The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress
Author:Ariel Lawhon

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress By Ariel Lawhon

 

CLUB ABBEY

 

 

GREENWICH VILLAGE, AUGUST 6, 1969

 

 

 

There is, in the city’s sun-blistered canyons of concrete, a storied section known as Greenwich Village. And into it on August 6, this tall, stately woman walks, utterly disregarding the heat, on a pilgrimage out of the past. She isn’t alone. She is accompanied by a ghost. Her name is Stella Crater.

 

—Oscar Fraley, preface to The Empty Robe

 

 

 

 

 

We begin in a bar. We will end here as well, but that is more than you need to know at the moment. For now, a woman sits in a corner booth waiting to give her confession. But her party is late, and without an audience, she looks small and alone, like an invalid in an oversize church pew. It’s not so easy for her, this truth telling, and she strains against it. A single strand of pearls, brittle and yellowed with age, rests against the flat plane of her chest. She rolls them between her fingers as though counting the beads on a rosary. Stella Crater has avoided this confession for thirty-nine years. The same number of years she has been coming to this bar.

 

At one time, this meeting would have been a spectacle, splashed across the headlines of every paper in New York: WIFE OF MISSING JUDGE MEETS WITH LEAD INVESTIGATOR, TELLS ALL! But the days of front-page articles, interviews, and accusations are over, filed away in some distant archives. Tonight her stage is empty.

 

Stella looks at her watch. Nine-fifteen.

 

Club Abbey, once a speakeasy during the Jazz Age, is now another relic in Greenwich Village, peddling its former glory through the tourist guides. It sits one floor below street level, dark and subdued. The pine floors are scuffed. Black-and-white photos line the walls. An aging jukebox has long since replaced the jazz quartet. The only remnant is Stan, the bartender. He was fifteen when hired by the notorious gangster Owney Madden to sweep the floors at closing. Owney took a liking to the kid, as did the showgirls, and Stan’s been behind the bar ever since. He’s never missed Stella’s ritual. His part is small, but he plays it well.

 

Two lowball glasses. Twelve cubes of ice split between them. Whiskey on the rocks. Stan arranges napkins on her table and sets the glasses down. Her eyes are slick with a watery film—the harbinger of age and death.

 

“Good to see you again, Mrs. Crater.”

 

Stella swats him away with an emaciated hand, and he hangs back to watch, drying glasses with a dish towel. It’s the same thing every year: she sits alone in her booth for a few minutes, and then he brings the drinks. Straight whiskey, the way her husband liked it. She’ll raise one glass, saluting the empty place across from her, and say, “Good luck, Joe, wherever you are.” Stella will take her time with the drink, letting it burn, drawing out the moment until there’s nothing left in her glass. That is when she’ll rise and walk out, leaving the other drink untouched.

 

Except tonight she does none of these things.

 

Fifteen minutes she sits there, rubbing the rim of her glass. Stan has no script for what to do next, and he stares at her, confused. He doesn’t see the doors swing open or the older gentleman enter. Doesn’t see the trench coat or the faded gray fedora. Sees none of it until Detective Jude Simon slides into the booth across from Stella.

 

She lays her palm on the table, inches from a pack of cigarettes, and sits up straighter. The booth is hard against her back, walnut planks pressing against the knobs of her spine. “You’re late.”

 

“Stella.” Jude touches the brim of his hat in greeting. He takes stock of her shriveled body. Tips his head to the side. “It’s been years.”

 

“You were here the first time—makes sense that you’d be here the last.” Stella lifts her glass and takes a sip of whiskey. Shudders. “Call it a deathbed confession.”

 

Jude surveys the room through the weary smoke. The regular Wednesday night crowd—a few women, mostly men—scattered around in groups of two and three drinking longnecks and griping about the stock market. “This isn’t exactly a church, and I’m not much of a priest,” he says.

 

“Priest. Detective. What’s the difference? You both love a good confession.”

 

His shoulders twitch—a doubter’s shrug. “I’m retired.”

 

Stella draws a cigarette from the pack and props it between her lips.

 

She looks at him expectantly.

 

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a tarnished silver lighter. Something like a smile crosses his face and then melts away. He stares at it, cupped there in his palm, before striking it with his thumb. Jude used to be handsome, decades ago when Stella first met him, and the traces are still there in the square line of his jaw and the steel-blue eyes. But now he looks tired and sad. A bit wilted. It takes three tries before a weak flame sputters from the lighter. Perhaps his hand trembles as he holds it toward her, or it could be a trick of the light.

 

Stella tips her cigarette into the flame, and the end glows orange. “You would be here tonight even if I hadn’t asked you to come.” Her eyes shift toward the bar, where Stan pretends not to eavesdrop. “You have your sources.”

 

“Maybe.” Jude hangs his fedora on a peg beside the booth and pulls a pad and pen from his coat pocket. He waits for her to speak.

 

Stella lured him here with the promise of a story—the real version this time. He has been like a duck after bread crumbs for thirty-nine years. Pecking. Relentless. Gobbling up every scrap she leaves for him. Yet the truth is not something she will rush tonight. He will get it one morsel at a time.

 

Stella Crater picked her poison a long time ago—unfiltered Camels—and she takes a long drag now, sizing up her pet duck. Her cheeks collapse into the sharp angles of her face, and she holds the smoke in her lungs for several long seconds before blowing it from between her teeth. Oh, she’ll tell Detective Simon a story all right.

 

 

 

 

 

Thirty-nine years earlier …