“Never Say Die”
The ballroom at the Top of the Mark was filled with the romantic sound of Artie Shaw and his big band playing “Begin the Beguine.” It was pretty busy for a Thursday night, and the manager watched as waiters were kept busy filling and refilling drinks among all the tables. Next week they would celebrate the New Year, and he hoped that 1939 would be kinder to them financially than 1938 had been. Fear of a world war coming was having a mixed effect; some were saving money and staying home. Others were living their life while they could, never sure when or where they would be in days to come.
In the corner was a booth that the manager made sure his best waiter paid special attention to. The large booth featured red leather cushions in the shape of a clamshell, a polished marble tabletop, and the best view of the dance floor that money could buy. At it sat a young man in his 20s with a beautiful blonde woman. The man was smiling and joking with the two big men who stood on either side of the table; the woman was not. She was dressed in a white satin dress, appropriate for the evening out at San Francisco’s swankiest night spot, but she was obviously uncomfortable with her surroundings. The young man, hair slicked back and exuding charm—and obvious wealth—sat as if he were holding court. The men on either side of him, both standing as if constantly on guard, even though they were laughing at his jokes, were built like young bulls. Finally, one of them nudged the young man in the middle.
“Hey Mr. Ferguson, that strange guy over there’s staring at you,” he said with a New Jersey accent. “You wants I should punch his lights out?” He started toward the other table, but the man in the middle put his arm out and grasped the big man’s forearm.
“No, Ike, that’s no strange guy,” he said, his voice coming out unnaturally high. “That’s The Hammer.” He looked up at Ike, who didn’t seem to recognize the name or the face. He shrugged.
Ferguson stared back at the man sitting at the table 20 feet away. The Hammer was broad shouldered, had a crooked nose, and big meaty hands. He wore a suit that looked a size too small for him, and sat as if he was uncomfortable. But he stared at Ferguson’s table unforgivingly.
“Three years ago, the guy could have put you out in one punch. Hence the name, The Hammer.” Ferguson looked up at the big man, who scoffed to himself. “Believe me, Ike. He was a dangerous man.”
“And now?” Ike asked.
Ferguson shrugged. “Three years can be a long time. Things change. People change.” He raised a glass of champagne in salute to the man he called The Hammer, who nodded in response. Then he got up from his chair and started walking toward the booth.
“So why’s he staring at you?” Ike asked, a note of suspicion in his voice.
“Oh, we go way back,” Ferguson said as he watched the man approach. “But I suspect that he’s not looking at me.” Ferguson turned and looked at the young woman next to him. The white satin dress she wore made her look even paler than Ferguson thought possible with her porcelain skin. “Rose, are you all right?”
Without waiting for a response from her, Ferguson turned and spoke to the approaching man in a loud voice. “Well if it isn’t Hammering Hank Hudson, the pride of Stanford University.” He stood and held out his hand.
“Hello, Broderick,” Hudson said. “Looks like life’s been good to you.” He turned and looked at the young woman. “Hello, Rosey.” She smiled mutely back at him, but said nothing.
“Oh it has, it has,” Ferguson said. “Life’s been very good.” He paused when he noticed that Hudson had refused to shake his hand. “Oh come on, Hank. Let bygones be bygones.”
Hudson paused, then sighed and shook Ferguson’s hand. Ferguson grinned, then turned Hudson’s big hand and looked at it.
“I see your hands have healed up quite nicely,” he said. “Any pain?”
Hudson shrugged slightly. “Some. I don’t box anymore.”
Ferguson nodded. “That’s understandable, with the accident and then the trouble with the boxing commission.” He turned to Ike. “The poor man had his hands broken in an alleyway in Oakland. It was only through the help of friends that he survived.” He turned back to Hank. Speaking of friends, how was Spain? It was terrible to hear about Antonio.”
Hudson’s mouth became a thin line. “Spain was…it was war.”
“Of course, of course,” Ferguson said. “Say, why don’t you join us? Rose, move over there and make room for Hank.”
Hudson shook his head. “I don’t plan on staying. But I wanted to come over and ask Rose for a dance. For old time’s sake.”
Ferguson looked over at Rose, who looked like she had been slapped across the face. She slowly shook her head. “I don’t…I can’t.”
Ferguson smiled. “Of course you can, darling. Have one last dance with your old boyfriend. Hank’s been through some rough times and it looks like they’re not over yet. Give the old boy a dance, for old time’s sake.”
Rose stared at Ferguson as if he had asked her to do something obscene. Then she looked up at Hudson, and her face went from its natural pale color to a rosy glow. She paused, looking up at Hudson’s outstretched hand, then nodded. She slid out from the seat and took his hand. She turned to Ferguson before entering the dance floor.
“I am only doing this because you asked me to, Broderick,” she said quietly. Then she turned to Hudson and walked with him out to the dance floor.
As if on cue, the band began playing “Thanks for the Memories.” Rose leaned into Hank and went into his arms as they began to dance. They said nothing for a long moment, and there was an icy chill between them.
“How’s your mother?” Hank finally said.
“She died a year ago,” Rose said. “Pneumonia.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Hank said. “How about your sister?”
“We don’t talk much. Look, Henry,” Rose said, then pushed away from him and looked in his face. “This isn’t going to work.”
“What are you talking about,” Hank said. “I just wanted a dance with you.”
“I know you too well, Henry,” she said. “You never just want one thing.”
“You know, you’re the only person that I let call me Henry.”
“That’s what your mother calls you,” she said, a softness coming back into your eyes. “I started calling you that when we were kids, because that’s what your family called you.”
“We’re not kids anymore, Rosey,” he said, pulling her back into his arms.
“No, we’re not,” she said. “I stopped being a kid the day you left me.”
“I didn’t leave you,” Hank said. “I thought you understood that. I owed Antonio my life. He saved me. He took care of me after the accident. It was my chance to pay him back.”
“And did you pay him back? Was it worth it?”
A hard edge came into Hank’s eyes. “You know the answer to that.”
“Well, we’ve all made mistakes,” Rose said. “Being an adult means learning to live with those mistakes. Sometimes for the rest of your life.”
Hank shook his head. “This is one mistake that I intend to make up for. I messed up, and now I want to make up for it.” He pulled Rose away and looked into her face. His eyes searched her face for a long moment, then he looked over at Ferguson, who sat watching them.
“Marry me, Rosey,” he said. “Let me take you away from this place.”
Rose’s eyes grew wide, and Hank saw a light of joy come into them. Then just as quickly, the joy disappeared.
“I can’t,” she said quietly. “I’m with Broderick now.”
“Broderick’s a crook. His family makes their money selling scrap iron to the Japanese. They are making money by helping the Japs kill thousands of Chinese every day.”
“I know,” she said quietly. “Look, Henry, there are things you don’t understand.”
“What?” he said, his voice getting louder. “What don’t I understand? Make me understand!”
“Shh, Henry, not here. Not now.” She looked deeply into his eyes. “You need to understand that I will always love you. And that’s why I have to do this….”
As Ferguson watched from a distance, Rose leaned forward and kissed Hank for a long moment. Then just as suddenly, she jerked away and slapped him, hard, across the face.
A grin came over Ferguson’s face as he heard her say, “Goodbye, Henry,” then stomped back to their booth. Her face was red, her head was down and tears flowed from her eyes. She took her seat next to Ferguson without another word while Hank stood in the middle of the dance floor, his hand on his cheek, still apparently in shock. A long moment later, he strode forward to the table.
Ferguson only needed a glance at his goons to signal them to step in front of Hank before he reached the table.
“This isn’t over,” he growled at Ferguson.
“No, Hank,” Ferguson said. “I’m afraid it is. One of the advantages of having employees who haven’t heard of you is that they’re not afraid of you. To quote my beloved Rose: ‘Goodbye Henry.’”
The two goons grabbed Hank by either arm and escorted them by either arm. Hank went voluntarily, realizing that Rose’s words “not here, not now,” were more appropriate than she knew. But what made Hank stop from challenging Ferguson more than anything was the look that Rose had given him before he had left the table. Something is definitely going on, he thought. And I am going to get to the bottom of it.
Hank was silent as the three of them took the elevator down to the street level and they walked him out through the kitchen. The two goons then shoved him out the door into the alleyway behind the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Hank sprawled into a puddle there, then got up, his anger rising in him as he stood looking back at the closed door. Patience, he told himself.
He started to count, “One, two, three….” And then the anger burst forth from him. He turned to the brick wall facing him. He slammed his right fist into the brick wall facing him, then his left. Pain washed through him, and he saw the blood appear on his fists. But he also saw something strange. His fists, unused in boxing for three years, were cracking the red bricks on the wall as he slammed into them. When he stopped a few minutes later, his hands were a bloody mess. But he also saw that the brick where he had been hitting had turned into a fine powder.
And thus the answer came to him. It would be painful, he thought, more painful than you could possibly imagine. But in the end, Ferguson was like that brick wall.
Hank smiled to himself and walked down the alleyway, blood dripping from his hands.