Thelma Wykofski lived in apartment 5-4, fifth floor, rear.
Her neighbors called her Toby. They thought that was her name. She told them it was her name. She had a thing about the truth — she avoided it, on principle.
Toby White worked at Zuckerman's Shoes in the East Village. Not a trendy store. It was farther east than that, and south too. Nobody called that neighborhood the East Village except Toby.
It was a family store, had been around for three generations. They got a lot of children, a lot of grandmas, they sold good solid shoes at fair prices. It said so right there in the front window. The owner printed the sign himself.
He was a not-so-bad man, Ira Zuckerman, grandson of the original Mr. Z who opened the store back in 1968. He gave Toby a raise even before she asked for one. He wanted to marry her. But this he kept to himself. He was already a married man and he knew he shouldn't be greedy.
In Toby’s apartment building, nobody knew she sold shoes. If they had known, maybe they would have dragged themselves over to Zuckerman’s once, twice a year, for a good fit. In the chain-stores, in the boutiques, there’s no one can help you, you’re on your own. This was Mrs. Blaustein’s opinion.
She would have taken the subway to Zuckerman’s. Or she’d have taken a bus, gotten a transfer, waited for another bus, and walked half a block. She liked Toby. She would have trusted her to touch her bunioned feet. If she’d only known Toby worked there. But she didn’t know. “Toby works for a doctor,” Mrs. Blaustein would tell you if you asked. She doesn’t remember how she knows this, but she knows.
Across the hall, in apartment 5-1, Rudy Del Veccio is under the impression that Toby is a doctor. “A dentist,” Mr. Del Veccio would say, and he’d tap his buffed pointer finger against his dentures, making a little clicking sound. “She looks too young, I know,” he’d tell you, “but she’s that smart. Fast through college, fast through dental school. Best tooth doctor in the city of New York. I’d go to her myself if I still had my own teeth.” And if you were smart, this is where you’d leave, before he took out his dentures to show you.
Down at Zuckerman’s Shoes, they thought Toby lived uptown. Her co-worker, Candy Cooke, saw Toby (or someone who looked like Toby, from the back, from a block away) get into a yellow cab one night.
“Must be heading to her grandmother’s penthouse,” Candy thought, chewing on a strand of magenta hair. Candy was under the impression, false though it was, that Toby’s grandmother was a millionaire.
“A millionairess,” she’d have said, “and Toby is her favorite grandchild. But the grandmother is old-fashioned. Before she’ll let Toby get the millions, she wants her to learn the value of a single dollar.”
Candy loved old movies and Toby was her real-life Audrey Hepburn.
She knew Toby wouldn’t forget her; that after Toby left Zuckerman’s Shoes to take her rightful place with the rest of the city’s millionaires, she’d do right by her. Cold, hard cash or jewelry or a world cruise. Candy would lull herself to sleep at night, imagining the possibilities.
Ira Zuckerman lived with a different picture in his head. Toby and her invalid mother and her weak-in-the-head father and her three younger siblings living in a two-room walk-up near the Cloisters. Toby schlepping more than an hour underground each day to work at Zuckerman’s because: a) she was a good daughter, a good older sister, and she knew the importance of work and family; and b) she wanted to be near him, Ira.
When the detective came around to the apartment building, Mrs. Blaustein wouldn’t let him in her door. Not before he showed her his badge. “What is this?” she wanted to know, “why are you asking me these questions? I don’t know a Thelma Wykofski.”
“The girl in 54, you don’t know her?”
“Five-four,” Mrs. Blaustein said, “not 54. This is 5-2. There’s a very nice person in 5-4. Toby White. A lovely girl, works for a doctor. An optometrist, I think. Go bother somebody else.”
A couple minutes later, when he knocked on Mr. Del Veccio’s door, it was the same thing. “Who?” Rudy Del Veccio wanted to know. “Thelma? I don’t know no Thelma. There’s no Thelma living here. I can’t talk to you now, I’m in the middle of something important.” Mr. Del Veccio closed the door and went back to doing his crossword puzzle.
Nobody on the fifth floor, nobody in the entire apartment building, had any idea what had happened, just around the corner, less than 24 hours earlier: how Geneva Feathers was robbed, her basement apartment broken into, her 87 salt and pepper shakers (174 individual shakers in all) stolen, and with them $2,000, give or take, taken from her desk drawer.
Later, when Mrs. Blaustein heard about it, she was not sympathetic. “What foolishness. She should have put her money in a Maxwell House coffee can, then nothing bad would have happened to her.”
Mr. Del Veccio was confused. “What does she do with all those salt shakers?”
At Zuckerman’s Shoes, it was not a good day. They were busy with the back-to-school rush, everybody was overworked, in a bad mood; it was very noisy.
“Look, Detective, I’m telling you, I don’t know any Thelma Wykofski,” Ira Zuckerman was saying. “Candy, you ever hear of a Thelma Wykofski? There, you see, we don’t know her. Please, I’ve got to get back to work, we’re short-staffed today, my best worker couldn’t come in, her mother’s dying. What size shoe you wear? I could fix you up with something if you wait for it to clear out a bit.”
Before long, they rented out apartment 5-4 to a young man, a film student at NYU. Mrs. Blaustein and Rudy Del Veccio never saw him. He kept late hours, just dropped by the apartment to sleep and shower.
Candy quit Zuckerman’s and went to work for Kinko's. “I meet a nicer clientele there,” she told her mother.
Ira Zuckerman and his wife, Arlene, took a vacation in Nassau in December. They had a surprisingly good time. Ira discovered he could relax if he really put his mind to it. Now Mrs. Z is expecting their first child.
The detective, whose name was Ferdinand, (known as Nano to his friends, Freddie to his wife, Daddy to his daughter Abigail, and Detective to everyone else), had been considering taking early retirement. But in the course of his investigation he changed his mind. Mrs. Blaustein and Rudy Del Veccio frightened him.
“I’m staying on the job,” he told his wife, “I’m not ready to decompose.”
His wife just nodded her head. She’d been telling him much the same thing ever since he started with this retirement nonsense.
Six years later, though, Detective Ferdinand did retire. By that time, the aggravation from his unsolved cases had given him a bleeding ulcer. His own daughter, Abigail, might have provided a helpful clue or two. She and Toby, née Thelma, had gone to high school together.
But since her father never talked to her about anything important, she didn't even know her old friend was on the lam.
As for Toby/Thelma, she's doing fine. But between you and me, she uses too much salt.