by Maureen Mancini Amaturo
Fog rested upon a night so dreary, midnight seemed to mask the grey of early evening. When Martha arrived at the Philadelphia train station, she could barely spot the driver waiting to take her to Flags ‘N More, her dear friend’s upholstery shop. There, she would meet a woman who had been like a sister to her–Betsy, proprietor of one of the very few businesses run by a woman in that area. Martha had always found Betsy’s moxie endearing and her gumption revolutionary. She had planned to arrive just as Betsy was finishing a long day’s work so the two could dine then share girl-time chatting over a drink.
Betsy closed her upholstery shop for the evening and waited anxiously at the door. When Martha finally arrived, Betsy secured her friend’s travel bag, and the two went off to enjoy a light supper. Afterward, they strolled arm in arm down cobbled streets, catching up along the way, until they arrived at Amontillado’s, a brick-front drinking establishment with old-world charm situated on a dark Philadelphia side street only blocks from the shop–a spot they favored whenever they could share a girls’ night out.
Once inside, they settled onto wooden stools at the center of the bar. Betsy raised her hand to attract the barkeeper. “Two rums, with soda, please.” Adjusting their skirts and shawls, the two women rooted themselves among the revelers colonizing the dark tavern. “So, is George working again? Is that why he couldn’t join you here for the weekend?”
Martha shrugged, “That’s what he says. The man swears he never tells a lie, but if you ask me, I likely think he’s carousing with Tom and that rowdy fellow, the short one with glasses. You know who I mean. He has more stomach than hair.”
“That’s the one.” Their drinks arrived, and Martha took a quick sip. “He has his hands in everything. Frankly, I wish he’d go fly a kite. I don’t trust that man.”
“You can trust George, I’d say. When it comes to love, he is a loyalist.” Betsy put her hand to her mouth realizing her poor choice of words. “I mean that in a good way, you understand.” They both laughed. Betsy sipped her rum. “Apparently, George trusts you. Not many husbands would be pleased to have a wife scurry away for a girls’ weekend. You’re lucky to have a husband you can count on. More than that, a husband who is still alive! For the love of tea, I had three die on me.” Betsy tucked a loose curl into the elastic of her cap. She adjusted her shawl and scanned the candlelit room. “If I’m lucky, I’ll find number four.”
Martha held up her finger in pretend warning. “Betsy, such talk. Finding number four could be your ruin. Three is enough. Your kids are grown. Enjoy your freedom. Freedom is hard-won, my dear.”
Betsy barely heard her friend’s advice as her gaze had landed on a somber looking man across the bar, sitting alone, his jacket a bit tattered. She was intrigued by his brooding, raven eyes recessed beneath a rather high forehead, his brow an awning of despair. In front of him stood an almost empty bottle of cognac and some scattered papers. When not staring into space, he seemed engrossed in writing and scratching through words and rewriting, as if he could not hear the chatter, laughter, music, and noise in the small establishment. She poked Martha with her elbow. “Now there’s an interesting fellow.”
Martha rolled her eyes. “Honestly.” She leaned left to get a better view. “Looks a bit raggedy to me.”
“Raggedy? Yes, his clothes can do with some repairs. That I can handle. But there’s mystery about him. I think I’ll find out what his story is.”
Martha put her hand on Betsy’s forearm. “Careful, dear. You remember what happened the last time you approached a mysterious man.”
“I certainly do.” Betsey winked at Martha, and they both smiled. “I’m off. If you see me pull my hankie from my pouch–”
“I know the signal. I’ll come to your rescue.” Martha and Betsy lifted their drinks. They touched glasses. “To bombs bursting in air, as they say.”
Betsy squeezed her way through Amontillado’s patrons–friends in boisterous groups, couples twirling, inebriated revelers stumbling about–until she arrived at the empty stool next to the mysterious man. “Good evening.”
He turned his head slowly and stared. “Is it good?”
“Is this stool taken?”
“It once was,” he said.
“Well, if it isn’t now, may I join you?”
He scratched away a sentence or two on the paper before him and didn’t answer.
“I said, may I join you?”
Without looking at her, he answered, “If you wish.”
“Am I intruding? You’re busy, it seems.”
Still not looking her way, he said, “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”
“That’s quite poetic. Are you a writer?”
“Some say so, some think not.” Finally, he turned toward Betsy. Lifting his cognac bottle, he raised his heavy brow in question.
Betsy nodded. “Yes, thank you. I think I will.”
“I’ll get you a glass.” Holding the bottle higher, he looked to the bartender who was busy with other patrons. With such a crowd, he tried for some time to catch the steward’s eye.
Betsy cleared her throat. “I’ll flag him down.” Betsy soon got her glass, and her mysterious man shared his cognac. As he poured, she asked, “What’s your name?”
Betsy took a sip and tensed at the taste of the liquid, not her drink of choice. She slid the glass to the side. “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Poe.”
“Is it?” Poe drained his glass and refilled it.
She sidled onto the stool next to him and settled herself. “So, I haven’t seen you here before. New in town?”
“Yes. Recently from Baltimore.”
Betsy took that to mean there was trouble at home. She moved her stool closer to him. “Shall we toast to your new life in Philadelphia?”
He raised his glass in front of him and downed every drop. “Life, the journey that carries us all toward death, the path we roam ‘til our last breath.”
“Not a very cheery fellow, are you?”
“Cheer? I am in the midnight of my life. I know no cheer. Be wary of cheer for beyond each grin lies payment for sin. I am paying dearly for any cheer I’ve known. Shortly, I will love alone.” He held up his cognac. “This is but a requiem until toll the bells that whisk her soul to heaven and drag my soul to hell.”
Not knowing what to say to that, Betsy cleared her throat. A bit uncomfortable at being at a loss for words, she squirmed on the stool, her unease showing. She glanced across the bar at Martha, who had been watching her all along. Martha raised her brows and put a finger to her own chest as if to ask should I come over there? Betsy shook her head no. She turned to the man at her side. “Mr. Poe, I realize I have not properly introduced myself. I am Elizabeth, but my friends call me Betsy. I’m sure you have a first name. May I call you something more friendly than Mr. Poe?”
“I have been called a madman. I have been called a drunk. I would much rather be called Edgar.”
“Edgar, such an intelligent name. Tell me, Edgar, so where is your wife?”
Poe gathered his papers and carefully nestled them into a worn, brown, leather pouch at his side. He signaled the bartender for more cognac. Glancing at Betsy’s abandoned glass, he asked, “And for you?”
“Rum, please. With soda.”
Edgar pushed his jacket aside to reveal a torn, inner pocket. He pulled what was left of the money he had and placed it on the bar. “A rum and soda, as well.” Poe reached for Betsy’s abandoned glass of cognac and drank it dry.
“You were going to tell me about your wife,” Betsy said.
Leaning his head in his hands he slumped forward. “My wife. My love. My heart. At this moment, my wife wears the mask of the red death, confined to our bed, weakened by the struggle of every breath.”
Their drinks arrived, and Betsy reached for her glass. “Thank you, Edgar.”Each sipped their spirits. “So, your wife isn’t feeling well?”
Poe’s eyes peered over his glass and held a carving stare until he found the calm to speak. “Isn’t feeling well? More’s the truth she has a short time to live. I cannot remain in that house witness to her pain. Darkness in every room. What was our home is now a tomb. I come to Amontillado’s to bury sorrow, to escape her death, to flee the wheeze of her labored breath, to drown the thought she’s at death’s door, to brace for pain that lies before my darkest days yet to loom, to stand alone in painful gloom. To crawl with her beneath the ground, my tell-tale heart the only sound, to lie with her within her grave when there is no hope left to save, to remain as one when angels deem her life is done.”
Looking toward Martha, Betsy rolled her eyes. Martha mouthed, “Now?” Betsy shook her head no.
Betsey put her hand on Poe’s shoulder. “You’re feeling vulnerable now. I get it. But you have to go on, my good man, though it isn’t easy. I know how you feel. I lost three husbands. Fate, go figure.” Betsy leaned in closer to Edgar. She pressed her hand to the tight stitching of his crumpled lapel to flatten it. Moving to his shoulder, she examined his unraveling seam and circled a loose thread around her finger. “I can fix this. I can have this jacket looking good as new, if you’d like. I’m good with a needle.”
Poe said nothing.
“Ok, then. Maybe this isn’t a good time. I guess it’s better that I leave you to your thoughts. If you’d like to get together sometime, maybe meet up here one Friday, I wouldn’t mind. My shop is only a few blocks away, and I’ve just completed a rather large government project, so I do have more free time now.” Betsy handed him her card, an American flag waved above her name. “When do you think you’ll be up for a little fun?”
Poe refreshed his cognac and drank it down. He took the card from her hand and stared at it. “Nevermore.”
Betsy rolled her eyes. Well, I guess this isn’t going anywhere. As they sat in silence for a few minutes, Betsy scanned the bar. Another man caught her eye. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Edgar. Thank you for the drink.”
Edgar stared into his cognac.
Betsy glanced at Martha across the bar. Martha raised her brows in question. With her eyes, Betsy led Martha to look at the new man she had spotted. When Martha saw who Betsey had her eye on, Martha’s hand went to her chest and she shook her head no.
“Excuse me, Mr. Poe. I must speak with my friend for a moment.” Edgar nodded, but did not look up.
Betsy took her seat next to Martha and pointed to the new man of interest. “So, what do you think of that one?”
“No. No way. Anybody but him.”
Martha leaned closer. “Don’t you know who that is?”
“He’s a handsome chap, and that’s a rather handsome jacket he’s wearing. I know good tailoring when I see it. Well-made. Likely paid a dear price for it.” She hesitated. “And no wedding ring.”
“You really don’t know who that is?” Martha put her drink down.
Betsy looked at the well-dressed man again. “No clue. But, I’m willing to find out.”
“He can’t be trusted.” Martha put her arm on Betsy’s to hold her back. “That’s Benedict Arnold.”
Betsy plopped onto the bar stool. “Just my luck.” She adjusted her skirts. “Well, I guess this really is going to be a girls’ weekend.”
“Not necessarily. Look over there.” Martha pointed to a man standing in the shadows toward the back of the bar. “He’s been eyeing you all night.”
Betsy casually glanced in his direction. She couldn’t make out his features, but did notice he had a large, black case on the floor in front of him. “Hmm, might be a doctor.”
“They make a pretty penny.” Martha sipped her rum. “He’s coming our way. You may have a chance at a new chap after all.” When he was closer, Martha said, “Strange how he keeps his head bowed, as if he doesn’t want to be recognized. And he’s holding tight to that case. Why bring a doctor’s bag to an establishment like this? I’m having second thoughts about this one.”
“He’s tall. Seems to be of good stature. I’d say he’s a ripper of a man,” Betsy said. “Let’s see what he has to say for himself.”
The man approached them. “Good evening, Ladies. May I introduce myself?”
“You may,” Betsy said.
“Just Jack?” Martha asked.
“I am well-known by Jack.” He adjusted his grip on his bag.
Betsy said, “Well, not exactly a name that will go down in history.” Martha and Betsy giggled. Jack did not.
“It is getting quite crowded in here. Would you care to take a walk with me?” He reached for a knife sitting atop the bar next to lemon wedges the bartender had just sliced. He turned it over in his hand fixed on the glint in the low lighting. He seemed to snap back to the moment and dropped the knife. “The evening air is refreshing. What do you say, ladies?”
Martha and Betsy looked at each other and shrugged. “What have we got to lose?” Betsy said.
The three left the bar and walked off into the dark cobblestone streets. Jack walked between the ladies until Martha leaned forward and scooted to her friend’s side. Their new gentleman friend nearly tripped over her skirt. “Excuse me. Just a little girl talk.”
Jack remained close enough to hear them whisper. “There she is.” Martha said to Betsy as she pointed. “I told you she turned away from proper society.”
“Is that Catherine? Catherine Eddowes? I heard she had fallen on hard times. Poor thing, now a lady of the night.”
Jack’s ears tingled. He looked across the street to the woman leaning in a dark doorway. He waited until Betsy and Martha had finished their conversation. “Excuse me, ladies. I’m afraid I completely forgot about a previous engagement.” He lifted his bag and held it to his chest. “Sorry to miss the opportunity to enjoy your company further this evening. Such a bother when work cuts into private time.” He glanced again at the lady of the night across the street. “Sometimes, responsibilities can be murder on a person.” He tipped his hat. “Good evening. I hope you get home safely.” He crossed the street and turned a corner. He and the sound of his footsteps on the cobblestones vanished.
Martha and Betsy stood until they lost sight of him. “Well, I’ve been dumped before, but this one cut me to the quick. Let’s go, Martha.” Betsy pulled her shawl tighter. “Let’s go back to Amontillado’s. Maybe Edgar Poe is still there.”
Martha stepped back from her friend. “Really?”
“He can use some cheering up, and it’s still early. What’s a weekend without an adventure?”
“That’s what Colonel Prescott said when he and some friends went to Bunker Hill for the weekend. Some Saturday that turned out to be.” Martha slipped her arm through Betsy’s. They started walking in the direction of the bar.
Betsy tugged Martha to a stop. “Did you hear that?”
“That scuffle? Sounds like someone fell or is hurt,” Martha said.
They looked back in the dark, but could see nothing. “Maybe some street dogs tussling over a tasty garbage scrap.” Betsy strained to see what was causing the commotion, but the shadows of the night kept their secrets. “It’s gone quiet. Let’s go. Sounds as if they found what they were looking for, I’d say.” The ladies continued down the dark street until they reached the more bustling part of the neighborhood where they had begun their night. Amontillado’s was in view.
“Why are you so desperate for a man?” Martha asked. “You’ve got a home. You’ve got your own income. You’ve got your upholstery business.”
“Women do not live on thread alone.” Betsy winked. “Let’s find Poe.”