Excerpt: 'Crepuscule W/ Nellie' by Joe Milazzo
Thelonious Monk at Minton’s Playhouse, New York, c.1947. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb.
From [John : JZL54F (Alternate Master)]:
If he was ever going to get himself unstuck, John had decided, he needed a vice. John woke at a quarter to seven that morning, a full hour after his wife had clipped on her earrings and transferred the day’s fares from the bottom of an otherwise empty jewelry box to the handbag she had outgrown two jobs ago and a half-hour before his mother had a hot breakfast ready for his daughter. John stood at the toilet for three full minutes while his bladder refused to relax. Increasingly disgusted with the flavor of his awakening mouth, he gave up and flushed anyway. The night’s restless, panting dreams had laid a pale coat on his tongue. As he tried to put the iron claw on what he thought was a blackhead at the corner of his mouth but soon remembered was an ingrown hair, John resolved to become a dipsomaniac. He then relieved himself at last, and returned to the familiar cavities of his bed. If he was ever going to play Monk’s music, really play it, not play himself playing Monk’s music, play more than coincidence, the coincidences, a lazy mean, heckling his playing, his addiction to anecdote, if he was ever going to make it, really make it, John figured he needed to trade in his cozy captivity for a new and eager cruelty. And, having figured this, the lull took him.
John awoke again, abruptly, a few minutes before 10, bilious but thirsty, located a shirt that (at the collar at least) smelled clean, treated himself to a Bromo-Seltzer while debating whether or not he could keep down the piece of dry toast his mother pressed on him, sneaked a church key and the last can of Piels (warm from its cupboard hiding place) into his overcoat while his mother was putting on her face, and shouted out some counterfeit business about feeling hearty and besides
— I for sure can’t miss this audition at 11, I mean, it’s a can’t miss, momma
before bolting out, alto in hand (he kept the case, just in case) and sunglasses already softening the gray glare of a filmily overcast sky yet accentuating the pounding in his temples with their hinged constriction. By a quarter of one that same day, John was an alcoholic.
Even if his depravity was full-blown only as soon as he got home from his Times Square cliché. Only, and precisely at that moment, 4:32 PM, when it became self-evident to him that he was humming the overtone made by the hall lights’ overhead harshness as a means of distracting himself from the stifled complaints filling the cramped, cold-water two rooms-and-a-half behind his front door, did the inkblot of John’s situation begin to squirm significantly, its octopus arms twitching, before the vacant stare of satiation. If Monk could see him now, would he spot the me in him? John angled deep into the wads and folds of his dungarees’ left front pocket—the material thin as a veil—reaching past the church key for the honest-to-goodness keys that, as it was, he had trusted to some other place. No. Yes. Hell. He should have taken the pawn ticket. It was then that the pride John felt welling up again, this time to prevent him knocking for entry to his own home, faded up into visibility, like the strings coaxing a marionette into dance. John pushed at the wide brim of his new hat and the white shadow it threw across the cold sweat unwicked from his forehead. He could smell his own mouth, the hormonal sourness of his own slaver, the rotten alloys of old fillings, the residue of thick, fast swallows of a Chianti too cheap even for a fiasco. Christo Redentor, he should have had eyes for that six-shooter hanging in the hock shop’s array of abandonment while the chance was still his for the taking. He would merely have been trading one implement of self-disposal for another. Rather than take forever and a day to blow himself inside out with his tin horn… I’d’ve been able then and there to blow a hole in myself. Then, boy, I tell you. Deflate the Hindenburg fool bumbling around here on my dark doorstep, the fool thinking he’s just an old cup bearer too raffish to earn ire. A top-hatted, pop-eyed, satiny and cravated fool, too damn sophisticated for anything other than a “voluptuous snooze”; a Rochester- fied fool who dasn’t dare debase himself by referring to it as passing out. Instead, here I am, The Lone Ranger, making the scene with trick instead of silver bullets.
John made a fist and blew on his knuckles. He considered allowing himself a three-count, but he could not decide how much of a countdown to give himself until he started counting from 1. 2. Alright now. 2. John paused, his fist cocked back at his ear, slowly turning in a lazy circle. He was overcome by a sudden tension. The stairwell wasn’t safe, otherwise he might have sat down for a drunk— a good one, a lay-out, a strike against sobriety that he would symbolize with his singing prostration, the base of his skull resting on the ledge of an upper step and the tough, crusted heels of his socks the only surface of his feet still touching the ground. Instead, he clambered back down to the street, cut down the alley, and squinted up at what he thought was his bedroom window. Mrs. Williams was out on her fire escape, sagging without shame, eating a grapefruit section by section (John had seen that sorceress peel them with her teeth) and wiping down the rabbit- printed leaves of her prayer plant with a damp cloth. John waved, and a bit too reflexively, something he realized only after his arm was dangling again from the weight of all those celebrations that, since the bottle’s seal had been broken and its contents been brewed again in the swelter of his clutch, had gone flat. Mrs. Williams did not wave back. But as soon as John sat himself on the concrete steps leading to the boiler room, Mrs. Williams commenced to declaring.
— I must be losing my eyesight, or this is some devilish light, but is that you Woody Strode? For I would say with Jesus as my witness I just saw a strapping young man slinking around in his backyard when he should be out winning some bread for his wife and little girl.
To John’s ear, her tone was less sardonic than indifferent. Like a sonar signal. But he knew it was a curse all the same. He felt his heart turn into a lump of cooled bacon, his eyes swim too far out into the early afternoon’s effluvium, its sickly river patina. Something like a sword snapped its lancing, tepid and viscous rather than steely, as it scraped his ribs. And if he were a swearing man, John would have sworn that there was a rattlesnake coiled in his new hat. Whipping all eight and a half gallons off, he caught a whiff of vinegar and heard Mrs. Williams snort to cover a cackle.
Had it been her hex all along? What he thought to be Monk’s tip-off revealed now as the work of a revelator? He had some glimmering of how well Mrs. Williams might have cooked her spell; he realized then that, though he had been toot sweet about that pawn shop, he was still in surroundings, on all sides of him a shop of inanimate orphans. Yet Monk had given him his instructions, the note folded that way and this so, once opened, the paper opened into a shape, square but many-cornered, that could support itself without one word. John glared at his Stetson there in the alley dust, and it glowered back with an immaculateness as preposterous as google-eyes. It was giving him notions, or Mrs. Williams had been trying all along to fasten him in some abominable perfection. A regimen. John never imagined he’d been sent, but he had.
In retrospect, with shivering setting in sans cigarettes, it wasn’t the pawn- brokers’ myriad wristwatches or geiger counters or push-button action switchblades or golf clubs or rangefinders or Neumanns or rodeo lids or tool boxes or even other fatigued musical instruments which put a chill in John’s sweat. It had been the typewriters and their wasted-breath quiescence that turned his hawker’s perspiration into a film of initially unaccountable glumness, one that clung more to the inside of his suit than to the unwashed exposures of his skin. The jumping foxes, the advancing yet deeply unfulfilled clack of the space bar, the metallic punch of the punctuation making its divot, the sharp and true ding of RETURN rung. Although he had been beckoned to come huckstering forward first, John was glad—and in a careful way he had never experienced gladness before—to let the fellow with the bushy silver hair take his beat-up green luggage and go before him. John wanted to get a feel for the hardness of the sale before he dickered, but he could not make out the bargainer’s vernacular over the QWERTY appoggiatura, so pianissimo as to be pantomime, overstuffing his first taste of hangover. (The crushed Piels can puffed out his back pocket where a wallet would otherwise have been the shine of his behind.)
— Look, this lining here’s ready to rip right out. And this corner— I mean, look with me, the corner is pushed almost all the way in. What can I do with that?
— Don’t you have the keys to this smaller case?
— Yeah, what about that? These models, they were sold only as a gift set, and if you’re minus the overnight carrier…
The typewriters kept at it, their obscenely clammed-up flams, monkeying around with their soliloquies and combative grandeur: Oh yes, I am the King of Brobdingnag! Being darkly wise, and rudely great. If you do what I want you to, baby, we’d be so fine. Ling, Ting, Tong, tried to sing that song. So be it. John watched as everything reclaimable around him shrank smaller and smaller and smaller, not as if he were growing, but as if he were a missile falling in its upward path away from everything. As if everything was suddenly recreated in a world of fascination, only an affluence of glass intrudes between you and it. You become mindful but bored. Boring, man, like, you mean I have to decide on deciding? Vertigo, ennui and sangfroid all in one. Garçon, this is not the cocktail I ordered. I just know I’m hungover. John couldn’t bear to wait inside any longer. On his way to the door, he tried not to get caught up in the old wife beater’s attempt to break up the vivisection the countermen were performing on his avocado suitcases.
— If the gentlemen would kindly open the the smaller of the two bags and investigate the vinyl pocket reserved for toiletries, there, in the upper compartment
— Not to mention, bud, not to mention, but what am I supposed to do with all these papers?
— Gentlemen, you may do with those papers whatever you wish. But I am afraid that the terms of my divesture of those documents is both unconditional and non-negotiable.
— OK, Joel Cairo, try that again, in plain English this time.
Even if he had just imagined it, John thought as he ducked out, this appraisal was far worse than the rat-tat-tat bustle of any phantom secretarial pool, at any w.p.m. Where was it 5 o’clock yet?
While on the vendorless corner, John let his underarms dry, propped his horn against the hydrant (partially hooking its crook over the smaller bolt on an iron side), and bummed a cigarette from the local flatfoot. The cop had a Greco-Roman chest, and he chummily claimed that he only had the half-pack of stale-ish Tareytons on him because he had just confiscated
— The Injun sticks
from a few of his most favorite truants.
— Aaaah, they ain’t
He pronounced the contraction with a soft “h” at the start of the first syllable.
— Yet cultivated the sense to taste the distinction between these’n your common snipes anyhow. Let’em scrounge, I say. Scrounging is the one way to learn something about this life anywise.
The officer struck a match for John, shielding the yellow flame from a spring of wind with his blue broad-shoulderness. Designed for crying on, John figured.
— If you’ll pardon my philosophizing, citizen.
John just nodded and grinned; he caught himself just inches before he tipped forward with a salute. Left to himself once the big cop had gone into the brokers’ to avoid littering with his black spark, John smoked his bounty about one-fourth of the way down before the tremble (he flattered himself by thinking it to be one of anticipation) made forays through his fingers and caused the lit whole of it to Geronimo into the wet gutter.
John picked up his horn and pulled his neck strap from its bell. He could not decide if he wanted to saddle up. Better a rosary, a blessed throat. If you want to sing, man, you can’t just play. Toys are for putting away. Scoffing at the fortune that might have had him make that fine, John turned and saw the flap of the counterman’s signal prevail upon him from between the shadowed, burnished S and H in the promissory notions painted on the shop’s window. And the cop was still inside. John could not decide from his haphazard posture whether he too was waiting to subject himself to a deal. Or whether this public servant considered the stacked negotiations, small people trying to eke some advantage out of their desperation, a usual entertainment. John himself was not certain that, given the perspective, he himself would not fail to find something chuckle-worthy in the wriggling and humiliation of having to bid for the pleasure of having some avaricious guido revise your notions of value while need crawled up your calf, then your thigh, wrapped its feelers around your vertebrae, squeezing with a smothering gusto, and you had to stand there, cool, poised-like, under no circumstances, my son, flailing at your back or allowing St. Vitus to shepherd the footloose of your invaded leg. Anyway, now it was time to walk the bar.
Mr. More-Salt-Than-Pepper had taken back his bags. John wondered if the handles were bum, too; his predecessor carried them as if there were simply boxes, laid faceup in the cradle of his shirtsleeves. Why didn’t he just put the smaller one inside of the big one? However much his dignity quivered in his chin, the man’s knees did not give in to flexion. John allowed himself to be allowed to pass. A sharp odor, a funk, curtained the doorway. John thought he knew it, wet like baloney, dry like boiled-over coffee, and as gasoline-y as the greasiest ink. He raised his horn to his lips, almost instinctively, as if this gesture were propriety itself: a universal greeting. The man of silver or tin crossed over to the other side of the street without one glance into traffic.
As soon as John sensed the mouthpiece driving out the aftertaste of his design to dissipate himself with its pine and malt, he remembered his pitch. Sell the Selmer, con with the Conn. He heard the typewriters amplify their hush. They just had to hear this. The patrolman had laid his badge-stuck (John recited the number to himself a couple of times, then promptly forgot it) cap on the glass top on the counter, under which the costume jewelry sparkled against black paper’s velvety sheen, and he was warming his chapped hands around a cardboard cup of joe, the container showing a red queen, a Jack of Diamonds and two low clubs not in sequence. John would not see the policeman’s final card unless his new friend progressed from sips to gulps, and this made him wish for some other arrangement of grown-up things.
— Need another smoke, partner?
The counterman reached over and stilled the lawful hand as it patted the blue of the uniform’s breast.
— Hey you goon, not in my place of business.
The tone of the ensuing laughter escaped John’s appreciation, but not the smell of Bailey’s Irish Creme dripping down through the rising steam of coffee. John had to exert great effort to suppress his body’s ruckus. This was it, the acridness at the heart of his new thirst. His entire left side quivered for a brief run of seconds. His horn tilted. John talked to himself. A fifth of Hennessey, or Courvoisier, sure, but nothing post-prandial seriously tempted John. The policeman blew at the sweet vapors of his violation, but not as if blowing John a kiss. That he did so was comforting.
John detached his neck strap, dramatically, as he came closer to the counter. He fumbled with his pads. He got them airtight again just as he brought the saxophone up to the counter, cautiously, but was given no time to judge if what deformed the counterman’s face were a frown, a wince, or a deliberately unmasked smirk of self-congratulation. And the counterman’s voice broke through his expression; it was never part of it.
— Mickey, would you take a look at this bushel of bruised fruit.
— Another horn?
John could not detect any meter of real interest or disappointment regulating the second broker’s phraseology. But this Mickey did leisurely fix John with a rehearsed head-toe glance.
— Nick, all I care about is— is it a goose, or is it a nightingale. He turned to his associate.
As he beckoned for John to reach down and hand over his livelihood (oh, blameless me) with quick little jerks of his heavily ringed fingers, Nick footnoted his partner’s expression with a continuation of his commentary.
— If this has got a busted key anywhere, if I hear He had the alto now, was turning it so he could give the seal the evil eye.
— One rubber band snap inside here, fella, you are out on your mother- loving ear.
— Nick. Shut up, will you?
Mickey narrowed his squint a few more degrees, making his left eye appear to be nothing more than a large tear that would not free itself to roll down his pocked cheek. Glycerin, you dig? John played the game of trying to will the salty loup’s fall with his own implacability, but, to his surprise (undemonstrated), Mickey blinked before John and headed towards a back room. John’s confidence in the whole put-on of this clean scene was shaken.
— Hardly used.
That is what John too eagerly offered by way of barter, and to as much as no one in particular. The cop tugged at John’s sleeve. Behind his hand, and in a stage whisper, he played the genuinely befuddled good egg.
— Rubber bands? What’s he so hot about?
John blushed and shrugged. He was scrambling to find some use for his vulnerability. At least the typewriters had suspended their invisible tintinnabulations. Nevertheless, whatever financial strategy he may have formulated on the brisk walk downtown was by now a cinder under the magnifying glare of his desire for permit. John was parched. He also knew he would need to piss in short order.
— What kinda mouthpiece do you use?
Nick had turned the horn’s U-bend into a sort of N and was shaking it, or jostling it as if to bang it against the lip of the counter, the way you do with a jar whose lid you can’t get started. The counterman had also swung his head sideways and, despite the violent jerking of his arms, he had the air of someone who was confident that something precious indeed could be rattled out of the clandestine and echoey reaches of the saxophone’s column. John could have eaten his fist. Instead, he put on a slight bonelessness, softening from the counter with a broswer’s—not a junkie’s—fanning out.
John feigned a worldly accent
— I used to be a Bergsen man, but ever since my wisdom teeth came in, I prefer an Otto Link model. They have a distinctive bite.
— That so? It’s funny, lotta the guys who come in here say the Bergsens are the crème de la crème.
This was beginning to feel like Beat the Clock. First prize, first prize… a genuine article. An honest-to-goodness white Lone Ranger hat. Wasn’t the sun over the yardarm somewhere. Wasn’t it?
— You think?
— I suppose I’ve been known to think. But if it’s clarification you seek, yes, one’s choice of mouthpiece depends entirely upon one’s own preferred standards of preeminence.
The cop, admiring a mandolin the size of a smoked ham, appeared not to benefit at all from the joke. Worse, he had left his coffee unattended.
— Uh huh. And you can tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall, too, right fella?
John was too busy wishing to rebuke himself that he had no coins to jingle, or a wallet that was less deflated, flush, long like a checkbook in which you can—with a lovely, baritone zzziiiippp—rifle all the stubs even after you’ve torn out the last example of your perfect penmanship, machine-sewed to sit snug in an inside breast pocket. But he knew he should have been rebuking himself. John remembered the downed beer in his back pocket and was afraid to turn tail.
— So, Weisenheimer, where’s the cap? For the mouthpiece?
John paused, uncertain how to plunge ahead. He scratched one side of his face with the full extent of his open palm.
— Funny thing. Funny odd, I mean. My mastiff got ahold of it and buried the thing somewhere in my backyard. He must’ve figured it was a neck bone or some such.
— Oh, sure, sure thing, happens all the time. Having swallowed his hesitation, Nick took up his tack again. — Don’t you got a case? Any spare reeds?
Nick tapped the horn with two fingers, punctuation to what John did not know. The typewriters sniggered with one clack too many. The saxophone confessed that it was empty but had no accompanying hollows. Now, not only was John thirsty, and not only did he need to piss, but he had been betrayed. John tried to make himself belch, to conjure up at least a ghost of alcohol. Nothing doing. So he let his eyelids come to rest and he folded his hands on the counter.
— I like to make them last.
All you’re missing, my son, is the tonsure. Because not all saints are patrons, but all patrons, they’re saints. And this one is martyred on Monk-isms.
— Hmmmm. So how many platings does this thing have?
The counterman was obviously not a brother in good standing. The fuzz was, but he’d look the fool all Jackson-ed out like some sheriff. John shook his head, tried to clear it with a little dose of dizziness.
— Man, I don’t know. I just play the things, I don’t turn them out on a lathe.
John exhaled and thrust himself back from the counter, tapping out a tattoo of I-don’t-need-this-kind-of-aggravation. Man, he hoped this tiptoe indignation were righteous enough. Nick just offered that concave smirk of his and, with a few pats as gentle as a dove settling, placed his hand over his heart— to keep it, John understood with the speed of coming panic, from breaking. John looked for that troubadour cop, finding only the back of his head and the indentation left by his cap warping the comb-tooth marks in his hair. Against the accumulations of his common sense, John began to apprehend the seriousness of the counterman’s suspicions, his likely patsy-hood, and his awareness was not like, say, that mica-fleck bedside lamp switching on all white-picket-fence-like. More like the strangulation insinuated by that palm-jungled necktie. A noose so loud.
— Well, Shakespeare, how about you tell me how the lowercase J on that Olivetti portable over there strikes? Does it do Pica and Elite, you dig? If I put one of those fancy three-color ribbons in that Underwood, is it going to chew it up?
The policeman spun around, roaring much too enthusiastically—bobbing forward a little less with each guffaw, until he had returned to his original posture—and John’s gladness was almost renewed. He had deflected guilt onto the whole establishment. And, with the cop chortling and approaching for a slap on the back, he could smell his saccharine liquor again.
Nick laid the instrument back on the counter. Straightening up, he shot a raspberry in the officer’s direction, and then confronted John, defiantly ignoring his new status as ally.
— OK Progress Hornsby, it checks out. You brought us a real superlative piece of European craftsmanship here. A sawbuck times five
— Six, Nicky, six, you know the standard rate.
— Times six.
The vein jumped in the counterman’s jaw. Then his lips began to take over the bottom half of his face. John pulled at the dregs of reverie, fitfully bland visions of dinner and dinner music, of supper clubs, society dances, canasta and bridge. But no businessman’s bounce came to his aid.
— Now, I’d like to hear some virtuosity, have my nerves soothed. Favor us with a melody. Come on, stud.
He said the last with horrendous levity. — Nicky, quit wasting this gentleman’s time and bring me the Selmer.
Mickey was pulling at his belt and its many keys with his thumbs and waddling back up the aisle behind the counter.
— You’ll have to pardon my associate. John weighed the possibility that this was not an apology. They wanted him to let down his defenses, sure. If he replied, graciously or however, then the second counterman would say, Sorry, friend, I wasn’t addressing you, but the guardian of the peace there. But if they saw him as a comedian, then yassir it up he would.
John slapped his thigh. The noise had an unintended anger in it. — He’s regular cornpone, though, isn’t he? The peacefulness that followed was icily ironic.
Clearing his throat, the cop strode to the counter and retrieved his cap. John took note of the halo of smudges that marked where he had let it land. The cop squeezed the blue sides of the hat and smoothed down the area around his ears.
— Naw, naw, now, that’s not so accurate.
So this is how vengeance falls, a judo chop of Emerald Isle negations; John , with no hat to hide under, braced himself for the next slam.
— But I’ll give you a chance to come clean Nick. All we want is an honest confession. Think of me as a Holy Father equipped with a nightstick. And the gumption to use it, by golly. It’s the only way. So, out with it, Nicky— there’s Hessians swinging from the lower branches of yer family tree.
John could scarcely believe it. In fact, he knew it was to his disadvantage to do so. Might as well say, Make mine a double.
— You two are a regular Olsen and Johnson, you are. It is to laugh.
Nick swiped at his lips with a white-tipped tongue.
— It ain’t a Selmer, Mickey.
He made the correction over his shoulder. The counterman turned back to face John, and, tossing his hands forward, gave him a gesture of hip pleading.
— Come on, fella. School us. Show us a thing or two. A riff or whatchamacallem. You know “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” don’tcha? For your pal Davey here.
He indicated the cop, now frowning at the bottom of his empty cardboard mug with a sharp, quick left of his chin.
— Or maybe… Something simple. I bet you know “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” How about that, huh?
The horn was not budged. What apprenticeship have I now begun? But the cowboy hat that otherwise kept calling John to attention was not moved to reply.
— Not today, man.
John edged himself beneath the shadows of the merchandise and coughed weakly into the top of his fist. The clench was anything but an affectation. What apprenticeship? Please, Monk, tell me I haven’t been had, not just yet.
Meanwhile, Mickey had stopped in mid-hitch. Cupping the counterman’s elbow, Mickey, although the squatter of the two by far, brought his lips very close to his associate’s ear and hissed.
— Nicky, you’re falling short of maintaining the professional attitude becoming men of our standing in the community.
— Hear me out Mickey. Hear me out.
Nick’s waving pulsed rather than swept. Dropping his head down a bit further between his shoulders, he returned his sneer to John.
— Come on, let’s hear our song. I’d hand you your axe, you know, but I’m afraid of singeing my fingers.
So now all the cards were on the counter. Those typewriters were taking an uncomplicated sale, the crip of all crips—the jazzman in hock, the bum in jeopardy of some heroism—and making a brand new story out of it. How am I ever going to get myself unstuck if you stick me with more of my own? Play, play, please play. But what do you play when you’re played out? John was never one to sport a beret (no Monk he), but that white hat would look good on the outlaw in him. To break the rules, you have to bend to them first. That’s what Monk had said. That’s what I heard him saying. John was frightened. He almost raised a finger to request a warm-up for the cop, and maybe to turn himself in before the deed could be done. But Mickey interrupted his gesticulation.
— Nicky, that’s enough of that. Let us not impugn this gentleman’s entrepreneurial spirit. I’m sure he’s a fine musician.
Mickey was at the counterman’s side now, squeezing him away from the glass and into the metal grill screening the extra swag tantalizing there. Gaudy frames and rectangles dazzled with grime; boxes of ammunition in flimsy, red- and orange- and yellow-labeled cardboard boxes; blue-eyed lenses and brass chests; a pair of boxer’s mitts; a few alibis, mostly.
— Well, my boys, it’s nearly good night for me.
The cop had squared his shoulders towards the front door but was shuffling off not at all. The counterman rearranged himself so as to pursue, jostling the cash register and causing its bell to misfire, if not its cash drawer to recoil.
— Aw, come on Dave, don’t
— Don’t yourself, my boy.
— Everyone take it easy for a minute now and
John coughed into his fist again, only more vigorously. He was coughing now out of thirst. And his thirst was less and less of an act.
— Davey, earn your keep and make this joker walk the yellow line or touch his finger to his nose 10 times or something solid at least.
It was finally Mickey’s turn to chuckle. Softly, almost out of embarrassment, and it was indubitably for John’s benefit.
— I’m sorry, really, I apologize on behalf of
— Nick, my boy, I happen to be on my break. You know better than to pester me when I’m on my break. But more in the way of words to the wise
And he laid a finger along the side of his fat, crooked cop nose.
— I don’t happen to agree with your assessment of this fellow’s character. And however out of sorts he may or may not be— give a man his liberties this day of all days. You might require a few yourself.
The cop patted his belly, and his great chest quivered. He then craned to point his words to Mickey.
— Old-timer, I’d say your junior vice president is bucking for a promotion. John then saw that the cop wasn’t frisking himself in satisfaction, but that he was searching his person for the flask that emerged, dwarfed by his grip. He did not bother with a chaser this time. And he attached a little coda on his swig, sucking his dentures, John only then catching on to the fact that the flatfoot’s teeth were, in fact, as exchangeable as his saxophone.
Bested, and thoroughly—in his head, John composed a canon from the measures of thank you very much—the counterman worked the punch. It left an hourglass-shaped blank, the paper dropping out of John’s ticket and mingling with all the other flat beads, pale blue and pink, on the floor by the cash register. The counterman smoothed over the ticket’s branded hole with his thumb. He pushed the ticket onto the slabbish and oily transparency of the counter and let the weight of his arm settle there, the number just peeking out from under his slap.
— See now, don’t go losing this. We are hereby absolved of liability for any loss, mutilation or otherwise obliteration, damage, the rendering illegible etc. of this here document. Got it? String it around your neck, maybe, hey Mickey?
— Nick, Nick, Nicky boy, why so gory? Where’s your manners today?
John punctuated his craving to be gone with another wracking cough. Nothing, he decided, could move slower that this transaction. Not to mention that cop was still blocking his only exit. He breathed polish onto his badge from his open mouth and spoke with an air of boredom so severe it could only presage violence.
— Nick, give the man his voucher.
John smiled with all the sweet harmlessness he could muster and slid his own thumb across the countertop. He had decided that he was attending a sort of lecture, and that it was best to nod dumbly and note every assertion trotted out. The big shark— Mickey? That was made-up, man, pure bunk. No way was his name really Mickey… The big shark swum forward and forcibly adjusted the counterman’s meathook. John’s chit remained pinned.
— Nick, do a little job for me, would you please? I got a purse of stuff I want you to take to the Numismatic Society up at Riverside and West 155th. I want Charlie to take a look at the contents thereof.
John smiled, ofcourse ofcourse, flashing even more teeth, hoping they were flecked with blood. If crazy would not make them keep their distance, perhaps contagion would. The counterman still held fast to one end of the pawn stub. My ticket to Monk-ville.
— Mickey, I told you, I don’t like going uptown. And I’m not finished with this customer.
Some quality of the counterman’s voice undressed him. Mickey reached around his associate to the cash drawer. Those chimes were struck and John, pretending to stifle a great hacking behind his pearly whites, suddenly found a tight spiral of green suspended between his and the broker’s palms. The uncounted currency began to unroll almost as soon as John made his fingers into a berth for it. The money spread its density like warmth through his other back pocket. Again, John regretted tuning up with a church key, crescendoing with that tin-can crumple. The counterman shoved the ticket at him but still refused to take his weight off of it.
— Why don’t you send the coins with him. You’re going uptown, aren’t you, fella? Mickey, come on, you know he could sure use the dough.
Mickey canted his head one way, then another, but not in honest deliberation.
— Get your coat, Nick. You’ll be good for an errand if you’re good for nothing else. If you want this customer, this gentleman, to keep you company on the walk up, I suggest you ask nicely.
Nick was adamant.
— Mickey, I don’t like the lay of the land up there.
John wanted to make his smile turn Cheshire. Anything but insistence, please. Another cough, a mixed-up Pardon me, pushed at the base of his neck. The ticket wouldn’t budge. Maybe it was Monk’s doing. Monk, he was the one making John itch into all these quick draws, painting targets on his back, Gary Cooper-ing him, bang-bang-bang, all the way to the train platform. At the periphery of John’s vision, the white cowboy hat began to levitate off the rack where it was otherwise just a brainless lump of coveted felt and leather. John was suddenly seized with the conviction that Monk had planted it here. It was evidence and red herring in one. You know, bait. Does Monk want me to take a bite out of that fruit? Can it be a fruit if no one else knows it spits seeds, bleeds juice? It is what it is? I’ve been swallowing all day, and the day’s not even half done. Monk is the one who makes the sun set. I suppose I’ll go riding.
— It’s too crowded uptown.
And yet the ticket still hadn’t budged. John knew Monk would never give himself away with an easy score. Sure enough, the cowboy hat hung where it had hung all along. The typewriters weren’t paying him or his plight any more heed. They just tsk-tsk-ed; they had progressed from drama to architecture, absorbed no longer in the blow-by-blow but headlines. And obituaries.
The cop, smacking his lips, lifted his head, signaling that he sensed a foulness. John thought he even saw the cop’s nostrils flare in the shadow cast by the black bill of his cap.
— Mickey, I believe Nick here is a little spooked. — Cram it, Sarge. The counterman made as if he were addressing Mickey, not the cop. — I swear, if you think you can make me go uptown by myself… — Maybe I’m feeling nostalgic.
—Touching.Real cute. Just pull over for a second in your trip down memory lane and remember that, if you make me do this, so help me, Mickey, Uncle Sal is going to hear all about it.
— I hope so, Nick, I do. In fact, I’ll phone him right now if you like. — At the dinner table, Mickey. Over gnocchi and clam sauce.
— Go ahead, bring me the telephone Nick. Come on, you can even dial the number for me.
— It’ll put him off his grappa, Mickey. I swear. I’m not playing.
John’s arm was getting tired. There was no nonchalance anywhere in the world that would slide his stub out from under the splay of the counterman’s fingers (long and fine-toned, like a concert pianist’s, John hated himself for noticing). He felt the pressure on his bladder relax, only to redouble itself in that part of his being, just to the side of the stage that was his will, where all his bad habits cooled their heels until they were called to take another set of choruses. It was excruciating. Wasn’t Monk waiting? Would he wait much longer? It was almost some time. Monk’s matins? Or his vespers? John walked away, strode over to that white cowboy hat. He picked it off its rack. It turned to straw in John’s hands. He saw he had been deceived and there was no crease smiling in its crown. The hat was a piece of wax fruit, a dummy. This hat was real greenhorn. Tinhorn. It was unworn, as worthless as a hot goofus. And who was John, what block did his head have to break it in? He returned to the counter, made like he was horning in on his receipt. But John was just leaning.
— So what Nicky. So what— I already owe Salvatore a big favor. And this is how I choose to repay him.
— Oh ho! You got it all backwards Mickey. All.
— Ok, boys, the second act is over. Good night, good night. If I hang about much longer, I’ll end up corrupted, or deaf, or both.
The counterman grinned, and with a slyness that surprised John, surprised too that he could acknowledge surprise at this point.
— Officer, you don’t wanna intervene in this domestic dispute?
The counterman’s expression was neither beseeching nor dismissive. But it was desperate. John covered his mouth by stroking his jaw, lest he let on to the counterman that he had yielded to the moment. A moment during which he believed he could see his own face even though he was still cognizant of standing on the other side of the glass, carefully, even respectfully, glancing down from his adversary’s eyes to the cowboy hat orbiting from one hand to another. Against this backdrop, each one of John’s cuticles was a parabola of discoloration.
John felt the breeze of the cop’s too-convenient departure as Mickey came out from behind the counter, and his advance made John slow his coughing down, his self-consciousness in a real lather now. Why don’t you leave me be and take a butcher’s knife to your flunky’s wrist, Solomon sir? The stubbier man grasped John firmly by the shoulder, removed his arm from the counter and secured it, gently, in the small of his back. In a manner that was friendly, almost avuncular, he gave John the budget version of what he needed to hear.
— Friend, get lost.
The seedy typewriters had finally set new margins and were TABbing, ready to roll over and impress bills of lading, invoices, letters of requisition, mortgage applications, I.O.U.’s. Of course it was kind of a riddle: what is it that has one wheel and many gears but can’t be ridden anywhere? Oh yeah, John knew this gag. He broke and ran, abandoning his ticket, absconding without even thinking about it with this cowpuncher, this ridiculous Monk-y familiar. (Really? Or Mrs. Williams’. In that now that was then his unsurmised later, John did not know whether he’d ever learn.) As he skidded out the door, he heard his temporary badge—that flattened beer can—rimshot out across the green and white of the pawn shop linoleum.
No one pursued him, not the counterman, not Mickey, certainly not the cop. John eased into a trot. He made his new hat as presentable as possible, rounding rather than turning it up. He looked the new man, yes he did. He paid for the Chianti, cash, splurging for the jug with the fanciest basket. And so John succumbed to an unaccountable elation, too happy then to fathom the inverse proportion of his good spirits to his gloom, while he returned past Lexington Avenue. The how do you do?-ing signs that, coming up and at right angles away from the narrow facades of familiar buildings, were to him arms bent at the elbow, and at happy hour they would be tossing back neon into the mouths of upper-story windows. John showed them his own bottle and they flashed back their approval, even admiration as to his choice of vintage. That was a good year. And what about this year? Damn, Mr. Mickey, may I call you Mickey, Mick my man, I feel over… Yeah. I’m higher than the Hindenburg ever floated. Where’s that cop? I’ll walk a tightrope for him right now, hell. Look out all you deadbeat collectors and pushers of hand-me-downs and fairy tale princess mobsters. Burning housewives on encyclopedias with blank pages. Might you, yeah, just might you prosecute those gluttons and usurers, hoarders and harrowers and pestilential monarchs of graft? Mightn’t I? But for my pursuit of happiness. Let’s toast anhedonia. I mean, I am over all that mess. I’m alive, aren’t I? I got cash, don’t I? I’m tired and hungry, right? My guts are in huddled masses. And I’m the law, my own law. Here’s to the dirty, the down, and the vigilantes who trod upon them.
The cap had come loose with a single twist and a satisfying crack. But the liquor gasped too hard in the green air of the bottle’s neck. The exuberance of John’s throat thrust the violet rinse up into his sinuses. The wine snubbed his nose. John had to pause in mid-joy and stride, almost teetering from the haymakers the liquor threw at him. Beer was not rotgut. Staggered, his head was bent into his chest more than it was tucked towards the sidewalk. He had lost himself, all right, but, it finally occurred to John, he had failed to take ownership of proof of his debt. Even if they had taken down his address, they wouldn’t waste a stamp on a chit. On a chump. John wavered, panting and seconds away from hailing a taxi, but no, he resolved that he would not be lured back. Monk was never one to retrace his footsteps. Curious; his hat could have rolled right into the wind, taken wing, homed right on back with message of its kidnap. But there it was, white as a poodle-dog (but hold the fluff), still as much at his side as a mutt that’s always at your heels can be. Mucus wet his lips and he spoke quietly and evenly to himself.
— Shaw nuff I do.
And that was how John’s lapel had come to be soaked with Chianti. Legs stretched across the A train and crossed at the ankles, hands making a belt buckle, cowboy hat slung low on his head, any straphanger might have thought him to be just another coming attraction’s pose. But what John had been intent on was sucking that lapel dry.
Shaw nuff I do. That’s exactly what I said. To the letter. Don’t expect to hear me say it again.
Back in his alley, John re-doffed. Mrs. Williams meowed down at him one last time.
— Show us all, Mr. Poll-Winner. No fake books, no slowing down the record player with your fist. Show me!
John rose, pretending to be as lanky as the cowboy hat could make him. He catcalled nothing in return, consigning Mrs. Williams to her vegetative intrigues. Whatever was next was left to Monk.
John found himself again in front of the door to his flat. He rapped hard with the brunt of his knuckles just below the peephole. Capitulation my ass. Ascension passes through the eye of a needle, right?
— Momma, John addressed his mother killing flies at the kitchen table.
Or so John attempted to caress his wife once he had guided her back to her seat, where her hands sunk into her lap.
— John, what is that thing on your head?
— Never mind, baby, never… Look, I didn’t bring you all the way from Philadelphia for this.
— Oh, honey, for what?
His momma swatted at the overhead lamp with her dishrag, spattering colorless suds.
— John, did you ever see so many flies, and in the cool weather like we’re having?
His wife put her chin in her hand, clamping her mouth tight. Her eyes said plenty.
— For what, momma! To watch me lynch myself ? Over this? His mother covered her ears with a shriek. John, as an injunction against
himself, kissed his wife’s painted and outraged mouth. — I’m going right in there to our bed, the bed of our betrothal, baby, and
wait myself right through to triumph over this.
Gripping it at its tall neck and throwing it with all the passion neither quarts of alcohol nor the day’s oniony hours of indignity could assuage, he dashed the half-finished bottle of wine his alto saxophone had bought against the kitchen wall. Its necessity exploded, the bottle became a stream of glass and a stain the fuschia of an extinct species’ blood.
John’s mother exhaled. The bedroom door had slammed. His wife could not hold back her shouting any longer.
— John, aren’t you going to ask after our daughter? Which friend has asked her to stay for dinner tonight? Don’t you wonder why I’m home early? Don’t you want to know why I’m so done up? Well?
John’s wife stood up, resetting the pins in her hair.
She steadied herself on the fly-strewn table, her elbow turned nearly inside out from the duress she laid on the length of her arm. She let her words splatter onto the tablecloth.
There was no reply. She sat back down, now opposite John’s mother— or as crosswise as she could manage at the circular table.
— I am not cleaning that up.
John’s wife gave the bedroom door her profile, her eyes radiant, stern, perfectly dry.
— You’re drifting, John. You could still get a pit band job. I’ll get out my grandfather’s old concertina and play the piano parts for you.
A fly lit on John’s wife’s eyebrow and she blinked it away.
— John! You can’t just stick yourself in your room like you’d drop two bits into your piggy bank! John! You have no business calling it a day, not yet.
John’s wife deliberated upon her lap. She pushed her fingers into the pleats of her dress and began all over again.
— John. I am not picking up after you.
Her yell had subsided, and her enunciation would have been halting had not every intricate joint of her articulation been so painstakingly formed. She was parceling her fury through the bedroom door’s keyhole.
— We might be living in the Riis Houses, or the Smith Houses, or the Baruch Houses, John.
John’s mother laid down her drooping cudgel and threw open as wide a look on her daughter-in-law as she could hope would be entered into without apprehension. And she beckoned the younger woman closer with her whispering.
— Tell him Stacy, tell him this: We might be living in Levittown, John!