February 15, 2013 § 4 Comments
Public Enemy Number One.
Although Nelson is a Scandinavian surname, like Fogelin, it was a pseudonym. Baby face Nelson was born Lester Joseph Gillis. And it seems certain, given that his career played out in Indiana and points west, that he never holed up in my grandparent’s house in Congers, New York.
And yet, I remember the story of a gangster knocking on the door, claiming kinship and asking for asylum, even throwing a ball on the lawn with my dad when it became clear no one was going to look for him there.
I was sure Baby Face Nelson was the gangster-Swede in question.
Where did the story slip a cog? I don’t know, but before I did any fact checking I wrote the scene in which this unwelcome guest shows up at the door.
The adult I knew best in the household was my grandmother, Florence, or Flossy, so I made her the one who answered that door. My grandfather, Carl Axel, was taciturn to the point of silence and remains so in this scene.
I wish the facts had supported the story I remembered, but when fact and story conflict, I usually let story win.
Here it is, Baby Face Nelson at the door, solid-real, even though it never happened.
“I’m Carl’s cousin, Jimmy. Lemme in.” He took off the hat and tapped it against the shiny leg of his suit pants.
Through the screen, Flossy noticed the stubble on his dimpled chin. He hadn’t shaved for days. The way his eyes shifted around said he was afraid of something.
She smelled cigarettes on him. Liquor maybe.
She pressed a hand against the door frame and stared into the low-angle light pouring onto the back stoop. She could see the rusty pump handle sticking out from behind his right shoulder. A man in a suit was the last thing she expected to see between her and the pump this evening.
“Come on!” The man slapped the front of his wilted shirt and let his hand rest there, fingers splayed—not a hand accustomed to work she noticed. “I’m Carl’s second cousin. For the love of Mike let me in!” Then he leaned toward her, “Hey, do I smell meatloaf?”
“And baked potatoes.”
“Sure smells good. Carl said he married a cook.”
She doubted it.
A fly dazed itself against the screen, circled and pinged the metal mesh again, and Flossy thought, cleaned up, the skinny fella on the stoop wouldn’t be bad-looking, but she kept her hand on the door.
She heard wary footfalls as her husband came in from the darkened living room in his socks. He’d been sleeping like he always did in the rocker. His face would be rumpled, his hair standing up. She didn’t turn to look.
The supposed-cousin’s jittery gaze jumped to a spot behind her shoulder. He smiled showing crooked teeth. His pale blue eyes lit. “Carl! Tell this woman to let me in.”
She knew Carl would answer in his own good time; she was still waiting to hear him say he loved her, although she wasn’t waiting all that hard anymore. Now she wondered when he would have gotten around to mentioning he had a cousin named Jimmy. Hopefully before their golden anniversary.
Meanwhile. Jimmy on the steps rocked from foot to foot like one of her boys when he had to pee.
Carl drew in one long, slow breath, then, without touching her, he stepped between her and the gauze of the screen. His jaw squared, biting down on the words before letting them out. “You on the lam again, Jimmy?”
“Would you let me in? We’ll talk about it.”
Lord, lord. But if he was family, he’d be coming through that door. “I’ll set an extra place.” she said.
But no. I’m not related to him either.
Although with that square head he would fit right into the family. His nose has the same slightly broken look as my dad’s.
My father got that look falling off a mountain while training for WWII–and I know that story is true.