“I needed money, a vacation, and a drink, but not in that order. What I had was a low-rent plaster cave on the dodgy end of West 52nd Street, a tired dinner jacket, a warm coat, and a hot trumpet. I pulled on the last three and left for work. As I closed in on the joint, I spotted a neat little dish, elegantly dressed, but unsteady on her feet, standing outside the front door of The Cat Club down on East 13th. Something about it didn’t look right, so I drifted over.”—Ross Konikoff
West Side Stories
By Ross Konikoff
MANHATTAN New York—(Weekly Hubris)—February 2018—I needed money, a vacation, and a drink, but not in that order. What I had was a low-rent plaster cave on the dodgy end of West 52nd Street, a tired dinner jacket, a warm coat, and a hot trumpet. I pulled on the last three and left for work. As I closed in on the joint, I spotted a neat little dish, elegantly dressed, but unsteady on her feet, standing outside the front door of The Cat Club down on East 13th. Something about it didn’t look right, so I drifted over.
She had the face of an angel and you could tell with one look that she was a real solid girl who’d spent too much money in some other dive, waiting for some Merrill Lynch office Lothario, drowning in privilege, who had no intention of showing. As I got closer, she looked up and tried to smile, but I wasn’t buying it.
“Maybe you ought to go home and sleep this one off, Gorgeous. This joint’ll still be here tomorrow,” I said.
She gave me a look that almost thawed my cold, cold heart, but I’m no sap. “These places attract the sort who get lit up and then delude you about what they do and who they are,” I said. This trumpet case ought to put the lie to any web I might’ve spun to snare a dame like you.” I leveled with her right from the start. I didn’t want any misunderstandings.
Again, she just stared.
“Look, I can see you’re in some kind of bind. I’ve gotta get inside and make with the swing, but something’s telling me not to leave you standing out here all alone. Why don’t you let me set you up and take care of you tonight, strictly on the square, no strings. The boss owes me. How about it?” I said.
She leaned in and pressed her body against mine. I reached around and held her. I took hold of her chin and re-potted those luscious lips of hers, planting them on mine. She relaxed in my arms and let me kiss her. I tasted daiquiris and tears. It sure beat the hell out of a handshake. She was soft and warm all over, and I liked how she felt. I liked everything about it.
She pulled away and straightened herself. I offered my arm, she took it, and we pushed our way through the doors of the club. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and my nose to the damp, moldy stench of spilled beer, sweaty bodies, and broken promises, I spotted my pal, Frenchy.
He came over all smiles, a fresh flower in his dirty lapel, his hair dyed jet-black and pomaded skull-flat. His mustache looked like a doormat from an old motel and his face dripped a wide, greasy smirk that was telling me he never thought he’d see the day I’d walk in here with a dame like this on my arm. After bear-hugging me, he stepped back, manhandling her soft curves with his bloodshot eyes. I could hardly blame him. Her silk dress fit her like a coat of Benjamin Moore.
“Fix her up with a table for one, and I’ll cuff her for the night, sky’s the limit. OK, Frenchy?” I said, stuffing a tri-fold Jackson into his coat pocket.
“Anything you say, Boss,” he said, winking. He escorted her to a table by the dance floor while I climbed onstage, arranging my chair so that I could keep her in my sights. She danced all night with different guys, mostly swabbies, lugs, and pansies, but never with the same stiff twice. A couple times I caught her looking back in my direction. She had real talent on the floor. Nobody in the joint could move the way she did, no matter who was in front of her. She knew just how to foot it.
Then, just before the last tune, she jumped up and raced for the exit as though she just remembered she was supposed to be somewhere else. Slowing down as she passed the bandstand, she tilted her head my way, but when she saw me looking back she straightened up again and rushed out the door. That kiss must have crossed her mind more than once.
After packing up, I cornered her waiter, the one I’d contracted to go fishing in her purse while she was out on the floor. He gave me a name and number, scribbled on a piece of paper, and I squared up with him for the drinks. My shoes needed scuffing, so I hoofed it back up to west 52nd Street.
The rain had stopped and things were quiet. The city had a rough semblance of peace after a good rain. Even the bad guys were in bed. Everything seemed diluted, watered down like the drinks at The Cat Club. The horrible became merely lousy, the lousy got alright, but everything good got much better. I felt something eating away at me, but I couldn’t pin it down, so I stopped trying. After trudging up three flights and stumbling inside, I tossed my keys onto the table, poured myself three fingers of whatever was in the closest bottle and gulped it down, staring out the window.
The next morning, on my way to the shower, I found the wadded scrap of paper on the table. I should have had my head examined for not throwing it away and forgetting all about her, but I figured I’d call, if only to make sure she wasn’t DOA. I dialed her number and waited. After seven rings, I was just about to hang up when she finally answered.
“You’re earlier than most,” she said, yawning. I knew I’d caught her in bed, and she sounded naked.
“I didn’t get to say good-night,” I said.
“So say it now” she purred.
“Where’d you learn to dance?”
“The music moves me.”
“. . . and how come you ran off like that?”
“So you’d call me.”
“Probably too smart for you.”
“I saw your waiter friend going through my bag last night. Such bad boys . . .”
“OK, OK, but if you can drop the veil for an hour tonight, and let me buy you a drink, I’ll let you test my IQ.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. I’m an acquired taste.”
“I’ve got an open mind. I even eat snails.”
“I’ll think it over.”
I started feeling desperate, like a high school nose-picker asking a cheerleader to the prom.
“I’ll tell you what; write down my number . . .”
I faded out as soon as I realized how pathetic I sounded.
She got quiet. I could hear her breathing while the wheels turned. Finally, she spoke.
“I’ll be at the Bryant Park library tomorrow at 1:00 for a lecture on tropical birds. It’s open to the public. You can say ‘good-night’ in person.”
I waited a couple beats.
“I’ll find a seat in back.”
“It’s a round room,” she said, and then hung up the phone.
The next day, I showed at the library 15 minutes early, found the round room and sat down against a wall. There were a few others there, but no sign of her. It was a small, dingy space with an old wooden floor, jammed with five rows of worn out chairs, all facing a podium, with a movie screen hung on the wall above it. The place looked like the bottom of a dirty bird cage.
At 1:00, the lights came down and a flock of something flapped across the screen along with a blast of bad music, the sort that makes you wish you were tone deaf. I watched the door like a dog chained outside a supermarket, whimpering for his master. Five minutes later, it opened, and in she floated, wearing a scarf around her head and large dark sunglasses. She was a cinch to peg, the type you couldn’t miss if she was wrapped in aluminum foil. She had an off-beat way of carrying herself, and she carried it straight to the front row. When the lights came back on, off came the scarf and glasses.
Wrapped in an expensive dress with shoes to match, a single strand of oyster fruit hung around her pretty little neck. Taking up with this doll wouldn’t be for nickels. Anyone could see she liked the finer things, things made to stay beautiful for a thousand years. Maybe that’s why she liked me.
The guy on the podium was just what you picture when you think “bird expert.” The top half of him was covered in dandruff, and a blizzard of gray hair, half of it growing out his sniffer. It was enough to scare a vulture off his flight path. The first thing out of his yap was a string of Latin names for gulls, words that had the same effect as downing a glass of hooch laced with phenobarbital, but before I let it get me dormy, I got up and oozed into the row behind hers, second chair in, staying back, but making enough noise that she’d know I was there. When the scent of her perfume hit me again, it sent me right back to that kiss from two nights ago.
Just then, birdman handed her a pile of flyers. She slid one off the top like a Las Vegas croupier, and held the rest in the air, waiting for me to take them from her. My hand lingered on hers just long enough before taking control of the stack. Forty-five minutes later, everyone got up to leave, but she stayed put, being real busy reading about birds.
I walked around and sat down in the chair next to hers.
“Remember me?” I said.
She looked up at me with those sparking eyes, and there it was again, that crazy sting I’d felt a couple nights back, the moment I saw her. This was all new territory for me. What was it about this dame that made me nervous?
“You’re the trumpet player.”
“So tell me, what’s your favorite water bird?” she asked. “I’m rather fond of the tropical flycatchers.”
“The only flycatcher I know is Willie Mays,” I said.
“I didn’t come here to learn about pelicans. Let me buy you lunch.”
“Shouldn’t you be getting back to your day job, the one that pays you to take me out, but still covers the rent for the wife you’ve been playing hide-and-seek with across town?” she snapped.
It all started adding up.
“Sounds to me like you’ve had a bad run lately.”
“Lately?” she shot back.
“Look, I’m gonna save us both a lot of time. There’s no day job, no girlfriend, no wife, and no screaming kids stashed away out of town wondering when Daddy’s coming home. It’s just me and that horn. Hell, you’ve been giving me the high hat for two days now, and still I’m following you around like a puppy dog. That’s not like me. Let’s go somewhere. You can be cynical all the way there.”
She looked down, took a deep breath, and then stood up. I put my hand on the small of her back. It felt warm and strong, and she didn’t mind, so I guided her out the door, down the hall, and out into the bright sun.
Her walk was very deliberate, her tempo different than mine, so I slowed my pace. We ducked into a fancy patisserie where she ordered tea and a few small confections, while I had coffee and a roll. We watched each other eat. Her eyes were beautiful pools of nervous confusion.
“I bruise easily, you know,” she said softly.
“I’ll do my best,” I said.
When all the food was gone I threw some cash onto the table and we walked.
After a dozen blocks through Central Park it started getting dusky, so I put my jacket around her shoulders.
“Let’s go to my place,” I said.
She said nothing. We turned and headed west.
The minute we walked inside she rushed over to my trumpet, carefully lifting it from its stand in the corner. I liked the way she held it, just staring at it for the longest time.
“This thing’s alive. I can almost feel a pulse,” she said, smiling for the first time, showing me her perfect, white teeth. Cradling my horn to her chest, she sank into a chair, crossing a pair of limbs that made my eyes water.
“Sometimes I feel it too, but only sometimes,” I said, opening a bottle of very good wine I’d kept for just the right moment and, Brother, this one had her name all over it. I poured a couple, handed off hers, and then tilted mine in her direction before taking a sip. She drank some, put her glass down on the table, and then picked up the horn again.
“That’s no coffee and doughnut horn, you know,” I said.
“This one’s special, made a long time ago by guys who built each one to sing like Caruso. These days they build ’em like Ford Fairlanes.”
“Have you got a mirror?” she asked.
“Yeah, this way.” I led her into the bedroom and turned on a small light by the bed. She watched her reflection off the closet door as she held the silver horn against her taut body, starting on her hip, and then sliding it up across her flat stomach, and then up over her chest, holding it there, striking the kind of pose a woman strikes when she’s waiting for something. She lowered her eyes, turned her head, and then raised them again in my direction. Nothing had ever made me feel exactly like that before.
“Teach me,” she said.
I put down my wine, walked over and pushed lightly against her chest, moving her gently backwards until her legs were against the bed. With another push, she sat down on the edge. I took the horn from her hands, put it down on the other side of the bed, and then sat down next to her.
“It’s all in the lips. Just do as I do,” I said, moving my mouth up against hers. I gently pinioned her down flat onto the bed, knowing for certain that by the next morning she’d be my favorite trumpet player.