Caroline stood behind the hostess counter at Tino’s. The evening was almost over, but there was still a large table that Frank was entertaining in the back of the room. City council members, one of the waiters had said.
To Caroline it seemed he was doing quite a bit of wooing in the government circles. She wasn’t privy to any of it. He had given her this job and she should be thankful for it. She rented a room in a boarding house that was so small she had to keep herself from screaming when she awoke in the dark. It reminded her of the prison cell she had called home for three years.
Sal, the bookkeeper came out of the back and locked the front door. He went to the counter and opened the till.
“You can head home if you want, Miss Caroline,” he said as he started pulling the bills out. “This party might be here awfully late.” Caroline glanced over at Frank as he told a story. He gestured with his cigar in his hand and the whole table laughed. She couldn’t remember the last time he had spoken to her.
“Alright, Sal, I’ll call it a night,” she said. She pulled her pocketbook from under the counter and put on her hat. Sal abandoned the till and let her out the front door.
“A domani, Miss Caroline,” he said. Caroline took a last look though the window as she heard the door lock behind her. The windows were bright as a waiter snuffed the candles on the empty tables. The men at the back didn’t notice as the room was cleaned around them. Another waiter came over and pulled the window shade shut. Caroline turned away and started to walk home.
Late that night, Caroline sat awake at the end of her bed. She was reading a magazine by the light of a small oil lamp. It was turned down so low, the corners of her room were dark and the shadows flicked on the walls. She heard a light tapping at her door. She glanced at the door, then ignored it and went back to reading. Someone rapped on her door again. The bed squeaked as Caroline sat up. They knocked louder.
“Whaddyawant!” Caroline barked in the huskiest voice she could manage. The man outside chuckled.
“Caroline, it’s Frank,” he announced. She was too surprised to move until he knocked again. She tossed the magazine aside and went to the door. She only opened it a crack. Frank was smiling with a drunken shine in his eyes.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I want to show you something. Come on, get dressed,” he said.
“It’s the middle of the night, Frank!” she scolded.
“I know, but I gotta show somebody and you’re my oldest friend. Now hurry up!”
Caroline nodded and shut the door. She grabbed the discarded dress she had draped on the back of the chair and pulled it on. In a few minutes, she stepped out into the hall in her coat and hat. Frank was giddy and halfway to the staircase before she reluctantly followed him.
Out on the street, his driver opened the car door for her and she climbed inside. Frank followed her.
“To the boardwalk, Charlie,” he ordered. The driver got in and started the car. He pulled over near the pier and stopped the car.
“Wait here, Charlie, we shouldn’t be too long.” Frank helped Caroline out of the car. The moon was high and full over the water. She paused to lean on the railing and stare at it. Within a moment, Frank put an arm around her shoulders and steered her away.
“This way,” he whispered as he led her down an alleyway next to a boarded up building. He pulled out a key and unlocked the door. It was pitch black inside and Caroline clung to the back of Frank’s coat to find her way. They took a few steps up and she could hear the floorboards creak under her feet.
“Wait here,” Frank ordered. He left her standing in the dark. She began to wonder what sort of practical joke he was trying to pull. She was about to call out his name when the lights flashed on. A row of stage lights in front of her. A spotlight overhead. There were rows and rows of empty theater seats below her and a balcony above. Frank reappeared and walked down the center aisle to the stage and Caroline.
“What is this?” she gasped as he climbed up.
“My new investment, Caroline!” he laughed with his arms wide.
“I didn’t know you had an interest in the dramatic arts, Frank.”
“I don’t,” he put an arm around her shoulder and waved the other over the seats. “There’s going to be jazz, comedians, dancers, you name it. Instead of all these seats…tables and the best steaks in town. Even tables along the balcony with a private lounge and bar.
“That sounds amazing, but how could anybody sell this? It’s right on the boardwalk.” Caroline gazed up at the painted ceiling.
“Some frenchie panicked when Prohibition hit. Realized he was homesick and walked out on the bank loan he used to keep it running after some bad luck. I’ve been making friends and greasing palms for months. Here it is, the fruits of my labor!”
“So you’ve had this all thought out, huh?” Caroline leaned into him. “What are you going to call it?” Frank met her gaze.
“I don’t know, I haven’t decided,” he shrugged.
“Margot’s?” Caroline hadn’t even finished saying the name before Frank had looked down. He took a few steps away from her.
“No…no…not that. I can’t. This isn’t about keeping the past alive. It’s about building the future.”
“I see,” Caroline crossed her arms. She shouldn’t have brought her up. “What was it called before?”
“Some long French name,” Frank still stared at the balcony stony faced.
“That could be something,” Caroline said. “It’ll strike a cord with the nouveau riche tourists. They’ll walk in and empty their pockets for the same lobster and mussels every other restaurant is selling. Except it’ll cost more here, because we’ll give them all fancy names and slather them with rich sauces.” She draped her hand over Frank’s shoulder and rested her chin on the other.
“Hm? What do you say?” she asked. His expression started to brighten. He took one of her hands and gave it a squeeze.
“Yeah, that’s what I need. That’s why I need you.” He pulled her in front of him and held her captive.
“What are you talking about, Frank?” She was uncertain what he was getting at and frowned.
“I need your style. I have carpenters coming in on Monday, but I need you to help bring my vision to life. I don’t want it to look tacky and cheap. Come on, will you?” He still held on to her and began to sway side to side. She remembered him doing the same thing to Margot, whenever she complained about moving again. Caroline felt baffled as she was trapped with her arms at her sides.
“What about Tino’s?” she asked.
“Don’t worry, I can find a new hostess if Sal can’t cover it. We need to get this place on track then we’ll start on the other theater!”
“Other theater?” Caroline balked. These were big projects. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to be responsible for Frank’s success or failure.
“Yes, there’s a small theater that connects to this one by a tunnel. That one will be more of a gentleman’s club. I have to find out if any of the whores can dance.” Caroline rolled her eyes and Frank laughed. “Hey, prostitution means guaranteed income! How was I going to fund a venture like this so quickly?”
“I should count my lucky stars that you didn’t make me work in your cat house.”
“Why not? You would have made good money, if you did. Better money than Tino’s. I went against my financial instincts on that one, but I figured you’d think I was being an ass if that was the job I offered you.” He reached down and pinched her ass. Caroline struggled to get her arms free.
“You’re damn right about that!” She ordered, “Let go of me, Frank!”
“No, not until you say you’ll help me with this place.” He picked her feet off the ground and spun her around. She felt so silly, she couldn’t help laughing.
“Fine, but I’m only agreeing under extreme duress!” she cried. “Now let me go!” Frank set her back on her feet and gave her a wet kiss on the cheek.
“Perfect!” he shouted to the empty auditorium. He held out his arm for her take. She was reluctant, but his eyes were bright with excitement. She hadn’t seen him this happy in years, since before Margot had died. She wasn’t going to ruin it. Caroline took his arm and he led her back to the door. She stepped out into the moonlight, while he shut down the lights and locked the door.
Caroline drifted across the street and stared out at the ocean. The waves crashed against one another and sent a chill into her bones. She closed her eyes and listened to it. Then she heard her name like a sigh against her ear. Her eyes shot open and she turned around. Her hand went up to her ear. Frank was just staggering across the street, but she had heard it. A woman’s voice had said ‘Caroline’ right by her ear. She had even felt the breath against her skin. Caroline rushed to join Frank.
“Jesus, Caroline! You’re shaking. Should we stop for a drink to warm up?” He put an arm across her shoulder again and steered her to the car. He was leaning his weight on her and Caroline knew he had had quite enough to drink.
“No, Frank, I’d like to go home,” she peered over her shoulder again, but the boardwalk was still empty.
“Alright, we’ll go home. We have a lot of work to start tomorrow.”
“You mean today?” Caroline asked as she tried to hurry him back to the car. Frank laughed.
“Well, maybe not today, but tomorrow.” The driver got out of the car and helped Frank in. Caroline paused before she got in and stared back down along the boardwalk. She could still hear the voice in her ear like a recording over and over again. She tried to shake it away. It had to be only the wind.