betty pulled up chairs next to Ezra’s bed on the seventh floor. A police guard sat outside the door.

   “You look bad,” said Stan 

   “I feel better,” he said. “They doped me up.”

   “Do you know who it was?” 

   “One of them was the rat face who’s usually with Big Paulie. The other one, I never saw, he had me from behind. I saw his hands, though. It looks like he was a fighter once. There was an eggplant who came running up when the cavalry got there, but I didn’t recognize him.”

   “OK, we’ll get them. Did you find anything?”

   “Yeah,” said Ezra, his voice muffled by the drugs and swollen busted lip. “The film is in my hat.’

   “OK.” 

   “I need two, three days,” said Ezra.

   “Take your time,” said Stan.

   In the hallway Stan stopped, the policeman stood up, and Betty kept her hand on the doorknob.

   “Not to worry,” said the uniformed officer. “One of us will be right here until he’s discharged.”

   “Get Karol and Bartek first thing in the morning,” Stan said to Betty when they were outside. “Tell them what I want and tell them I want it by the end of the week, all three if they can do it, but rat face, for sure. I don’t care how they do it, just so long as it gets done.”

   “It’ll get done,” said Bettina, a sour metallic taste in her mouth.

   Stan hailed a taxi for her.

   She got in and he waved the cabbie to go.

   “I’m going for a walk,” he said.

   The cab turned away into the almost quiet pre-dawn Manhattan morning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s