Excerpt: The Red Scarf

September 6, 1933

It is the first day of my criminal justice class at Cleveland College. Waiting with the other students for the professor to arrive, I try to look innocent. I have taken the precaution of sitting in the back row between a boy with acne and a chubby girl with a pretty face and too much makeup. I wish I were like them. I wish acne and weight were all I have to worry about. I wish I could shake the plump girl until her teeth rattle. I want her green life.

The room smells of paper and the cologne on the girl sitting next to me. Someone has carved initials in the wood of my desk. Does “H. R.” belong to the wood carver? Or to the wood-carver’s spouse? But that’s silly—most eighteen-year-olds aren’t married. As I was. To my regret. And surely to my former husband’s, who is now safely buried with the other dead Jews in Mayfield Cemetery.

The door opens and the dean arrives with a man so handsome there is a collective intake of breath from the girls in the room. Who is he? I knew Dean Conway from his boring speech to the freshman assembled last week in the auditorium. But the other? I would have remembered if I had seen him before. You don’t forget a face like that.

“Good morning, students,” Dean Conway says, with a pasted-on smile. “I have a swell surprise for you. The instructor for this class will be a real-life F.B.I. agent. This,” he says, gesturing to him grandly, “is Adam Fairchild. “Before joining the Bureau, he taught law and criminal justice at Ohio State University. How about those credentials? How lucky can you get?” Someone starts to clap, the dean joins in and then the rest of the class.

Fairfield is standing a bit to the side, his hands in his pockets, looking like Tyrone Power or maybe Douglas Fairbanks without the mustache.

I slide my eyes over to the door. Too far away.

“I leave you now in the capable hands of Special Agent Fairfield,” Dean Conway says, pausing and lifting his chin as if posing for a photograph.

“Thank you, Dean. I only hope I don’t disappoint after that introduction,” he says, grinning as if he knows better.

He takes a sheet of paper from the desk. “Please stand as I read your name so I can get a look at you.” As he reads the names, each student stands, saying, “Here.” As I wait for him to call my name, I start to sweat. When he does, I rise, manage a mumbled “Here,” and slide back down into my chair. His eyes linger on me. Or am I imagining it? No. I am not imagining it. He knows who I am. I thought I could disappear among hundreds of college students. I thought by using my maiden name I could erase the time when I was Mrs. Ben Gold. I was wrong. I should have packed up and gone as far from Cleveland as I could get—California. Oregon. Anywhere but here. Well, it isn’t too late—this is my first day in Mr. F.B.I’s class. It’s a big country.

I see that he’s dressed for the part of charming professor in one of those tweed jackets with leather on the elbows, a blue shirt and neatly knotted brown tie. Even though his hair is cropped short, I can see the grey starting. Still, it’s hard to tell his age—30’s? 40’s?

After the roll call, he looks at me again. I make myself return his stare as if that will make him drop his. It does not. I drop mine.

He looks at his watch. “There’s still time for me to tell you a bit about the F.B.I,” he says, sitting down on the edge of the desk. “Before J. Edgar Hoover became Director it was just the Bureau of Investigation. But Hoover got it federalized so we could cross state lines to chase the bad guys. How many of you have heard of Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde and Machine Gun Kelly?”

A bunch of hands shoot up.

“Okay, I can tell you that we know Nelson’s in San Francisco, a source has Machine Gun Kelly in Chicago, and we’ve spotted Bonnie and Clyde in Des Moines. Believe me, their days of robbing banks and killing people are numbered.” There is a sudden gravity about him with that grim look you see on the faces of F.B.I. agents in the newsreels.

The boy with acne raises his hand.

“Mr. Arlington,” Fairfield says, nodding.

“So how does a person get in?” the boy asks.

“You want to be an F.B.I. agent?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, son, you’ve got some years to go—you have to be twenty-five. And before that, you have to have gone to law school. You have to be a lawyer. And come from a good family.”

Good family. That lets me out.

The boy sits down.

A skinny girl in a navy blue dress raises her hand.

“Miss Sawyer,” Fairfield says. But he is looking at me again.

I feel my face heat up and look down at my white schoolgirls’ blouse to check on buttons.

“Does the F.B.I. take women?” she asks.

“Not any I know of,” he says. “Although there were a few. Emma Jentzer back some twenty years or so. Also, Alaska Davidson and Lenore Houston in the old bureau.” He stops, as if searching his memory. “And oh, yes, Jessie Duckson.” He lets go of his charming smile. “Maybe by the time you’re twenty-five Hoover will let women in. So go to law school, just in case. That way, if you can’t be an agent, you’ll have a back up. You can be a lawyer.”

“I don’t know any women lawyers, do you?” There was a nice edge to her voice. I liked her.

“Well, no. A great injustice. But perhaps you’ll change that and be the first woman agent in modern times.”

The girl looks doubtful.

Another hand is raised.

“Mr. Linsky,” Fairfield says.

I am impressed with his memory of names after only one hearing. More to worry about.

“So how come Mr. Hoover can’t catch Dillinger?”

“Well, Mr. Linsky, we have it on good authority he’s in Dayton, Ohio. As we speak. He moves around a lot but we’ll get him. Sooner or later we’ll get him.” He narrows his eyes. You can imagine him wearing sun glasses, a fedora, and that serious expression, moving silent as a cat, stalking Dillinger, ready; you can imagine him shooting. No questions asked. Just the Springfield Armory Model M 14 machine gun with 20 round USGI—like the gun that laid under my husband’s side of the bed. Or the Smith & Wesson 22, with a clip that holds 12 rounds. Small enough to fit in a pocket or hide in a hat. Small enough to fit in a woman’s hand. I feel a small thrill.

The boy sits down.

Fairfield looks at his watch again, opens a notebook, and recites the course agenda: Intro to Criminal Justice; Criminal Law; Criminal Investigation; Intro to Forensic Chemistry; Human Relations. I dutifully write the list in my notebook with a shaking hand, now convinced that he knows who I am.

“Class, please read chapters one through four in your textbook, ‘Intro to Forensic Chemistry’ by the next class,” he’s saying. My classmates begin noisily scraping chairs, murmuring, moving toward the door. A couple of girls almost trip as they turn for one more look at Fairfield.

I close my notebook and gather up my books.

I am almost at the door when he calls from the front of the room, “Miss Brady.”

Pretending not to hear him, I put my head down and keep on walking.

“Miss Brady!” he calls. “My office, please! Room 321.”

Three or four of the girls look at me. I see envy in their eyes.

Caught, I find my way to room 321; the hall is noisy with the pounding of feet and voices of students on their way to their next class. I wish I could join them but he is already unlocking his office door and holding it open for me. He doesn’t speak and I cannot. I enter and pause in the middle of the room. I think he can hear my heart pound.

His office is bare, as if he is just passing through. It smells faintly of paint. There is a desk, a couple of chairs, a few books—no plants or pictures on the wall. No photograph of a blond wife and adorable children. Could he be single?

I lower myself carefully into the chair he is offering. Through the window I see luminous clouds drifting by; I want to be out there under them—I want to be anywhere but in this chair with this stranger staring at me with his knowing eyes. I must have been out of my mind to think I could get away with this.

He sits down at his desk and gazes at me. He’s actually better looking up close than from the back row, if that’s possible.

I clear my throat. “What did you want to see me about?”

“Let’s just say I want to welcome Ben Gold’s widow into my classroom.” He smiles at me. “It isn’t often that I have the pleasure of teaching the former wife of a notorious gangster.”

“How did you know?” I ask. I can’t help myself.

“I saw you at your husband’s funeral.”

“You were at Ben’s funeral?”

“Hoover always sends agents to gangsters’ funerals.”

I wince, thinking how the Mafia mobsters had mourned Ben Gold at his grave, where police peering down from their chestnut horses knew which ones supplemented their meager Great Depression income for looking the other way; where the mounted police had to hold back crowds of spectators living vicariously for a glimpse of a killer’s casket. I saw titillation in their faces. Entertainment. I wanted to yell I am not a sideshow. I wanted to yell go way. But I sat demurely veiled in black like a real grieving widow. Although it had stopped raining that morning the air was still humid and the sky heavy; people looked hot and uncomfortable in their correct dark clothes. The gleaming black coffin was covered in gardenias and roses that emitted a heavy perfume as if trying to cover Ben Gold’s stink. The mobsters were respectful, clad in proper black suits and fedoras; the few women in dark-colored dresses. From a distance it could have been a funeral attended by bankers putting a colleague to rest.

“Given your background,” Fairfield is saying, “I can understand your interest in a criminal justice class.”

“Mr. Fairfield, I am also taking English, History, and Psychology. I’m going to be a writer.”

“A writer! Well, well. Ben Gold must have provided you with plenty of material.”

I get up. “I resent being subjected to this.”

“You’re a person of interest to us.”

I sit down. “What does that mean?”

“Look. We have a file on Ben Gold thick as a book. Robberies and murders going back to 1920 when he was fifteen-sixteen.”

“I didn’t know him then.”

“No, but you knew him when you married him.”

“He told me he was in the insurance business.”

“Mrs. Gold. Come on.”

“My name is Kate Brady.”

“Okay, Kate Brady. You really expect me to believe you lived with him for two years and thought he was in the insurance business? Please.”

“Well, I did,” I lie. “Anyway what do you want of the man? He’s dead. And what do you want of me?”

“Information. Names of his associates. Conspiracies. Mob conflicts. Any bit of information you have, no matter how small, can be significant.”

“Mr. Fairfield, I have nothing to tell you. I married Ben Gold when I was 18 years old,” I say slowly, as if he is dense or hard of hearing. “I married him because I lost my job at Shapiro’s Bakery and my scholarship to Ohio State University because there was no money for room and board and books. I married him to get away from my mother and her drinking problem. Do I have to pay for it the rest of my life?”

My eyes fill with real tears. I fish in my bag for a handkerchief and blow my nose. I stand up and gather my books and handbag, feeling as marked as if Ben Gold had written his name on my forehead. “All I want to do is forget I ever laid eyes on Ben Gold.” I look at him. “Or you.”

He rises from his chair and stands, shifting his weight, looking uncomfortable. “I’m sorry you’re upset, but if anything does occur to you about Gold or his associates—again, no matter how small-we’d appreciate your cooperation.”

He opens the door for me. “See you tomorrow in class.”

“No you won’t.”

“But I apologized.”

“That’s not an apology, and even if it were, I wouldn’t accept it,” I say. I leave the office slamming the door behind me. Hard. I am more than relieved. I am pleased.

On my drive home it starts to rain. The afternoon slanting light gives the raindrops a silvery shine. I calm down, deciding to simply drop Fairfield’s class. Besides, I tell myself, even if Fairfield has me under surveillance, I really have nothing to hide. I have no contacts with anyone from my life with Ben, in spite of calls from his hit man, Sam Bernstein. His last call was just a week ago telling me he’s out of work, complaining that none of the Jewish outfits trust him because of his long association with their rival Ben Gold and that the Mafia won’t have him because he isn’t Italian. He said he wants to be my driver and bodyguard.

“Sam, I’d love to hire you,” I said, carefully, knowing full well of his lethal temper. “But I’ve learned to drive, and since Ben’s gone, I really have no need for a bodyguard. Do you need anything? Money?”

“I can always use a few bucks. Especially since I aint been workin’.”

“I’ll send you a cashiers check for a thousand dollars.”

“Thanks, Kate. You always was a good dame.”

“But Sam, it’s better if you don’t call me. Okay?”

“Yeah, okay, I get it. You’re done with the life, you’re gonna be a college girl. Your mother told me,” he says huskily. “It’s just that I miss Ben.”

“I miss him too,” I lie.

“Okay, so I won’t call you no more. Anyway, thanks for the dough.”

“Oh, Sam, you’re so welcome! And I appreciate your understanding. Take care of yourself. I’ll call if I get any ideas for you, or if something turns up.”

“Well, thanks. Like I said, you always was a good dame.”

What I told Fairfield is true—I did marry Ben Gold to get away from my mother and her drinking problem. But soon afterward she got herself into that new organization, Alcoholics Anonymous, founded by two former drinkers. She did that after Ben died; after I got the insurance money; after I moved her from her dusty little rooms to a nice apartment on Euclid Heights Boulevard in Cleveland Heights. But since she is now sober why do I still want to avoid her? Because, half ashamed, I liked her better when she was drunk.

The Salvation Army took her old beat-up furniture away—the furniture I had grown up with, writing my initials on the end table in the dust that grew there because my mother was too tired after work to do much dusting and I was too lazy or angry.

I took her shopping for her new apartment-the furniture store smelled of wood and polish. We argued over a blue couch that my mother wanted which was too large for the living room. We argued over a plaid easy chair with a matching foot stool that I thought handsome, but she turned her face away in cold dismissal—reminding me painfully of the rejections I received from her during my childhood. Moving her head a little like a fighter, she finally agreed with me on a bed because it had a fairytale canopy.

“Do you like the bed, Mama?” I asked, hoping to finally please her with something.

“Yeah, it’s the cat’s meow,”

She picked wallpaper of pink trailing roses on a white trellis that would be great in a nursery—but at that point I was too tired of arguing and just nodded my head at the sample she showed me.

When the new furniture arrived, no matter how we arranged and rearranged the chairs and sofas, pushing and pulling them from one place to another (against the wall; framing the window; in the center with a table behind), they dwarfed the space and my mother like furniture for giants.

“Oh, so there you are Katie,” my mother said, when I finally visited her last Sunday. “I see that you finally decided to see your mother. It’s been ages,” she said, looking up from the jigsaw puzzle she was always working on. “Oh, well, it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to see your own mother. You’re just a very busy lady since you got that money and all. And oh my, a college girl, too.” She looked up and gazed at me “That‘s a nice dress you’re wearing,” she said, looking me up and down. “But don’t you think it’s too short? Yes, dear, it’s too short. Also too tight. Have you put on some weight? And Katie, you must do something about your hair—one of those new bobs, I think.” She walked over to the windows. See these drapes?” she said, pointing. “I’m not happy with them-—the color—that maroon—is depressing. Something lively would be nicer, don’t you think? Yellow? And I saw a hat at Halle’s department store I’ve taken a fancy to. I’ll need some more money, dear.”

My sweet drunken mother had turned sober and bloodthirsty.

Read an excerpt from The Hat here.
Read an excerpt from Lost and Found here.