The Girl in the Glass by Jeffrey Ford by Jeffrey Ford - Read Online

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Editor’s Note

“In the news…”A surprisingly timely — as well as entertaining — mystery, this book examines a Mexican immigrant attempting to make his way through the United States during the Great Depression, and navigating con men, hucksters, and scams in the process.
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Summary

The Great Depression has bound a nation in despair -- and only a privileged few have risen above it: the exorbitantly wealthy ... and the hucksters who feed upon them. Diego, a seventeen-year-old illegal Mexican immigrant, owes his salvation to master grifter Thomas Schell. Together with Schell's gruff and powerful partner, they sail comfortably through hard times, scamming New York's grieving rich with elaborate, ingeniously staged séances -- until an impossible occurrence changes everything.

While "communing with spirits," Schell sees an image of a young girl in a pane of glass, silently entreating the con man for help. Though well aware that his otherworldly "powers" are a sham, Schell inexplicably offers his services to help find the lost child -- drawing Diego along with him into a tangled maze of deadly secrets and terrible experimentation.

At once a hypnotically compelling mystery and a stunningly evocative portrait of Depression-era New York, The Girl in the Glass is a masterly literary adventure from a writer of exemplary vision and skill.

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780061976902
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The Girl in the Glass - Jeffrey Ford

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A MEDIUM TO TRUTH

Some days ago I sat by the window in my room, counting the number of sedative pills I’ve palmed over the course of the last three months. Even though my fingers tremble, I’ve discovered that the erratic action can be a boon to tricks involving sleight of hand. In the midst of my tabulation, I happened to look outside at the beautiful summer day. A breeze was blowing through the trees that bordered the small courtyard, and their silver-backed leaves flashed in the sunlight. It was then that I noticed a bright yellow butterfly flutter past and come to rest on the head of the weathered concrete Virgin that sits amid the colorful zinnias that nurse Carmen had planted in the spring. The orange dot on its lower wings told me it was an alfalfa, Colias eurytheme.

The sight of this beautiful creature immediately reminded me of my benefactor and surrogate father, Thomas Schell, and I was swept back to my youth, far away in another country. I sat that day for hours, contemplating a series of events that took place sixty-seven years ago, in 1932, when I was seventeen. Decades have since died and been laid to rest, not to mention loved ones and personal dreams, but still that distant time materializes before me like a restless spirit at a séance, insisting its story be told. Of course, now with pen in hand, I have no choice but to be a medium to its truths. All I ask is that you believe.

ECTOPLASMIC PRECIPITATION

Every time the widow Morrison cried, she farted, long and low like a call from beyond the grave. I almost busted a gut but had to keep it under my turban. There could certainly be no laughter from Ondoo, which was me, the spiritual savant of the subcontinent.

We were sitting in the dark, holding hands in a circle, attempting to contact Garfield Morrison, the widow’s long-dead husband, who fittingly enough had succumbed to mustard gas in a trench in France. Thomas Schell, ringmaster of this soiree, sat across from me, looking, in the glow from the candlelight, like a king of corpses himself—eyes rolled back, possessed of a bloodless pallor, wearing an expression straight from a nightmare of frantic pursuit.

To my right, holding fast to the gloved dummy hand that stuck out of the end of my jacket sleeve, was the widow’s sister, Luqueer, a thin, dried-out cornstalk of a crone, decked with diamonds, whose teeth rattled like shaken dice, and next to her was the young, beautiful niece (I forget her name), whom I rather wished was holding my prosthesis.

On my other side was the widow herself, and between her and Schell sat Milton, the niece’s fiancé, your typical scoffing unbeliever. He’d told us during our preliminary meeting with the widow that he was skeptical of our abilities; a fast follower of Dunninger and Houdini. Schell had nodded calmly at this news but said nothing.

We didn’t have to sit there long before Garfield made his presence known by causing the flame on the candle at the center of the table to gutter and dance.

Are you there? called Schell, releasing his hands from those of the participants on either side of him and raising his arms out in front.

He let a few moments pass to up the ante, and then, from just behind Milton’s left shoulder, came a mumble, a grumble, a groan. Milton jerked his head around to see who it was and found only air. The niece gave a little yelp and the widow called out, Garfield, is it you?

Then Schell opened his mouth wide, gave a sigh of agony, and a huge brown moth flew out. It made a circuit of the table, brushing the lashes of the young lady, causing her to shake her head in disgust. After perching briefly on the widow’s dress, just above her heart (where earlier Schell had inconspicuously marked her with a dab of sugar water), it took to circling the flame. The table moved slightly, and there came a rhythmic noise, as if someone was rapping his knuckle against it. Which, in fact, someone was: it was me, from underneath, using the knuckle of my big toe.

Ghostly sobbing filled the dark, which was my cue to slowly move my free arm inside my jacket, reach out at the collar for the pendant on my neck, and flip it around to reveal the back, which held a glass-encased portrait of Garfield. While the assembled family watched the moth orbit closer and closer to fiery destruction, Schell switched on the tiny beacon in his right sleeve while with his left hand he pumped the rubber ball attached to a thin hose beneath his jacket. A fine mist of water vapor shot forth from a hole in the flower on his lapel, creating an invisible screen in the air above the table.

Just as the moth ditched into the flame, which surged with a crackle, sending a thin trail of smoke toward the ceiling, the beam of light from within Schell’s sleeve hit my pendant, and I adjusted my position to direct the reflection upward into the vapor.

I’m here, Margaret, said a booming voice from nowhere and everywhere. Garfield’s misty visage materialized above us. He stared hard out of death, his top lip curled back, his nostrils flared, as if even in the afterlife he’d caught wind of his wife’s grief. The widow’s sister took one look at him, croaked like a frog, and conked out cold onto the table. The widow herself let go of my hand and reached out toward the stern countenance.

Garfield, she said. Garfield, I miss you.

And I you, said the phantom.

Are you in pain? she asked. Are you all right?

I’m fine. All’s well here, he said.

How do I know it’s really you? she asked, holding one hand to her heart.

Do you remember that summer day by the sound when we found the blue bottle, and I told you I loved you?

Oh, cried the widow. Oh, yes. I remember.

The ghostly image slowly disintegrated.

Remember me, said the voice as it started to fade. I’m waiting for you…

Milton, who was well shaken by the visitation, said in a faltering voice, I believe it’s raining in here.

Schell spoke from the side of his mouth, Merely ectoplasmic precipitation.

The widow’s sister came around then. The niece called, Uncle Garfield, I have a question.

Unfortunately Uncle Garfield had taken a powder. He spoke no more, but a few seconds after it had become obvious he was gone for good, a dead rat fell out of the darkness above and onto the table right in front of Milton, who gave a short scream and pushed back his chair, standing up.

What does this mean? he yelled at Schell, pointing at the razor-toothed corpse before him. His eyes and hair were wild.

Schell stared straight ahead.

Milton turned to look at me just as I was in the process of stowing the fake hand in the pocket inside my jacket. If he wasn’t so upset, he might have noticed that my left sleeve was empty.

My exalted Mr. Milton, I said in my best Bombay-by-way-of-Brooklyn accent, the dead speak a strange symbolic language.

He turned away and walked directly to the light switch. I slipped my arm into the sleeve, and the lights came up. The group was silent as they employed handkerchiefs.

We’ve made progress, Mrs. Morrison, said Schell.

Thank you so much for bringing him to me, she said. How can I ever repay you?

I ask only my fee.

And a hefty one it was at that for half an hour’s work. As we stood by the front door of the mansion, Schell stuffed the wad of bills into his coat pocket while lifting the widow’s hand to kiss the back of it. I stood patiently, ever the assistant of the great man, but inside I was itching to get home and wash that dead rat residue out of my hair.

You must come back, said the widow.

It would be my express pleasure, said Schell.

I’d noticed that while we stood gathered in the foyer that Milton tried to put his arm around Morrison’s niece, but she shrugged his hand off her shoulder. Apparently she had no problem interpreting the strange symbolic language of the dead. Milton ignored this brush-off and stepped up to Schell.

Most uncanny, he said. I too would like to employ you for a séance.

I’ll consider it, said Schell, "although, usually, I make my services available to only a certain quality of individual."

Milton seemed to take this as an affirmation.

I delivered my Ondoo nightcap, one of my favorites from the Rig-Veda, May he whose head is flaming burn the demons, haters of prayer, so that the arrow slay them, and we left. It was our practice to always walk in single file with Schell first and myself behind, moving slow and measured, as if in a stately procession.

Antony Cleopatra was waiting beside the Cord, dressed in his chauffeur uniform and cap, holding the door. Schell got in the front, and after closing the door, Antony came around and held open the other door for me. Once we were seated, he got in the driver’s seat, squeezed his hulking mass behind the wheel, and started the engine. As we traveled down the long, winding driveway toward the road, I lifted the turban off my head.

How’d it go? asked Antony.

That widow held more gas than a zeppelin, I said.

Or didn’t, said Schell. I was afraid to light the candle.

How’d you come up with the bit about them on the beach and the blue bottle? I asked.

Passing through the parlor, on the way to the dining room where we had the séance, said Schell, there’s a lovely photograph on the fireplace mantel of the widow and poor Garfield, standing on a beach. In her hand is the bottle.

But the color of it? I asked.

It was of a distinct shape most commonly used to hold an old curative elixir, Angel’s Broom, now outlawed for its alcoholic content. These were sometimes made of brown glass but more often blue. I simply played the odds on the color.

I laughed in admiration. Thomas Schell possessed more flim-flam than a politician, a poet, and a pope put together. As Antony often put it, He could sell matches to the devil.

THE BUGATORIUM

The world was on the skids, soup lines and Dust Bowls, but you would never have known it from the polished brass banisters and chandeliers of Mrs. Morrison’s Gold Coast palace. The Depression wasn’t our concern either as the three of us sat in Schell’s Bugatorium (Antony’s name for it), sipping champagne in celebration of a job well done. The air was alive around us with the flutter of tiny wings, a hundred colors floating by, like living confetti, to mark our success. An orange albatross, Appias nero, the caterpillars of which had arrived from Burma some weeks earlier, lighted on the rim of Schell’s glass, and he leaned forward to study it.

I’m positive the widow will have us back, he said, and when she does we’ll have to give her a little more of a show. She’s a vein we’ve only begun to tap.

Maybe Antony could pose as Garfield, you know, a flour job. We’ll ghost him up, I said. I noticed a window there in the dining room. If we could direct her to the window, he could be standing out in the garden in the shadows.

Not a bad idea, said Schell, coaxing the butterfly off his glass with a gentle nudge of his pinky.

I hate being dead people, said Antony.

You’re a natural, I said.

Watch it, junior, said the big man.

We waited a long while for Schell to jump back in the conversation, but he didn’t. Instead he merely sighed, took one more sip of his drink, and set his glass on the table. Gentlemen, I’m through, he said and stood up. Nice work this evening. He stepped around to where I sat and shook my hand. This had been the protocol since I was a child; never a hug at bedtime, only hand shaking. He then moved on to Antony and did the same. Remember, no smoking in here, Mr. Cleopatra, he said.

Whatever you say, Boss, said Antony.

We watched Schell leave the room, moving wearily, as though carrying some invisible burden. A few minutes later, the muffled sound of Mozart’s Requiem came to us from down the hall and through the closed door.

Hearing the sad music in the distance, Antony poured another drink for himself and said, Funeral time.

What’s wrong with him these days? I asked, holding out my glass for a refill.

No more booze for you tonight, he said.

Come on.

When you’re eighteen.

Okay, I said, knowing not to test his patience. But what about the boss?

The boss? he said, taking a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of his shirt pocket. His feelings are on unemployment.

Well put, I said.

You better believe it, said Antony, lighting the cigarette he’d placed between his lips.

Why, though? I asked. We could be out there scrounging for a crust of bread, but business has never been better.

This shit can get to you after a while. Bilking people, scamming old ladies. He leaned back and blew a big smoke ring. A beautiful blue morpho flew right through the center, dispersing it.

That’s what he does, though, and he’s the best at it, I said.

He’s a fucking artist, for sure, but it’s not really right.

The widow looked pretty pleased to see her husband again tonight, I said. How much do you think that was worth to her?

Yeah, yeah, I know the arguments, but I’m telling you, he’s caught the funk from it, he said, standing to lean across the table and grab Schell’s glass. As he sat back down, he flicked his ash into the remaining champagne, and it fizzed.

What makes you so sure?

Back when I worked the carnivals, wrestling palookas and bending iron bars with my teeth, I saw all manner of shills. These guys, some of them were champs, you know, made a healthy living at it. Some of them would con their old ladies for a quarter if they could, but some a them actually had a conscience, and after a while, even if they never thought about it up front, underneath, the unhonestness of it ate them away.

Schell…a conscience? I asked.

If not, why’d he take you in? I told him back when first he brought you home, I said, ‘Boss, the last thing you need’s some spic brat running around your life.’ He said, ‘Too late, Antony, he’s ours and we have to raise him.’

And then you grew to love me, I said.

Yeah, he said. But, the boss, he’s caught between a shit and a sweat.

I shook my head, unable to conceive of Thomas Schell ever being confused about anything. The revelation disturbed me, and Antony must have seen this in my expression.

Don’t worry, we’ll think of something, he said, dropping the spent butt into the champagne glass. He stood up. I’m hitting the sack. He pointed to the glass with the butt in it. Do me a favor and get rid a this crap so I don’t get in trouble.

Okay, I whispered, still deep in thought.

Antony walked around behind me and put his palm on top of my head, his long fingers encompassing my crown like a normal size hand holding an apple. He shook me gently back and forth. Schell’s gonna be fine, he said. You’re a good kid, Diego. You’re a helluva swami.

He let go and lumbered toward the door, a small swarm of pine whites following in his wake.

Good night, Antony, I said.

Sleep tight, babe, he called back and then slipped out of the room as quickly as he could to keep the butterflies in.

I sat quietly, surveying the veritable jungle of plants and potted trees surrounding the table and chairs. The blossoms were as varied in color and shape as the insects. Up above, I could see the stars through the glass skylight. In his room, Schell had exchanged the platter on his Victrola for some equally melancholic piece, and the serenity of the scene made me ponder this turning point in my life. I’m sure the moment comes to most earlier, but few have had a father as extraordinary as mine. In my conversation with Antony, it had struck me for the first time that Schell was merely mortal. The thought of him troubled, confused, made the world seem instantly more sinister.

THE EXTENT OF SUSCEPTIBILITY

The next day, Schell and I took off in the Cord to stake out a new mark. There was a very wealthy gentleman over in Oyster Bay whose bank account required lightening. It was our practice to meet with perspective patrons first before performing a séance in order to case the room where the event would take place and judge what effects would be possible. It was also an opportunity to pick up clues that we could spin into prescient revelations. The boss focused on artwork, the type of furniture, jewelry, repetitions of words and phrases the mark might use, hand gestures, pets. Not an errant nose hair escaped his attention, and he’d extract from these crumbs of information secrets of the bereaved as if he were Conan Doyle’s detective.

The thing he most concentrated on, though, was the apparent degree of the mark’s grief, for as he always reminded me, The depth of loss is directly equivalent to the extent of susceptibility. In other words, the more one longed for contact from the other side, the more readily one would embrace the illusion. Occasionally, we would run into a snake, some self-professed debunker, whose intent was merely to out us as frauds, but Schell could spot this within the first five minutes of an interview.

Watch the nose, Diego, he would say. The nostrils flare slightly when one is lying. The pupils dilate an iota. In a thinner person, you can detect treachery by the pulse in the neck. For a man who trafficked in the spiritual, he was ever focused on the physical.

And how are your studies going? Schell asked me as we sped along.

"I’m reading Darwin, The Origin of Species," I said.

My hero, he said, laughing. What do you make of it?

We’re apes, I said, adjusting my turban.

Too true, he said.

God’s a fart in a windstorm. It’s only Nature that rigs the deck.

It isn’t a perfect being that’s brought all of this about, he said, lifting his right hand off the wheel and gracefully describing a circle in the air. It’s all chance and tiny mistakes that give an advantage, which are compounded over time. Think of the intricate, checkered patterning of the spanish festoon [a butterfly we’d had a specimen of some time back]; all a result of some infinitesimal, advantageous mistake in the makeup of a single caterpillar.

Mistakes are at the heart of everything, I said.

He nodded. That’s the beauty.

But you never make mistakes, I said.

When it comes to work, I try not to. But, believe me, I’ve made mistakes—great yawning gaffes.

Such as?

He was silent for a time. I let my past dictate my future, he said.

I can’t think of you employed in any other career, I said.

Perhaps, he said, "but I can certainly conceive of you doing something else. You don’t want to remain Ondoo for the rest of your days now do you? This repatriation business will blow over eventually. The economy will rebound. By the time you’re nineteen, I’d like to see you in college."

As far as my records are concerned, I don’t exist. I have no past. I’m illegal. My education, although superior to any that could be obtained at a public school, was all garnered through a series of quality tutors that Schell had paid a small fortune for.

You leave the records to me, he said. Arrangements can be made.

What if I want to stay in the séance business with you and Antony?

He shook his head but said nothing. We drove on for a few more minutes, and then he turned off the road onto a private drive. The path wound, eel-like, for almost a mile before coming to a guarded gate. A man in a uniform approached the car. Schell rolled down the window and gave his name. We’re here to see Mr. Parks, he said. The guard nodded, and we continued on toward an enormous house that had turrets like a castle.

We parked in the circular drive, and before exiting the car, Schell touched my shoulder and said, Time to be mystical. We walked slowly, single file, to the entrance. As we ascended a long flight of marble steps, the front door opened and a man in a butler’s uniform greeted us.

I’d grown used to the opulence of the residences we frequented on our jobs, but, as they went, the Parks estate was impressive. Antony and I had done the legwork on him and found he’d had money left to him by his father, who’d invested in railroads and trucking and increased it during the Great War by selling munitions to both sides. Parks’s wife had died recently at a sanatorium from TB.

We met the man, himself—portly, with thinning sandy hair—in a parlor at the rear of the mansion. The large window that took up much of the back wall offered, at a distance, a view of the Long Island Sound. He sat, dressed in a white suit, in an overstuffed chair that resembled a throne, smoking a cigarette attached to an exceedingly long holder. I doubt he was much older than Schell, somewhere in his forties.

Mr. Schell, he said upon seeing us, and rose to shake hands with the boss. He turned to me and nodded but didn’t offer his hand.

This, said Schell, waving at me, is my assistant, Ondoo, a native of India. He has a remarkable facility with the mystical. Since working with him, I’ve found that the channels through which the departed travel from the other side are clearer in his presence.

Parks nodded and took his seat.

There are spirits present now, I said as I sat in one of the chairs facing him.

Preliminary ethereal sensations have led me to believe you seek contact with a woman who has passed over, said Schell.

Parks’s eyes widened, and he gave a smile devoid of joy. Remarkable, he said.

You must miss her very much, said Schell.

Parks stubbed out his cigarette in a large, sterling silver ashtray in the shape of a sleeping cat. He nodded, and tears came instantly to his eyes. Yes, he said, his voice having shrunk to a peep.

Your wife…, Schell said, but at the same moment, Parks said, My mother…

Before Parks could register the slip, Schell continued, As I was saying, your wife, of course, is sorely missed, but I knew it must be your mother to whom you wish to speak.

I won’t lie, Mr. Schell, he said. You’re right again. I miss my mother. When she was alive, I would sit with her for an hour every day and confer with her on business, the news, the drama of the household. Though she’s been gone for ten years, I still find myself thinking, after making some astounding transaction, ‘I can’t wait to tell Mother.’

I understand, said Schell.

The mother is the milk of the universe, I added, wondering what kind of relationship he’d had with his wife.

Perhaps pathetic in a man of my age, he said. But I can’t help my feelings. He broke down at this point, lowering his head and lifting a hand to cover his face.

I looked over at Schell, who shifted his gaze to direct mine to the wall. There were three paintings in the room—one was a Madonna and child, one was of a child standing alone by the seashore, and the last was of a train. Beyond this, I noticed that the room was painted and decorated in primary colors.

My analysis of Parks’s surroundings was leading me to a psychological revelation, but just then a young woman, no older than me, walked into the room. She was carrying a tray holding a pitcher of lemonade and three glasses with ice. Will you have the drinks now, Mr. Parks? she asked.

He dried his eyes. Yes, Isabel, he said.

I looked at her again and somehow knew instantly that she was Mexican. At the same moment, she took me in, and in the subtle heave of her chest and signs of a suppressed smile at the corners of her lips, I knew she had made me. I looked at Schell, and he at me. He ran his index finger along the thin line of his mustache, our signal that I should remain calm.

Isabel poured Parks a glass of lemonade and handed it to him. Then she did the same for Schell. When she handed me mine, she nonchalantly turned her back to her employer, leaned in close to me and whispered, Me encanta tu sombrero, glancing at my turban. I wanted to smile at her because she was pretty with a long woven braid of black hair and large brown eyes. At the same time I wanted to cringe in embarrassment. Instead I held fast to my Oriental role and never flinched. As she backed away, she winked at me.

IMAGINE THAT

Imagine that, said Schell as we passed the guard at the gate and traveled back down the winding driveway, a captain of industry, a financial powerhouse, and what he wants most in life is his mother. I’d be touched if I went in for such things, but on a purely analytical level, it’s instructive. Two points: there’s little comfort in wealth, and one’s childhood tags along through life like a shadow." He gazed out the windshield as if trying to reconcile these ideas.

But we’re not going to take the job, I said.

Certainly we are, he said. We’ll do a world of good for Mr. Parks.

But the girl, Isabel, made me in a second, I said. She whispered to me, ‘I love your sombrero.’

I think she liked you, said Schell and smiled.

"She’ll rat me out