Spending V in the Neighborhood of GbyMSTarot©
It was a soft night as if the whole world was gone mute. In the streets outside the snow was still coming down, but no one seemed to care. I know I didn't. Hell, I might stay here and play out the rest of the night simply because the joint next door was always open and their breakfast hash was second to none. My fingers drifted ghost-like across the worn ivory keys of this old Chickering & Mackays square grand piano. Said to be a hundred years old, this old beautify had a sound not found in modern upright instruments. It was a pleasure to play.
Looking up, I saw Charley making his way back from the john. The trombonist's hair was gleaming like a wet seal under a fresh coat of Tuxedo Club pomade. When he passed my seat I could smell the St. John's Bay Rum aftershave he had splashed his face with. He picked up his shiny gold bone, planted his butt on the edge of his three leg stool and joined in. The plunger mute began giving the waw-waw that this slow song needed. Charley cut his eyes to me, gesturing that if I wanted I could take a piss break. But I shook my head. I was good despite the two empty beer glasses sitting on the floor next to me. Besides, it was time for me to sing. Taking my half-smoked Listerine from the corner of my mouth, laid it on top of the thousand other char marks and blew out a lungful of minty smoke out the side of my mouth.
"I went down to the Saint James Infirmary. Saw my baby there. She was----"
As I sang my eyes drifted about the smoky club. Unlike some nights I could see thought the tobacco fog here at Black Louise's, but then this was a slow night. Valentines night.
"So sweet, cool and so fair."
All the swells had taken their dames out earlier. Oh, the place had been jumping then, request after request. The coffee tin tip jar shared between Charley and I had overflowed. Now those rich cats were back at their drops, their alligator shoes kicked off, and their champagne-drunk gals were no doubt down to their slips ... or less. A bit of pickle-tickle and they would be sawing logs.
A nice night, all in all.
So why am I playing blues songs? Why not jazz it up, try and wake this sleepy club back up? Make this snowy Valentine's Day go out with a bang, not a lost puppy whimper? Well, I guess it was the fact I was spending another year alone. A cold bed, a bottle of Green River whiskey for warmth and a few left-handed Mezz cigarettes -- the ones I got from Milton Mezzrow the other night --for company. Nothing different from most of my Saturday night, really, but damn it this was Valentine's day ... at least for another hour. A man's supposed to be schmoozing his sweetie out of her nylons right about now, not breathing a sweaty gate mouth's overused cologne or sucking down lungful's of old stale smoke, while my balls sweat in this damn zoot suit.
I didn't want to be here and I didn't want to stop playing either. Drifting with my playing, I kept singing even as my mind and eyes wandered.
"I want six crapshooters to be my pallbearers. Three pretty women to sing a song."
Black Louise, the fat bastard who pays me my scratch to pound these keys, was nowhere to be seen of course. By now he was uptown at his bigger joint, The Dipper. A much classier place, but then I kind of like it a bit nasty. I don't have to feel guilty if I get too drunk to piss straight here; the toilet floor has enough urine crystals to make the crown jewels of England jealous.
"Let her go, let her go God bless her."
I nearly played a sour note as I saw what was now sitting at the bar. Charley cut me an eye at my half-hidden flub and played a little louder to cover for me. His crooked eyebrow demanded an answer. I nodded my stubbled chin towards the new dame in black that had slinked in on us.
I saw his mouth grin around the end of his bone's pipe.
A few hours ago she would not have been out of place. Hang her on some swells arm, give her a flute of bubbles, and a Lucky Strike in a slim holder and she would have been unnoticeable.
A few hours ago.
Now? Well, now she was like the polished jewel in a handful of river pebbles. As I finished the song, I saw her turn on her heel, the black dress opening up the side showing her leg to mid-calf. Black stockings, fishnets I saw with a hidden smile. Picking back up my cigarette I signaled to Charley to take up the action. He chuckled a laugh into the horn's mouth making the trombone huff. Catching up the two empty beer glasses I made my way down off the stage to a smattering of applause from the few patrons. The ones either too drunk to find the door or, more likely, the ones with a flat as lonely as I was the owner of.
I set the glasses down on the bar with a thunk that drew Sam's eyes to me. The old colored man grinned his super white smile, took the empties and filled one back up with a perfect head of soft foam. I love this old fella, he's been pouring drinks in the joint since it was bootlegger's speakeasy serving rotgut gin and two-day old corn whiskey. Taking a sip to cool my smoke and singing raw throat, I eyed this gal. She was certainly a looker, that's for true.
Easy on the eyes at the waist, curved at hips. A slim neck, bare throat to the start of a decent rack, long arms, delicate hands, slim fingers holding a glass stem as red lips took little tiny sips. I saw that her drink didn't bubble. No champagne princess this one. Dark black hair that rivaling her dress in shadow. She cut her eyes over to me. I watched her open the clutch by her hand, pull out a silver case and pop it open to reveal four slim, brown Romeo y Julieta cigars. And ... an ivory handled straight razor. Her eyes were on me as she momentarily held that whisker-trimmer under her nose breathing deeply, then those slim fingers slid that silver blade open and she cut the end off of one smoke. She folded it back with a click.
"Either offer me a light or scram, piano man."
Digging a pasteboard box of wooden matches from my inner pocket, I struck a light and leaned in close to her as she sucked flames into the raw end of the cigar. She turned the cigar as she held it in the flame allowing it to get fully lit. Puffy clouds of smoke curled up around her face, framing it in smoke in a devilish way. Those dark mournful eyes glittered back at me like half-hidden diamonds.
Mesmerized, I only just prevented myself from a burned finger.
"Do you know One for My baby?"she asked after a moment of savoring her cigar.
Nodding I picked up my beer. "I saw The Sky's the Limit. I can play it."
"Then go play it," she paused for a half second. "Please."
"Sure, doll-face. Anything for you, since you asked so nicely."
She sent a wall of cigar smoke toward me to send me on my way. I have to say I loved the way her lips pursed, a smoky phantom of a kiss. Sipping my beer the whole way, my upper lip covered in foam, I made tracks to my partner and signaled him to wrap up the tune he was improvising. Sliding onto the worn slick wooden bench, I set the half-full glass where its grave would be. A moment o wipe my hands dry on a rag I keep for sweat, I flex my fingers. Not that what she had asked for was all the difficult to play. Just a slow soft song, the kind a lover would ask for. It was, in fact, a perfect tune for a night like tonight when the hours seemed to crawl and the midnight chimes seemed like they would never ring.
"It's quarter to three, there's no one in the place ... except you and me--"
I smiled when I saw a slight sway of her shoulders. This beauty had danced to this song at some point and her body was reminding her. I put a bit more into my playing, not that I don't give a hundred percent, but that extra ten percent ... well, I can't always give that but it can make for a better sound when I can. I could tell my pretty gypsy in the black dress appreciated my playing. She seemed to perk right up hearing this sad, sleepy tune.
Charley didn't know the song, but that didn't stop a trombonist of his skill. By the third note he was adding a small slide note, and by the midpoint, he was playing the song at least as well as myself. I gave him a grin and he rolled his eyes back at me. Old Charley would much rather be knocking around Sing, Sing, Sing or maybe something by that colored singer, Duke Ellington. Something to get his cheeks puffed out, and the old slid-pipe warm and humming.
Somewhere in the middle of the tune, I saw Sam the bartender get the lady a second drink. Well, if she was going to toss them back like that ... here, alone, and looking decked to the nines ... well, I can't be held responsible what tunes my hands can play.
"And one more for the road. That long long road."
Only a moment pause and I eased my way into another tune, a simple filling of the silence. Her eyes were on me, taking me in, appraising what she saw. I can't say I'm in my varsity days shape still but I'm not pasty face pudgier either. I needed a shave; my hair was in sorry shape--something that the slickness blackness Charlie's mop was showing in the worst light--and I could certainly use a bit of sleep to get the puffy bags out from under my eyes. But that aside, I was a looker, true enough.
So I've been told anyway.
With years of skill set into muscle memory, my hands played tune after tune for this mystery lady while she sipped drink after drink. Her cigar she nursed back to life from time to time. Her face was often wreathed in flame lit smoke giving this dame the air of a witch or sorceress. Well, I have to say she was working some kind of spell over me. I was getting further and further wrapped up in her the older the night became. Be spelled till, just before midnight, when she got to her feet, I was frightened she was leaving. I visibly relaxed when I saw her drift on gliding steps towards the lady's john.
I ended the song I was playing suddenly, catching Charles by surprise. He played out an improvised ending and cut me a glance. I gave him the two fingers sign we worked out when one of us needed to go take a piss. He nodded and stood up. With a full lung of wind, he made that trombone roar out, waking up a few sleepy patrons.
Lighting a Listerine, I picked my way through the misplaced chairs and wandering patrons to the side of the place. The small hall to the john was lined with signed pictures of lost legends that had played music here. I always thought it funny that Louise put them here. More a way of showing who had pissed in his place really.
She stepped out the pink door just as I reached the end of the hall, almost running into me.
Standing there I got a close look at her face. The jet black hair, smoky lips, chiseled almost too strong features, softened by those dark lashes hiding eyes that glowed. She placed a hand on the wall to steady herself then cast me a glower.
"Never seen a drunk women before, piano man?"
"Seen my share," I smirked a shark's grin. "Been with most."
"I bet you have. You're the type," she said.
"What type would that be?" I asked.
"The type who needs a woman to be smashed to get her into bed, piano man. The type that haunts the dives looking for half-snookered prey. Hunting women like lions hunting zebra; pulling down the weak."
"So think you think you know me, huh doll face?" I felt my grin slid off.
"I know you're in my way, piano man."
She went to push past and I caught her arm. She pulled at my hand but I held tighter. I met her glare with a look of my own.
"A dame all alone and drunk might want to learn to be more polite."
I smelled men's cologne, a spice after shave, and then felt a cold metal touch my skin just by my tie. A glance down showed the handle of that damn straight razor.
"I don't need to be polite, not to any man. Certainly not to some two bit piano player who thinks he can make a grab play at me. Now turn me loose." She pressed the blade into my skin. I felt a small bite, like a hickey.
With a razor at your throat, you do as you're told. Basic law of life.
I expected her to walk away but she didn't she stood there looking up at me.
"What do you want, piano man? A bit of leg?" She chuckled. "Or maybe you're looking for the love of your life here in a pee-smelling hallway? It's Valentines, maybe you're trying to romance me?"
"I forgot the chocolate and roses in my other suit."
She chuckled, a deep throaty sound. Then she eyed me with a smirk and condescending eyes. "Yeah. Can't let something like romance get in the way of a bit of whoopee. Right?"
I stubbed out the last of my cigarette on the wood door frame and let the butt fall to the floor. "Romance has its place, I'm sure. But life is too short to piddle diddle about when there's needs to take care of."
"Oh, a man of philosophy. So how's this supposed to work? I ask for a song, you give me the eye for a few hours, then I let you do your fifteen-minute dance and I get to spend the night stinking of you while you sleep?"
"What made a beautiful dame like you so cynical?"
"Piano players, in small hallways, trying to talk me out of my stockings at midnight," she said sharply. "Gin joint rummies who think every lady wants this little sausage."
Her hand appearing on my crotch caught me by surprise. I looked her in the eyes as she ran a skilled palm over me measuring my length.
"Well, let me tell you a thing, piano man ... what the hell's your name anyway?"
"Jimmy? You going back on stage or don't you want your bread for tonight?"
I looked at Black Louie's pit boss Jacky the Pinto. The man was a boil on the backside of humanity and he knew it, but while his boss wasn't here he was my boss. Or so he thought anyway and ... well, so long as he was holding my cash for the night, I guess it's kind of true.
"Just shaking the weasel; the lady here stopped me to ask me for a song."
"Well, snap to it already." He jerked a thumb toward the stage.
"I'll be snapping."
The lady was smiling at me. She had jerked her hand from my cock at Jacky's voice but now put it back.
"Poor boy. All ... dressed up ... and nowhere to ... go."
As she walked away and I watched her hips in that slinky dress, I felt what she meant. I was hard in my trousers. Great. How the hell is a man supposed to take a piss with this thing at salute?
** ** ** ** ** ** **
"--that's why the Lady, is a tramp."
I was now playing to an audience of one. Hell, even Charley had called it a night. The tables had chairs on top of them, the floor was swept clean of cigarette butts. The bar had been wiped down and the lights dimmed. But she was still here.
Jacky had told me before he left to do whatever the lady wanted. Well, she wanted me to keep playing.
I had to wonder, as I sat there my fingers going numb from the hours of playing, just who this woman was. When the pit boss of a place like this dotes on someone they got connections, sure. That's easy to see. But here she was all alone? Maybe the wife of some wise guy? But then where are the guys in the monkey suits with the bulging armpits? Not like one of those spaghetti-eaters to let their paid for dames wander around without her a protector. Maybe she's rich? That could be it, but knowing Jacky Pinto like I do, he would be here still. Standing on her every word. He's a king of the moochers, that Pinto boy. Or thinks he is anyway.
"What's your name, doll?"
She glanced up from the half-full glass she was looking into. Her eyes had a distant look, the alcohol had taken her to faraway lands, where fumes softened the world to a gentle blanket one can wrap around sad shoulders to keep warm with.
That was it! She was a sad woman. Some swell's widow? Now that has possibilities.
"Your name? Your moniker, your handle? What they call you, doll-face?" I asked again.
"Doll, doll-face, dame, what difference does it make? Call me any of those and you will be as accurate."
"So you want to be a lady of mystery, huh? Alright. I can make guesses."
"Guess all you want, Jimmy, I can't say I care."
Irked, I let my eyes wander to the length of bare leg she had showing. I don't know why I wanted to know a name. Like she said it didn't really make a difference. I knew by now that I wanted this woman in my bed before this night was over and, really, I didn't need to know her name for that. Given her current sobriety, I didn't even need the bed. I could have her over the table she was sitting at and she would never care or remember. Letting the keys of the square grand go silent I pocketed the almost empty pack of cigarettes and my matches. Closing the lip on the ancient harp I got to my feet and stepped down off the stage.
"Closing time, piano man?"
"Close enough. Let me see you home; it's cold outside."
She gave a sad chuckle. "It's cold there too."
I knew how she felt. My own place was an icebox. An empty shell that held a bed and a wardrobe box. Looking around the empty club, I realized this was my real home. This, and places like this, were where I felt alive.
I pulled up a chair at her table.
"Same for me for me, doll. Never could seem to find a permanent bed warmer to take away the chill."
She gave a sad chuckle. "I thought I had, but that went bust last year."
Looking down, I saw that the sun had left a ghost of a wedding band on her ring finger. Her tanned skin was such contrast to my own. When had I seen the sun last? My life had become stuck on repeat, like a phonograph record that's reached the end and keeps skipping the needle over and over through the last notes of my life. Hell, if it wasn't for the holiday I wouldn't even know what day of the month this was.
She sat silent for a moment then shrugged. "He took up real estate."
That this lady with no name was the widow of some mobster wise guy was looking more and more plausible. I shook out a smoke, the cool menthol smoke of a Listerine cigarette needed for my sung raw throat. When I offered her one she declined, took out another of those cigars and snipped the end with that straight razor again. I was watching her expression then and I knew that the shaver was his. The misty look to her eyes when it was near her face. She missed the smell of his aftershave.
"So it was true love, like in the story books, aye?"
"Yeah," she answered with a soft smile. "Glass slippers and all. I was his princess and he, my prince. But then the black knight came and killed my prince and I got stuck with a drafty old castle."
She gave a soft self-depreciating chuckle that sparked my curiosity, but she said no more.
We sat together in silence for a bit, each wreathing ourselves in smoke and gloomy thoughts. I from time to time massaged the ache in my tired fingers. The tips were a raw tenderness that would fade just in time to play again. I clenched my hand on the tension that might be the onset of arthritis growing. My father had it and, as a man who earned his living playing piano, the thought of it scared the hell out of me. As such worries plagued me my eyes drifted to this dame. Up close or from a distance she sure was a looker. Those no-nonsense eyes and black hair put me in mind of a Marlene Dietrich character from a film I just saw.
Tanya. The Touch of Evil.
Yeah, perhaps that was what I saw in this black haired gun moll. The touch of evil that still lingered from her husband. Did I want that? To touch that touch of evil? Perhaps. It had been years in the coming certainly. I have rubbed elbows with gangsters for years. Taken their tips for playing their songs. Laughed at their suggestions about my playing. Drank the drinks they bought. Did I want to get any closer to those type of guys? Or was I simply wanting to get closer to this girl's curves?
Or maybe I was just getting addicted to too many gangster movies.