Boston Police escorted the two men out of the Crawford House with little fanfare. Management prevented the officers from taking Joe away, especially at the insistence of Charlene. She had pulled the lead officer to the side and spoke with him for several minutes. He returned and breathlessly told Joe there would be no charges pressed against him.
Joe couldn’t help but take a deep breath.
“Are you okay?” Charlene asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I am. I thought I was going to jail there for a few seconds.”
“Why, for being chivalrous? I never knew that was a crime.”
Joe caught Charlene’s wink. He smiled at her sarcasm.
“Hey Joe,” Bernardino said, approaching the pairing. “It looks as though the rest of the show is off. You want to go up to the How—”
“No, that’s okay, Tony,” Joe cut him off. “I don’t think I will.” With half widened eyes, Joe tilted his head toward Charlene twice. Several heart beats later, Bernardino’s eyes widened in realization.
“Oh, never mind then. Enjoy your night, bud. Talk to you tomorrow.”
“Damn, I’m starved. No Mama Cafario’s lasagna?” DiPasquale said as the band walked away. Ciccolini winked at Joe as he departed.
Within a few minutes, the Theatrical Bar was empty save for Joe, Charlene and a custodian who milled about, straightening the tables and picking up broken glass with dirtied, calloused fingers. Charlene bit her lip as the silence — and the thought of being somewhat alone with Joe — descended on them.
“So, are you hungry at all?” Joe asked. He cringed as he said it. He knew he should have stopped himself before he let his lips start flapping away like a schoolboy. His thoughts ran as fast as his heart did now.
But Charlene’s answer startled him.
“Actually, I am. It’s been a few hours since I ate last.”
Joe pursed his lips and brought his fingers to his chin in thought. He snapped his fingers and said, “I know just the place. I think you’re going to like it. Come on.”
“It isn’t your mom’s kitchen, is it?” She still smiled.
Joe chuckled as they walked out the door and onto Court Street.
“No, it’s not. It’s better, though.” He paused. “Just don’t tell her that.”
Charlene brought her index finger up and drew an X over her chest.
They walked north.
“Where are we going?”
“Just to a little place up around the corner here.”
“Is it where you take all the girls that you’re chivalrous toward?”
“Not exactly, no.”
“That’s a double negative,” Charlene said softly. “I think you’re fibbing, Joe Cafario.”
He shook his head as she smiled.
They crossed Hanover Street and headed toward the split at Sudbury and Cambridge Streets. Despite the hubbub from not half an hour ago, Scollay Square was somewhat quiet, as if the Lord himself removed everyone from the streets, from the bars and taverns, and even the tattoo parlors, so that Joe and Charlene could have a moment’s peace with each other.
As they walked slowly, not wanting to rush to get to their destination, Charlene tried her best not to sound like a schoolgirl bobby soxer with a crush on a famous crooner.
“You sound fantastic,” she said. She hoped her blush wasn’t apparent to him in this darkness. “I love your voice on stage.”
“How does it sound off stage?” Joe said. He winked at her before she could say anything.
Charlene bit her lip. Her heart skipped a solitary beat.
They crossed Court Street just before the split and came to a short line of buildings that separated Court from Howard Street. In this three- and in most places four-story brick building, Scollay Liquors advertised Orchard Springs rum, while a street light flickered in front of four small businesses before they came to Pizza Land. Charlene thought they would head in here, but Joe kept them moving until they came to the corner of Court and Stoddard Streets.
He had brought her to Joe and Nemo.
Charlene wet her lips as she smiled. Her cheeks started to hurt, but she didn’t care. She didn’t want that feeling to go away.
There were several people inside. Charlene looked at some of the patrons biting into their hot dogs, which they had covered with mustard, relish, catsup, and onions.
She immediately — as if she had any other humanly choice — inhaled the scents that bombarded her senses.
It smelled like heaven.
Then the shouts began, and for a few moments, Charlene thought that she walked with a god of Boston.
“Hey, there’s Joey!”
“Hey, guys. How are we doing tonight?” Joe said as he led Charlene up to the counter.
“We’re good. No show tonight?”
“The show was cut short.” Joe explained what happened over at the Crawford House and introduced Charlene to the guys. They all held out sterile hands, and Charlene wasn’t shy about shaking each one, even though she looked meek around all of these large, burly men.
“How many tonight, Joey? What’s on ‘em?” they asked once the introductions concluded.
“Three all around, and a pitcher.”
Both Joe and the man behind the counter turned and saw Charlene looking not so meek any longer. She had a smirk on her face.
“Four?” Joey asked.
“Four.” Charlene leaned in. “You don’t think I’m going to let you out-eat me, do you?”
Joe grinned again.
“All right Tommy, four all around and the pitcher.”
“Coming right up.”
Charlene watched as Tommy lifted the lid to the black cauldron and saw steam barrel its way to the ceiling. The water didn’t appear to bubble. Condensation coated the inside of the lid, rolling off and dripping onto the floor.
“You don’t boil the dogs, huh?”
“Nope,” Tommy said as he pulled out dog after dog with his bare hands. “We don’t ever boil them. We slow cook them instead. You see, you boil the dogs, the skins tend to break, and then the dog loses its flavor into the water. We don’t like that. We slow cook them, keep the flavor in, and that’s just part of the reason why our dogs are the best in not just the city, but everywhere.”
“And what’s the other part of the reason?” Charlene asked.
Tommy smiled as he pulled out the last two dogs and set them in the steamed buns.
Charlene looked to Joe. He nodded. She looked back to Tommy and shot him a quizzical look.
“Yep, all around. A hot dog all around is a hot dog with mustard, relish and onions.” He leaned toward her, purposely blocking Joe from the conversation. “A long time ago, though, we had horse radish as part of it, but the younger set don’t really care for it, so we took it out.” He fixed the hot dogs with their condiments and brought them to the counter before he poured a tall pitcher full of Schlitz. Half an inch of foam headed it. “You want some beef stew to go with that, Joey?”
Joe shook his head.
“Nah, that’s okay.” He leaned toward Charlene. “The beef stew’s great, full of beef, vegetables and potatoes with hardly any room for sauce. It would keep you full for three weeks and you could stand your spoon straight up in it. Fifteen cents, too. It’s a good bargain, especially for how much they give you in the bowl. That’s why I like coming here to eat if Mama’s sick, or just for lunch, you know?”
Charlene pursed her lips and nodded.
“Thirty cents, Tom?”
Tommy waved him off.
“Nah, they’re on the house. Just keep plugging us in the show. We need more people from the Crawford coming here.”
“You bet I will.”
Charlene took the tray of dogs while Joe grabbed the pitcher and the two pint-sized glasses. They made their way over to one of the picture windows that lined Court Street. They sat down and started eating.
“So,” Joe said in between mouthfuls. “Tell me a little about yourself, Charlene Phillips. Wait, hold that thought,” he said before yelling over the counter, “What the hell, Tommy? No horse radish?!”
Laughing, Charlene brought a napkin to her lips and wiped the mustard from the corner of her lips.
“As I said, what’s your story?”
Charlene tilted her head and flashed a smile his way.
“What story, Joe Cafario?”
Joe rested his elbows on the table. He was glad his mother wasn’t around, or else he would have jumped at the crack of a dish towel. He stared into Charlene’s gray eyes as he brought his chin to his fingers.
“You intrigue me. We get a lot of people into the Theatrical at night, but never does a beautiful young woman like yourself come to see me play two nights in a row.”
This time, Charlene couldn’t help but bite her lip. She put her hot dog down, picked up her yellow-stained napkin, and began to wave it about in front of her face as if surrendering to the enemy — albeit a handsome enemy.
Charlene blinked. She didn’t expect him to question her like this, but the way his eyes danced as he spoke disarmed her and kept her at ease.
“It’s a long story. I don’t want to bore you.”
“I like long stories,” Joe said, not missing a beat. “They’re great for wasting time and for getting to know a lovely young lady like yourself.” He flashed a lopsided grin at her.
Charlene couldn’t stop the corners of her mouth turning upward. The blush returned to her cheeks within a few heartbeats.
“Let’s finish eating first, then I’ll tell you my story. Stories are best told over beer, not hot dogs.”
“True. Want to race?”
“That’s a race I think you would win easily.”
They ate their hot dogs in near silence, but they occasionally snagged a peek at the other. Charlene noticed he had a rugged exterior and that his face rippled as he ate. Joe noticed that she tried desperately to keep her pinky finger close to the rest of her fingers, as if her upbringing taught her to treat food like a teacup.
When she was done, she daintily wiped her mouth while he proceeded to pour the beer. He made sure to tip the glasses so that as the amber beverage swirled, little foam formed as he righted them.
“A perfect head, as they say,” he said.
She didn’t ask what that meant. She brought the glass to her lips and took a short sip. Her face twisted into something he couldn’t recognize.
“Not a beer drinker, I take it?” Joe took a sip from his glass.
Charlene shook her head.
“Not really, no.”
“That’s a double negative.”
Charlene couldn’t help but smirk.
“So, your story.”
“Where to begin?” She held up a hand. “I know, I know. I should start at the beginning. Very well,” she said, noticing Joe’s own smirk. She took a deep breath, then began her narrative.
Their beers sat forgotten in front of them.
“I was engaged to be married about a year and a half ago.” Charlene didn’t know why she chose to start there, but she figured that Joe would want her to cut to the quick. She didn’t want to bore him. “Walter was a good man. He died in Korea.”
Charlene’s smile was wistful, but no tears came to her eyes, which surprised her.
“Thank you. He was from a big old Yankee family like myself, so it was supposed to be a perfect match. It was weird, though: His family had all of that money, yet they couldn’t buy his way out of the service.”
“He died serving his country; he made a wonderful sacrifice. I lost a couple of friends from high school overseas. I couldn’t go. Heart condition.”
“I could’ve gone into medicine if I wanted to,” she said. “But no, I had to pick law.”
“So you’re studying to be a big lawyer.”
“I want to help the less fortunate. I don’t want to be a public defender, though. I want to be a civil attorney.”
“That’s very admirable,” Joe said. “There’s not a lot of money in that, though.”
“Money doesn’t drive me. I have plenty of it through my family. I just want to make a difference in other people’s lives.”
“How much longer do you have until you become a lawyer?”
Charlene seemed to collapse under the weight of the question.
“About six more years,” she replied. “I have three years of undergrad left, then the three years of law school, and then the bar exam. I should be good to start my practice by 1960, then retire by 1990 if I play my cards right.”
“You have it all mapped out,” Joe said with a grin. “I admire that.”
“So what brought you into the square last night?”
“That goes back to Walter. After he died,” she said, “I was pretty despondent. I didn’t snap out of it for a while. I eventually started attending Harvard last fall. I met a few nice girls, and they decided to trick me last night.”
“How did they trick you?”
“You sound like you’re the one who’s going to be in a courtroom,” Charlene replied with a smile. She explained Pamela and Marcy’s plot from the night before. “I think they wanted me to live a little. I had fun for the first time in eighteen months last night.”
Joe’s cheek twitched.
“I had fun looking at you last night.”
Charlene bit her lip again. She didn’t know how to continue. She didn’t want to be forward. It wouldn’t look good, she knew, but there was something about Joe Cafario’s demeanor that seemed inviting. Her heart trembled at his husky voice, and soon the words spilled from her lips before she had the chance to stop them.
“Well, if you must know, my eyes weren’t disappointed, either.”
Joe sniffed a smile.
“I’ll keep your secret.”
The pair looked into each other’s eyes as the minutes passed. Neither moved, nor did they want to move for fear of breaking this one special moment.