Theodore Wheeler’s debut novel, Kings of Broken Things, is a powerful and fiery story that takes place during the summer of 1919 in Omaha, Nebraska – a city ready to implode, when three young outsiders try to make it in an America pitted against them. An excerpt from the book:
Consider Evie Chambers.
The trick for a woman like Evie was to pass time without getting in trouble. She had a dozen ways to kill an afternoon. She listened to records in the morning. Tipped some wine after lunch while she bathed and perfumed to ready herself. Most of all she worked on her clothes. Her mother had taught her how. Evie believed sewing was such a low thing then—she was right about that, but in time she learned there were lower occupations. Now even something simple like a slip gave her the chance to complicate its design, to make it intricate, perhaps needlessly so. She was glad her mother showed her how to do these things. The thing with the man was something else.
Consider that Evie was nice-looking and fair-skinned, that her hair coiled languidly. She had thin lips and small teeth, and smiled nice, and moved graceful, like her hips had knowledge in their curves and dimples. They did. Her mother was never pretty, at least she hadn’t been for long. Evie was more like her father. Her father had left too. She remembered these things as she sewed. How she’d told her mother, leaving, that sewing was the only thing Evie got from her. That’s all that’s worth taking, she’d said. Running off wasn’t enough for people like her, when Evie was sixteen years old and wanted to dance in the majestic halls of a grand city. Chicago, New York, Paris, Zagreb, Timbuktu. The precise geography of her ambition was cloudy. What Evie knew was that she wanted to wear the most elegant costumes and carry herself with perfect sangfroid—to meet men with money. Even though this was the truth of the matter, Evie couldn’t speak this plainness to her mother. It had been nearly ten years since they’d spoken.
If she had too much wine she put the tools away, to keep from mangling the fabric or slicing open her arms. Those big shears. The razor blade, the sharps. If she was at the table thinking about her mother then it was time to stopper the wine. Then she bathed. She perfumed. All the things required of a kept girl waiting for her man.
Ugo Daniel would come around seven in the evening. He put money down to keep the rooms. He had a key. Evie kept an eye on the street so his arrival never surprised her. She was ready to greet him, to have a drink poured, a record spinning, a party started and waiting for him. Ugo, always fashionably late. He bought her things, silk stockings, a powder puff, a rabbit fur coat, nothing actually expensive. She didn’t complain about the shabby presents because he was an easy one to handle. Nervous, glancing, spastic in his way but too self-involved to give her trouble. He spent more time in front of her mirrors than she did. Dressing and redressing, preening himself. He claimed people were after him. He had to look good. If he didn’t bring along dinner they ordered in from a restaurant down the street (chop suey was her favorite) and then ate at her table. Evie made a habit of finishing only half of what he got her, no matter the portion. When she ate with another person, she had half. It was a rule.
They ate at the same table where Evie sewed during the day, an oak slab gouged and slashed from use. Ugo never asked about the abused table, nor the bolts of fabric she kept, nor the wire dummy in the corner she used to shape her dresses. Maybe he thought these were merely things women had. Ugo wasn’t so smart. Evie may not have known what he did during the day—whether he had a family on the side—but she knew he’d inherited his money. He’d escaped Europe on a friend’s yacht with the family fortune in the early days of the war. A story he told all the time.
After dinner and wine and coffee and wine, they’d go to bed. There was some theater involved then. A feather boa could be ruined between her legs, if he bought her one. That happened more than once. Evie knew she looked good. She had energy, a wonderfully pale complexion, a great supple essing of neck, shoulders and breasts. She knew how to make herself look like she was in love. Evie felt like a movie star doing things with the boa, more like a Talmadge sister than one of Marnie Chambers’ brats of Topeka, Kansas. She looked like Natalie Talmadge. That’s what she told people.
Ugo wasn’t the first of her men. He was the latest. She knew enough by now. He wasn’t so bad. Wouldn’t beat her. Never threatened to kill her. Wasn’t so large. The routine didn’t hurt, it was just routine. That’s what he laid down for. The worst part was that people asked about Ugo, if they had an idea who he was. Was he dangerous? Did he hit her? Some people got aroused hearing such things. Evie took a little extra on the side from some gamblers who asked questions like these and more. Ugo didn’t know about that, Evie wouldn’t tell him. He gave her some too, of course. She spent it all. Every dime. It was too much money for something as simple as being an old man’s girl and the only thing that made it right was to spend. She wasn’t so naive anymore to not think what the money meant, or who it was coming from.
That year a swindler they called the Cypriot was the main obsession on the River Ward, even more than the battles in Europe. That’s what people talked about. The Cypriot was a numbers guy from Chicago, some said, a policy man looking to wheedle in on established terrain. There were stories about his being a lady’s man, a brute. This excited a lot of the girls Evie knew. Some of them said he was a rogue Ottoman assassin trained in Constantinople. That he was a secret agent here to meet other secret agents. Or to knock off a dancer at Chez Paree. It made no sense. One day the Cypriot was a celebrity criminal from the East Coast. The next, girls insisted he was involved with Gavrilo Princip and the Black Hand and was on the run from Sarajevo. Everyone agreed the Cypriot was an important man. He had money, he dressed exquisitely, he kept a girl somewhere in Omaha, in the blackstones north of downtown. The whole bit.
It wasn’t Evie’s job to worry about Ugo. But she did. Folks said they’d kill that fink if they found him. There was a ransom at stake. If people thought Ugo was valuable, or dangerous, they’d want to do things to him. Evie knew Ugo wasn’t worth much. He wasn’t the Cypriot, if there was such a thing. Ugo wasn’t a threat to anyone. He was a silly man.
Still she worried. He might go missing if someone got the wrong idea. Some days she watched out the window and imagined he wouldn’t come back. She wondered, would it be up to her to go looking for him?
She didn’t really know what Ugo did when he wasn’t in her rooms. She just knew he was prissy and self-conniving, and tended to think of himself as a rougher man than he was. He liked to come at her from behind, her lying flat, he pushing her face into the pillows until down seeped into her mouth. She felt small when he did it like that. His body compacting hers. At least she didn’t have to look in his eyes when he did it that way. He’d sleep soon enough, curled into himself. He preferred she sleep naked. But once he was asleep she rose in the dark to find her pajamas folded on the dresser, or she’d be cold.
He didn’t touch her when she was sleeping. With some of the others she’d had to stay awake all night, and not disturb the covers, so nothing happened she wasn’t ready for.
In the morning she helped Ugo dress if he let her. He mostly liked to do it himself, especially the final stages of his costume, the collar, the jacket with the pink silk lining, an ivory comb he scratched through his beard. He flattened his brow with a tip of his pinky finger, flashed eyes at her in the mirror, a threatening motion, maybe not. He straightened his eyelashes, blinking rapidly along an extent of pointer finger. Evie along, ready with his coat.
He placed her in the window when he left. He liked to stop and look back and have her stare down, half undressed, like she craved him. He liked to have people on the street see that.
Then she could close the shades and forget. It was a long night’s work. Not the easiest way to get by, but she didn’t know of any easy way. This beat dancing for dimes in some crummy hall to a two-bit band bored by its own miserable sound. At least Evie had her table to go back to. Her own two hands warmed the slab when she spread fabric over and marked chalk where chalk should be marked.