Searching for Connie De Toth
A love story on the skids
By William Boyle
Reading time 18 Minutes
The name of the place where Connie worked
The name of the place where Connie worked was Mother’s 123 Club. It was nestled between a shoe repair shop and a dinette on West 29th Street. When I found her, I had to pretend like I didn’t know who she was. None of the bum alkies there knew, or maybe one or two of them did and kept quiet. I heard she’d been living in a women’s hotel for a while. I’d heard she’d fallen so far from the top, where’d she’d been for years, and I had to see for myself. The thing was she looked happy, even though I could tell she had trouble.
Finding her hadn’t been hard. I’d had her picture up on my wall for ten years, ripped from the pages of Photoplay and even with the age added on and the lack of makeup and the regular clothes, I could tell it was her. I couldn’t believe she was a bartender at this dive. It was something out of a dream, a dumb kid from Coney Island finding her slinging whiskey at a TB joint in the city. She was from Brooklyn too, I knew that much. I thought she might fall in love with me. I thought we might save each other.
When I ordered from her I tried to deepen my voice a little. I was twenty-two but I looked seventeen, and I didn’t want her to think I was a boy. I also had a plan to tell her and anyone who asked that my name was Doc. I was starting my new life as Doc. I didn’t want to volunteer the guinea handle I was stuck with thanks to my old man: Nicodemo Mazzone Jr. Everyone called me Nico, and I didn’t like it. I wasn’t a Nico. Nicos might buff your shoes or make your bread or carry your groceries. I watched all the Westerns I could about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and I read some of the dime books too, and I felt like I was – or could’ve been – Doc Holliday. I felt like Doc Holliday was the kind of guy who could just walk into a bar and make the washed-up actress pulling beers fall for him. That’s who I wanted to be. I tried to put on my best Victor Mature face, like I was carrying doom on my back, like I was doing Shakespeare in cowboy clothes, and if anyone asked, if Connie asked, I was Doc. I was sallow. I’d even put on a faint cough, not too heavy – I didn’t want them to think I actually had tuberculosis.
“How old are you, kid?” Connie asked, bringing me a beer. I knew her name, or knew the name she was going by, without having to ask, of course, but I didn’t want to let on. I didn’t want to scare her. That was all I knew. I hadn’t followed her. I just knew her name and I knew it was this place and that she’d been ravaged by booze a little.
“I’m twenty-six,” I said, giving myself four extra years because I didn’t want her to think I was just out of diapers.
“Don’t get your kind here much,” she said.
“Young people. This joint’s mostly old timers on the skids.” She wasn’t much older than thirty-five or forty but without all the lights and the makeup, she looked even a little older than that. It was easy to tell she liked being around people who left her alone. She liked being able to talk about things other than pictures, other than what this one or that one was like, or who was bedding down who, the stuff of gossip rags. She had the look of someone who was happy, finally, to make small talk about weather and ballgames.
“I’ve been looking for a place like this,” I said, not knowing exactly what I meant.
She smiled. She took a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket. I didn’t know the brand, Cardinal Points. I’d never heard of it or seen it. It was as if it’d been created just for her. Four arrows, two blue and two gold, pointed in all four directions, east and west and south and north, on the package.
I’d been waiting for this moment. I took out the lighter I’d stolen from my old man and offered her fire.
“I don’t know about you,” she said. The place wasn’t crowded, just the four bums at the other end of the bar and the one snoring in the back booth, so she stayed over by me, smoking, giving me the once-over, trying to figure my angle. Finally, she asked my name.
“I’m Doc,” I said.
“You’re a doctor?”
“How’s someone not really a doctor?”
“I don’t practice anymore.”
“You’re twenty-six and you’re done with medicine?”
Maybe she was used to lies or maybe she was just bored, but she didn’t press me. I asked her name, even though I knew all of her names or most of her names. She’d been born Constance Ockelman back in Brooklyn and had become Constance Keane when her old man kicked the bucket and her mother got remarried. She went by Connie. Then, of course, she was Veronica Lake. Imagine that. Now she was Connie De Toth, hung with the surname of her famous ex, that director who’d done a bunch of Westerns I’d seen at the Loew’s Coney Island Theater.
But she didn’t say any of that. She just said, “Connie,” stubbing out her cigarette in a clean glass ashtray. I thought the kind of thing I don’t like to think, but I thought it because that’s the way my mind has always worked. I thought how I’d like to lick that ashtray, to eat what was left of her cigarette, and how I’d like her to watch as I did it. I don’t know why I thought things like that. Those were the fantasies I had. They weren’t the usual kind.
When Connie asked me where I was from and I told her Coney Island, the mood lightened. She talked about going to Coney Island as a girl. She talked about the things you talk about when you talk about Coney Island. I knew it all inside out. The crowds, the rides, the fires. I tried to picture her there, but I was picturing her as Veronica Lake and not Connie Ockelman or Connie Keane. I wondered what it was like to have been so many different people. I guess that was why I wanted to be Doc. I wanted Nico to be the past.
I told her a Coney Island story I’d never told anyone else. I told her about Dutch Figliuzzi. As a kid, I knew Dutch better than I knew anybody other than my folks. Dutch worked the corner of my block near the Terminal Hotel. He was a big guy, happy-go-lucky, drunk most of the time but not mean drunk. One day, Dutch was just doing his thing, sitting on an overturned milk crate and watching people, when the Tall Man came loping by. I’d seen the Tall Man before. He lived somewhere over on Mermaid Avenue and worked at the freak show (I think he swallowed nails or breathed fire or something) and always came by on his way to Hank’s Corner Store for coffee and his paper. He wore strange suits – the pants too short, the jacket too tight, the material thick and woolen – and a bowler hat. He was tall and slim, like he’d been stretched, and he walked with this long, flowy gait, the way people walk in water. I guess that day something had gone wrong in his life and so, as he passed Dutch, he picked a fight with him, complaining about some perceived wrongdoing. Maybe it was that Dutch was in his way or that he thought Dutch had said something offensive to him. I was watching from my stoop. My old man had asked me to empty the oil he’d used for frying up chicken cutlets out in the street. When the Tall Man swung at Dutch, that was one thing. When he started beating him, that was another. He seemed to be leaning over and swinging down from a great height. Dutch wasn’t protecting himself; he was just absorbing the blows. I dropped the pan I’d been carrying. The Tall Man kept beating Dutch, and he was silent as he did it, pouring all of his energy into it.
It was at this point in the telling that I paused to drink some of my beer.
“And?” Connie said.
“The Tall Man beat Dutch to death right outside the Terminal Hotel,” I said. “I watched.”
“Jesus Christ, kid. I thought you were gonna tell some whimsical tale about riding the Cyclone every day.” She grabbed my glass and refilled my beer.
One by one, the bums left or were kicked out
One by one, the bums left or were kicked out, and it was just me and Connie, hitting it off, communicating in a way that neither of us had communicated in a while, I guess. Her, because of who she was and how she’d hidden herself from the world. Me, because I didn’t know anything about anything, not really, and I was looking for somewhere I could feel comfortable. I told her about the trouble I’d been running from. I’d done some work for a low-level hood named Johnny Mica, making collections from bars in Coney. It wasn’t strong-arm work. Just picking up envelopes, that kind of thing. But I’d skimmed a few bucks from the collections. Not much. Maybe fifty or seventy-five total. But Mica had goons ready to break my arms. I was ducking them. Manhattan was far enough away that I felt safe for a change. I told her she made me feel safe. I thought about telling her I knew who she was, but I didn’t.
“I live upstairs, right above the bar,” she said. “It’s not much. You want to have a nightcap after I lock up?”
I wanted to say yes without hesitation, but I played it cool, chirping a little Doc cough into my palm, shrugging and saying, “Sure.”
She wiped the bar off, hung a couple of floor mats over stools to air them out, locked the door and closed the lights, and then guided me up a secret back staircase to her room.
If you think you can’t wind up in a room like the one she took me to – a little nothing room with a cross on an otherwise bare wall, a small shithole lamp, no windows, and the kind of hard little bed you imagine a very dedicated nun sleeping on – brothers and sisters, let me tell you, you’re wrong. We can all wind up in rooms like that, and it’s not always bad. That’s one thing I’ve learned since that night.
She had a bottle of whiskey and two glasses in the bottom drawer of the desk. She poured us some and then sat on the bed. I squatted on the floor in the corner, up against the wall. She talked about what she liked about the room – how small it was, how empty and bare, how it could be anybody’s room, how a room without windows felt truly safe. She said she didn’t like fancy rooms. She said the room where you lived should reflect how you felt on the inside and how she felt on the inside was just like this.
I told her I thought that was sad. I said I put pictures of movie stars on the wall over my bed. I didn’t tell her she was one of them, but maybe she knew.
She downed her whiskey and kicked off her shoes and put her feet up on the bed. She invited me to put my glass down and lie next to her. I did. We stared up at the ceiling, not touching at all. She told me that she could stare up at the ceiling for hours. She said she imagined it was the night sky. The water stains were planets and stars and constellations. She pointed at a hanging strip of peeling paint and said it was a runway to another dimension. She said she believed in other dimensions, in parallel universes. I thought that was the most sophisticated thing I’d ever heard.
“You’re real name’s not Doc,” she said. “What is it?”
“Nicodemo,” I said.
I could feel her nodding, but I didn’t look over. She told me she wanted me to confess to her, confess everything, everything I’d ever done wrong, every bad thought I’d ever had. She wanted to be my priest, she said. She wanted to just lie there and listen and go on staring at the ceiling.
So, I talked. I told her how I’d wanted to kill my parents every now and again. I told her about stealing from Hank’s on more than one occasion, comics and movie magazines and candy. I told her about jumping the turnstile to get on the train. I told her about the guilt I carried around after watching the Tall Man beat Dutch to death. I told her about what was going through my head when I clipped money from Johnny Mica’s bar haul. I told her about shutting all the lights off in my bedroom, peering through the blinds, and watching my neighbor, Anne Marie, undress in hers. I told her I had dreams where I was kissing the Virgin Mary. I told her I had dreams where I was kissing Jesus. I told her everything there was to tell. I told her about some of my sick fantasies, how I wanted to lick her ashtray, how I wanted Anne Marie to put her hands around my neck and choke me, how I had a teacher in grade school called Mrs. Greene and I loved to think about her smacking my hand with a ruler. I told her I was afraid of dying. I told her I was afraid of the future. I told her that sometimes I felt like I had no heart, that it felt very cold inside my body, and I had no idea what that meant.
She put her hand over my hand. We were so close, but that was the first time we’d touched. She spoke in a whisper, almost seeming to put on a man’s voice. “Say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys. Go forth and sin no more.” She let go of my hand, and I’m not going to lie, I felt lighter, relieved of some pressure that had always seemed to be there.
I thought she’d talk too, I thought she’d confess, but she was silent the rest of the time. I fell asleep, content, happy, knowing the peace of that sad little room.
That was the night I went searching for Connie De Toth and found her. I could tell you about after – how Johnny Mica caught up with me, about Connie’s letter, about the rich heel who threatened me if I ever showed my face at Mother’s 123 again – but that’s all a story for another day. For now, I’ll just say I cross time to get to that memory of my night with Connie whenever I need it. Connie, I will never forget you, you were a priest and a saint and my blood is full of your light.
William Boyle is the author of the novels Gravesend, Everything is Broken, The Lonely Witness, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, and City of Margins, and a story collection, Death Don’t Have No Mercy. His books have been nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France, the New Blood Dagger in the UK, and the Hammett Prize in the U.S. He is from Brooklyn, New York and currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi.