Lola Gregg grew up the daughter of a respected physician in a tiny factory town. She married and had children, perfectly content in her quiet suburban existence. But Lola has a problem: At a time when progressivism is considered a national threat, Lola and her husband are on the wrong side of the political spectrum. When the FBI begins to tail her husband due to his leftist affiliations, Lola is forced to choose between her deeply held beliefs and the very safety of her family. Intense and thought-provoking, Lola Gregg is a potent thriller about one woman’s struggle to preserve ideological freedom against the reactionary forces of her day. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Howard Fast including rare photos from the author’s estate.
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Story of Lola Gregg
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1957 Howard Melvin Fast
All rights reserved.
THE GROCERY STORE
THE black Pontiac drew up in front of Geller's Creamqueen Dairy and Grocery, but had to double-park, because the kerb was solid with cars, almost bumper to bumper. There were two men in the Pontiac, and for a while they just sat there, going over some papers one of them had in a portfolio on his lap. It was a clear, bright and shining morning in March, and a west wind had swept into the city, bearing with it the first elusive sweetness of spring.
After a few minutes, a policeman walked over to the double-parked car, confidence and annoyance mixed in his bearing, and said to the driver:
"No standing. What you're doing costs fifteen dollars, so move on before I put a price on it."
"Sorry, officer," said the driver politely. He was a young man in his beginning thirties, clean-cut with close-cropped hair and neatly dressed in charcoal grey flannel. "I know it's an imposition, but I hope you will honour this." And he took out his wallet and opened it for the officer. The policeman's face became respectful and he nodded eagerly. "Of course," he said. "Absolutely. I'm sorry to have bothered you, but you know the way it is."
"I know the way it is," the driver agreed. "You were only doing your duty. We may be only ten minutes or we may be an hour. We can stay here, can't we?"
"I should say you can," the policeman smiled. "As long as you have to. Can I ask where you'll be?"
"In the grocery store."
"Geller? You don't say—I hope he's not in any trouble."
"One of his customers."
The driver lost interest and turned back to the papers on the other man's lap. The policeman stood there for a moment, somewhat ill at ease at the abrupt dismissal, and then said lamely:
"My station's at the intersection. I'll be there if you should need me."
The driver nodded without answering and the policeman walked away. After a few more minutes, both men got out of the Pontiac and walked toward the grocery store. The one who carried the portfolio was older, fleshier, with the round, full-chinned face of a well-fed bank clerk. His vest buttoned tightly over a little stomach, and he wore gold-rimmed glasses. When they entered the store, he did the talking. There were no customers in the store at that moment, only a greying, baldish man of about sixty behind the counter and a younger man with acne sweeping the store toward the back.
"Are you Mr. Geller?" the man with the gold-rimmed glasses asked, and when the baldish man nodded, introduced himself as Mr. Cann. "I'm from the Federal Bureau of Investigation," he said politely, and he opened his wallet and showed his credentials to Mr. Geller. "This is my associate, Mr. Kelley," nodding at the man who had been driving the black Pontiac. "We would like to ask you some questions, Mr. Geller, and to have you help us, if you don't mind."
His tone and attitude were coldly and distantly polite, but in spite of that, the blood drained out of Mr. Geller's face, and he gripped the counter with such obvious nervousness that an uninitiated observer would have suspected a heart attack. But neither Mr. Cann nor Mr. Kelley were uninitiated observers; they had witnessed this reaction too many times to be disturbed by it, and perhaps they felt just the slightest sense of satisfaction at this hard power of the long arm of the Federal Government. Mr. Geller was frightened; it was quite proper that he should be.
"I got nothing to hide," Mr, Geller said. "I got nothing to hide."
"We're sure you have nothing to hide," Mr. Cann said, with the same cool politeness. "We're interested in one of your customers, not in you."
The blood returned to Mr. Geller's face. He breathed deeply and glanced at the acne-faced boy, who had paused in his sweeping. "Leon," he said, "put that broom away and come up here and wait on the customers." Then he told Mr. Cann, "You can come in back, if you want to, and we'll talk there. I never had no trouble with the police. It gives a man a shock when he hears the F.B.I., you know," and he smiled, but Mr. Cann didn't smile back, only agreeing that they would come in back with him if he thought they could talk better there. Mr. Cann's manner said it didn't matter one damn bit to him where they talked.
Mr. Geller led them to the small room behind the grocery store, where, among piles of egg crates and cartons of canned goods, he could seat his guests on two rickety chairs. Through the open door they could see the length of the store, and Mr. Cann placed himself so that he had a clear and unimpeded view. At the same time he wrinkled his nose at the sour smell of decaying vegetables. From the way he sat, the leather portfolio perched carefully on his knees, it was evident that he was a fastidious as well as a decisive man. Mr. Kelley, however, insisted that Mr. Geller be seated. He preferred to stand himself. He was the non-fastidious part of the pair. He was tough and open, and Mr. Cann was surface-gentle and concealed. Even Mr. Geller, never a very perceptive man, could see that, and though he tried very hard, considering it a test and contest of his citizenship, to like them, at least to accept them, he found it difficult because he was afraid of them. The longer they were there, the more he wished they would go away and leave him to himself, his grocery store, his customers, and his losing struggle with the three great supermarkets that fenced him in.
"Which one of my customers?" he asked. If he was afraid, he was nevertheless curious.
"It doesn't surprise you, does it, Mr. Geller?"
"I guess not."
"A friend of yours?"
"All of my customers are. None of them are. I'm just a groceryman." He took out his handkerchief and wiped away the sweat that had gathered on his face. His heart was pounding raggedly. Instead of becoming less afraid, he became more anxious.
"What do you know about her?"
"Not so much. She comes in—she buys here."
"Almost every day."
"Why doesn't she go to the supermarket? She has no money to burn, has she?"
"But she doesn't go to the supermarkets. She comes here."
"You don't burn money here so easy," Mr. Geller said defensively, on surer ground now. "My prices are as good as the supermarket—almost as good. I don't get rich. What are you telling me about the supermarkets, that I got no right to a living? I been here thirty-three years, right here, right in this store thirty-three years."
Mr. Kelley spoke for the first time, judiciously and woodenly. "We're not interfering with your business, are we, Mr. Geller? We're not standing up for the supermarkets——" Mr. Cann looked at him, and smiled coolly.
"We certainly have no axe to grind for the super-markets," Mr. Cann said comfortingly. "Small business is the basis of America and the American way of life. I'm glad to see you understand that, Mr. Geller. So do we. But we understand that Lola Gregg has a charge account here?"
"It's the one thing left for a small groceryman that the supermarkets don't do."
"Yes. Of course. About what is her bill at the present moment?"
"I can't keep every bill in my head."
"Would it be about three hundred and twenty dollars?"
Mr. Geller looked at Mr. Cann with new respect, shrewdly and carefully. For some reason, his heart beat a little more easily now. "Maybe," he nodded. "I'm not sure."
"Isn't that a lot of money for someone like Mrs. Gregg?"
"It's a lot of money for any customer of mine. Maybe it would be a lot even for you, Mr. Cann. She pays when she can. So what do you want me to do, cut her off? I'll never get paid if I do."
"When she comes in, what does she talk about—politics?"
"My customers don't talk about politics. All they do is talk about how much everything costs."
"I'm not talking about your customers, I mean Mrs. Gregg."
"Does she talk about Russia, fascism, Spain?"
Mr. Geller stared at Mr. Cann for a long moment; then he nodded.
"Of course, we know what she talks about, Mr. Geller. But when I talk to anyone, anyone at all, I expect them to be truthful and co-operative. What are your politics, Mr. Geller?"
"I don't have time for any," Mr. Geller answered tiredly. "Believe me, I don't have time for any."
"And Mrs. Gregg—how has she seemed lately? Nervous, upset—troubled by anything, would you say?"
"Look, Mr. Cann, I want to be co-operative with you, but I'm standing here on my feet twelve hours a day. I can't watch if my customers are nervous or upset."
"What time does she come in?"
"Mostly between ten and eleven."
"What does she look like?"
"I don't know—what does a person look like? She's a nice-looking girl, maybe thirty, maybe thirty-two years old—it's hard to tell with someone with two children and not enough money to have any help. A kind of light brown hair. She must have been a good-looking girl——"
"All right. Now go out and take care of your customers. This is all over, as far as you're concerned, Mr. Geller, but when she comes in, I want you to turn and nod to me. I think we'll recognize her, but nod at me anyway. We'll wait here until she comes."
"She may not come today."
"Then we'll get tired of waiting and leave."
Mr. Geller shrugged his shoulders and went back to the store. He had a hollow feeling in his chest and a cold sickness inside of his stomach, but he was not afraid any more. A curse had passed over him and taken someone else, and he would not inquire further. He had his own life to live. He tried with all his power not to glance at the back of the store where the two men were, and yet he found his eyes going there constantly.
At about half-past ten, Lola Gregg came into the store with her little girl, who was just past four years old. Mr. Geller always found himself troubled by the little girl—who was, he considered, too serious and unsmiling for her age. Her brother, Roger, was entirely different. Mr. Geller reflected that Roger must be at least six and a half, maybe seven, for he had been in the first grade since September. Mr. Geller himself never really examined all he knew about his steady customers, but it was a good deal. Now he turned toward the back of the store and nodded.
Mr. Cann, who had an open pad on his knee and a pencil in his hand, remarked to Mr. Kelley, "She doesn't look much like the pictures. I always held that our photography stinks. Give me a description, Kelley. Your eyes are better than mine."
"All right. Five-seven, about one hundred and twenty pounds, hair light brown, maybe a trace of blonde—the light's bad from here—good skin, meso-cephalic—that's a guess, small ears, no distinguishing marks from here, piece of tape on third finger, right hand, brown eyes, I think, wide mouth, straight nose. The face is innocent, but she's well-stacked. This is no Saint Theresa between the ass and shoulders."
"You wonder how in hell a girl like that got into this."
"You wonder. All kinds of things. Maybe it's entertainment the lady likes."
Mr. Cann closed his pad and put it into his portfolio. Then he zipped his portfolio closed and stood up. Mrs. Gregg left the grocery store, and the two men came out of the little room in back.
"Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Geller," Mr. Cann said.
Mr. Geller nodded without speaking.
"Now forget about it. Just forget about it. It's over."
Mr. Geller nodded again. The two men left the store, and the boy with the acne asked Mr. Geller, "Who are they?"
"What in hell business of yours is it?" Mr. Geller replied wearily.
"I'm just asking. You don't need to jump on me."
"So don't ask and don't be a snotnose. When you grow up, you'll learn everything in the world ain't the way you want it to be."
"You look sick, Mr. Geller. Maybe you want a glass of cold water?"
"When I want a glass of anything, I'll ask you for it. What's the matter? The floor is swept so clean? 'With the wages I'm paying you, there isn't work you can find yourself?"
"What did I do now?" the boy complained.
"Please, just leave me alone," Mr. Geller said.
THE kiss brushed Lola's cheek, light as a feather, not light enough to awaken her, only light enough to let her know through her sleep that she had been kissed. "I have been kissed well," she might have said, in her sleep and in her dreams and in all the softly undulating layers of consciousness and memory that were Lola Gregg all the way back to the time when there had been no Lola Gregg. Her daughter, Patty, had once said to her, "Did you save your kisses?" and when she replied that she had not, pointed out to her what a treasure it would have been. But when Patty wanted to know why she liked being kissed, Lola could tell her no more than that she did too. Lola's own mother often had observed that there are more colours in kisses than in jewels, but that was only an old wives' saying and as silly as most of them; Lola had once told Gregg—no one had ever called him Roger, his given name, but only Gregg, which she also called him from the very beginning—told Gregg, she had, that a kiss was like a pebble dropped into a pond of water. At which he snorted, and replied that a kiss was a kiss, and good enough just as it was, and no more and no less. But that prompted the incredulous look that came into his face as he demanded of her whether he was the first boy she had ever kissed; and when she pointed out to him how impossible and even insulting that was, he swore that it could be to anyone else, but neither impossible nor insulting to her.
From the kiss that had brushed her cheek lightly as a feather she fell back into sleep and then rose out of it again, but sheltered herself in the soft warmth of her bed. She opened her eyes narrowly, admitting only enough of the morning light to awaken her less than entirely, and watched her husband pull off his pyjamas and get dressed. In all the years of her marriage, she had never gotten over the delightful, sinful, wanton feeling it gave her to see a man stand naked in front of her; and when she could do it like this, safe in the warmth and comfort of her own bed, her own home and her own man, she felt that she was experiencing the ultimate in luxurious contentment.
Her half-closed eyes satisfied her need for modesty, but she couldn't help smiling a little as she watched him. His flanks were long and hard, his belly lean, his muscles flat and capable, his head well set upon wide, bony shoulders. She wondered shamelessly whether she could have watched a handsome man, a beautiful man, a fat man with the same contentment, recalling that on the one occasion when she had told Gregg how much she admired his physical being, he had replied, "Lola, I think you are the only woman on earth content with what you married. Why, I don't know." She knew more than he did in some ways and less in others; and she recalled how often her father, a small-town doctor, still practising in Hagertown, New Jersey, had observed that she would live well with any man—but if Lola agreed, she thought of it no more deeply than as her own luck. She liked Gregg because of the way he was, but she sometimes sensed that even if he were a good deal different, she would have liked him a great deal anyway.
He looked at her now. His face was plain. His nose a little too flat, mouth too wide, ears too large—but for what? For me, they are eminently suitable, she smiled to herself, and asked him softly whether he thought it was sinful to be too content.
"I didn't know you were up," Gregg said. "I didn't mean to wake you."
"Then why did you kiss me?"
He explained that he meant to kiss her, but not to wake her, and said in his defence that he always kissed her when he woke up.
"Most of the time."
"And then I always wake up."
He sat down to put on his shoes and then looked up at her and asked her what she had said a moment ago.
"Whether it isn't wrong to be too happy?"
"Now that's a hell of a thing to say, isn't it?"
"No. It's just the way I feel sometimes. Don't you?"
"Not in the morning. I'm not happy in the morning."
"You're happy at night," she grinned at him. "Don't you ever feel that way at night?"
"Never. I'll take my chances with being happy."
"Gregg," she said, "Gregg—let me make breakfast for you today."
"And then you won't feel it's wrong to be happy?"
"Gregg—don't laugh at me. Suppose you were here, warm as a caterpillar in a cocoon, and watching me?"
"I wish I was."
"Wouldn't you get up and make breakfast?"
Excerpted from Story of Lola Gregg by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1957 Howard Melvin Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Contents1 The Grocery Store,
2 The Kiss,
3 The Teacher,
4 An Interesting Event,
5 The Two Men,
6 The American Way of Life,
7 The Lawyer,
8 The Counterman,
9 The Neighbour,
10 The Chase,
11 The Child,
12 The Theatre,
14 The Worker,
15 The Doctor,
16 The Long Night,