by T.C. Boyle
Snow he could take, but this wasn't snow, it was sleet. There was an inch of it at least in the gutters and clamped atop the cars, and the sidewalks had been worked into a kind of pocked gray paste that was hell on his shoes - and not just the shine, but the leather itself. He was thinking of last winter - or was it winter before that? - and a pair of black-and-whites he'd worn onstage, really sharp, and how they'd got ruined in slop just like this. He'd been with a girl who'd waited through three sets for him that night, and her face was lost to him, and her name too, but she had a contour on her - that much he remembered - and by the time they left she was pretty well lit and she pranced into the street outside the club and lifted her face to the sky. Why don't we walk? she sang out in a pure high voice as if she wanted everybody in New York to hear her. It's so glorious, isn't it? Can't you feel it? And he was lit himself and instead of taking her by the wrist and flagging down a cab he found himself lurching up the street with her, one arm thrown over her shoulder to pull her to him and feel the delicious discontinuous bump of her hip against his. Within half a block his cigarette had gone out and his face was as wet as if he'd been sprayed with a squirt gun; by the time they turned the corner his shoes were gone, and there was nothing either he or the solemn paisan at the shoe repair could do to work the white semicircular scars out of the uppers.
He dodged a puddle, sidestepped two big-armed old ladies staring at a Christmas display as if they'd just got off the bus from Oshkosh, and pinched the last drag out of the butt of his cigarette, which hissed as he flicked it into the gutter. For a minute, staring down the length of Fifth Avenue as it faded into the beating gloom like something out of an Eskimo's nightmare, he thought of hailing a cab. But there were no cabs, not in weather like this, and the reason he was walking the thirty-odd blocks to the studio in the first place, he reminded himself bitterly, was because he didn't have money to waste on anything so frivolous as carfare. He lifted his feet gingerly and turned into the blow, cursing.
It was cold in the apartment - the landlady was a miser and a witch and she wouldn't have turned on the heat for two free tickets to Florida - and Darlene felt her body quake and revolt against the chill as she stood before the mirror plucking her eyebrows after a lukewarm shower. She couldn't muster much enthusiasm for the session. It was grim outside, the windows like old gray sheets tacked to the walls, and she just couldn't feature bundling up and going out into the storm. But then it was grimmer inside - peeling wallpaper, two bulbs out in the vanity, a lingering sweetish odor of that stuff the landlady used on the roaches - and she never missed a date, not to mention the fact that she needed the money. She was in her slip - she couldn't find her robe, though she suspected it was balled up somewhere in the depths of the laundry basket, and there was another trial she had to get through, the machine in the laundry room inoperative for two weeks now. Her upper arms were prickled with gooseflesh. There was a red blotch just to the left of her nose, tracing the indentation of the bone there. The eye above it, staring back at her like the swollen blown-up eye of a goldfish at the pet store, was bloodshot. Bloodshot. And what was she going to do about that?
On top of it all, she still wasn't feeling right. The guy she'd been seeing, the guy she'd been saving up to go to Florida with for a week at Christmas - Eddie, second trumpet with Mitch Miller - had given her a dose and her backside was still sore from where the doctor had put the needle in. The way her head ached - and her joints, her right shoulder especially, which burned now as she positioned the tweezers above the arch of her eyebrow - she began to wonder if there'd actually been penicillin in that needle. Maybe it was just water. Maybe the doctor was pinching on his overhead. Or maybe the strain of gonorrhea she'd picked up - that Eddie had picked up in Detroit or Cleveland or Buffalo - wouldn't respond to it. That's what the doctor had told her, anyway - there was a new strain going around. His hands were warm, the dab of alcohol catching her like a quick cool breeze. Just a little sting, he said, as if she were nine years old. There. Now that's better, isn't it?
No, she'd wanted to say, it's not better, it's never better and never will be because the world stinks and the clap stinks and so do needles and prissy nurses and sour-faced condescending M.D.s and all the rest of it too, but she just opened up her smile and said Yeah .
She was tired of every dress in the closet. Or no, not just tired - sick to death of them. All of them. The hangers clacked like miniature freight cars as she rattled through them twice, shivering in her slip and nylons, her feet all but frozen to the linoleum. Christ, she said to herself, Jesus Christ , what the hell difference does it make?, and she reached angrily for a red crepe-de-chine with a plunging neckline she hadn't worn in a year and pulled it over her head and smoothed it across her hips, figuring it would provide about as much protection from the cold as a swimsuit. She'd just have to keep the cloth coat buttoned up to her throat, and though it was ugly as sin, she'd wear the red-and-green checked scarf her mother had knitted her ... what she really needed - what she deserved, and what Eddie, or somebody, should give her and give her soon - was a fur.
A gust threw pellets of ice against the windowpane. For a moment she held the picture of herself in a fur - and not some chintzy mink stole, but a full-length silver fox - and then it dissolved. A fur. Yeah, sure. She wasn't exactly holding her breath.
The hallway smelled like shit - literally - and as he stomped the slush off his shoes and bent to wipe the uppers with the paper towels he'd nicked from the men's room at Benjie's, where he'd stopped to fortify himself with two rye whiskies and a short beer, he wondered what exactly went on on the ground floor when they weren't recording. Or maybe when they were. Neff would press just about anything anybody wanted to put out, whether it was boogie woogie, race records or that rock and roll crap, and who knew how many junkies and pill heads came in and out of the place so stewed they couldn't bother to find the bathroom? He took off his hat, set it on the extinct radiator and ran both hands through his hair. There was a slice of broken glass in a picture frame on the wall and that at least gave him back his reflection, though it was shadowy and indistinct, as if he'd already given up the ghost. For a moment there, patting his hair back into place while he stared down the dim tunnels of his eyes, he had a fleeting intimation of his own mortality - he was thirty-eight and not getting any younger, his father ten years' dead and his mother fading fast; before long it would be just him and his sister and one old wraith-like spinster aunt, Aunt Marta, left on this earth, and then he'd be an old man in baggy pants staring at the gum spots on the sidewalk - but suddenly the door opened behind him and he turned round on a girl in a cloth coat and he was immortal all over again.
»Oh, hi, Johnny«, she said, and then she gave the door a look and leaned back into it to slam it shut. »God, it's brutal out there.«
At first he didn't recognize her. That sort of thing happened to him more and more lately, it seemed, and he told himself he had to cut back on the booze - and reefer, reefer was the worst, sponging your brain clean so you couldn't recognize your own face in the mirror. He'd come into some joint - a bar, a club, his manager's office—and there'd be somebody there he hadn't expected, somebody transposed from some other scene altogether, and he'd have to fumble around the greeting and give himself a minute or two to reel his brain back in. »Darlene«, he said now, »Darlene Delmar. Wow. I haven't seen you in what, years? Or months, anyway, right?«
She was wearing sunglasses though it was as dark as night outside and there was some sort of welt or blemish under the left lens, right at the cheekbone. She gave him a thin smile. »Six months ago, Cincinnati . On what was that station? W-something.«
»Oh, yeah«, he said, faking it, »yeah. Good times, huh? But how you been keeping?«
A rueful smile. A shrug. He could smell her perfume, a faint fleeting whiff of flowers blooming in a green field under a sun that brought the sweat out on the back of your neck, spring, summer, Florida, but the odor of the streets drove it down. »As well as can be expected, I guess. If I could get more work - like in a warmer climate, you know what I mean?« She shook out her hair, stamped her feet to knock the slush off her heels, and he couldn't help looking at her ankles, her legs, the way the coat parted to reveal the flesh there.
»It's been tough all over«, he said, just to say something.
»My manager - I've got a new manager, did I tell you that? Or how could I, since I haven't seen you in six months ...?« She trailed off, gave a little laugh, then dug into her purse for her cigarettes. »Anyway, he says things'll look up after the New Year, definitely. He was talking about maybe sending me out to L.A. Or Vegas maybe.«
He was trying to remember what he'd heard about her - somebody had knocked her up and she'd had a back-room abortion and there'd been complications. Or no, that wasn't her, that was the girl who'd made a big splash two years back with that novelty record, the blonde, what was her name? Then it came to him, a picture he'd been holding a while, a night at a party somewhere and him walking in to get his coat and she was doing two guys at once, Darlene, Darlene Delmar. »Yeah«, he said, »yeah, that'd be swell, L.A. 's the place, I mean palm trees, the ocean ...«
She didn't answer. She'd cupped her hands to light the cigarette - which he should have lit for her, but it was nothing to him. He stood rooted to the spot, his overcoat dripping, and his eyes drifted to the murky window set in the door - there was movement there, out on the street, a tube of yellow extending suddenly to the curb. Two guys with violin cases were sliding out of a cab, sleet fastening on their shoulders and hats like confetti. He looked back to her and saw that she was staring at him over the cigarette. »Well, here come the strings«, he said, unfolding an arm to usher her up the hall. »I guess we may as well get to it.«
He hadn't bothered to light her cigarette for her - hadn't even moved a muscle for that matter, as if he were from someplace like Outer Mongolia where they'd never heard of women or cigarettes or just plain common courtesy. Or manners either. His mother must have been something, a fat fishwife with a mustache, and probably shoeless and illiterate on top of it. Johnny Bandon, born in Flatbush as Giancarlo Abandonado. One more wop singer: Sinatra, Como, Bennett, Bandon. She couldn't believe she'd actually thought he had talent when she was growing up, all those hours listening alone to the sweet tenor corroboration of his voice and studying his picture in the magazines until her mother came home from the diner and told her to go practice her scales. She'd known she was working with him today, that much her manager had told her, but when she'd come through the door, chilled right to the marrow, she'd barely recognized him. Rumor had it he'd been popping pills, and she knew the kind of toll that took on you - knew firsthand - but she hadn't been prepared for the way the flesh had fallen away from his face or the faraway glare of his eyes. She'd always remembered him as handsome - in a greasy sort of way - but now here he was with his cueball eyes and the hair ruffled like a duck's tail feathers on the back of his head, gesturing at her as if he thought he was the A&R man or something. Or some potentate, some potentate from Siam.
Up the hall and into the studio, a pile of coats, hats and scarves in the secretary's office, no place to sit or even turn around and the two fiddle players right on their heels, and she was thinking one more job and let's get it over with. She'd wanted to be pleasant, wanted to make the most of the opportunity - enjoy herself, and what was wrong with that? - but the little encounter in the hallway had soured her instantly, as if the pain in her backside and the weather and her bloodshot eye wasn't enough. She unwound the scarf and shrugged out of her coat, looking for a place to lay it where it wouldn't get sat on.
Harvey Neff - this was his studio and he was producing - emerged from the control booth to greet them. He was a gentleman, a real gentleman, because he came up to her first and took her hand and kissed her cheek and told her how terrific it was to be working with her again before he even looked at Johnny. Then he and Johnny embraced and exchanged a few back slaps and the usual words of greeting - Hey, man, long time no see and How's it been keeping? and Cool, man, cool - while she patted down her hair and smoothed her skirt and debated removing the dark glasses.
»Listen, kids«, Harvey was saying, turning to her now, »I hope you're up for this, because as I say we are going to do this and do it right, one session, and I don't care how long it takes, nobody leaves till we're all satisfied, right? Because this is a Christmas record and we've got to get it out there I mean immediately or there's no sense in making it at all, you know what I mean?«
She said she did, but Johnny just stared - was he going to be all right for this? - until Fred Silver, the A&R man for Bluebird, came hurtling into the room with his hands held out before him in greeting and seconded everything Harvey had said, though he hadn't heard a word of it. »Johnny«, he said, ignoring her, »just think if we can get this thing out there and get some airplay, because then it slips into the repertoire and from Thanksgiving to New Year's every year down the road it's there making gravy for everybody, right? I mean look at ›White Christmas.‹ ›Santa, Baby.‹ Or what was that other thing, that Burl Ives thing?«
The room was stifling. She studied the side of Fred Silver's head - bald to the ears, the skin splotched and sweating - and was glad for the dress she was wearing. But Johnny - maybe he was just a little lit, maybe that was it - came to life then, at least long enough to shrug his shoulders and give them all a deadpan look, as if to say I'm so far above this you'd better get down on your knees right now and start chanting hosannas. What he did say, after a beat, was: »Yeah, that I can dig, but really, Fred, I mean really - ›Little Suzy Snowflake‹?«
They walked through it twice and he thought he was going to die from boredom, the session men capable enough - he knew most of them - and the girl singer hitting the notes in a sweet, commodious way, but he was for a single take and then out for a couple drinks and a steak and some life, for Christ's sake. He tried to remind himself that everybody did novelty records, Christmas stuff especially, and that he should be happy for the work - hell, Nat King Cole did it, Sinatra, Martin, all of them - but about midway through the arrangement he had to set down the sheet music and go find the can just to keep from exploding. Little Suzy Snowflake. It was stupid. Idiotic. Demeaning. And if he'd ever had a reputation as a singer - and he had, he did - then this was the kiss of death.
There were four walls in the can, a ceiling and a floor. He locked the door behind him, slapped some water on his face and tried to look at himself long enough in the mirror to smooth his hair down - and what he wouldn't have given to have been blessed with hair that would just stay in place for ten minutes instead of this kinky, nappy mess he was forever trying to paste to the side of his head. Christ, he hated himself. Hated the look in his eyes and the sunken cheeks and the white-hot fire of ambition that drove him, that had driven him, to this, to make this drivel and call it art. He was shit, that was what he was. He was washed up. He was through.
Without thinking twice he pulled the slim tube of a reefer from the pack of Old Golds in his jacket pocket and lit up, right there in the can, and he wouldn't have been the first to do it, God knew. He took a deep drag and let the smoke massage his lungs, and he felt the pall lift. Another drag, a glance up at the ceiling and a single roach there, making its feelers twitch. He blew smoke at it - »Get your kicks, Mr. Bug«, he said aloud, »because there's precious few of them in this life« - and then, without realizing just when he'd slipped into it, he found he was humming a Cab Calloway tune, biggest joke in the world, »Reefer Man.«
She must have looked like the maternal type - maybe it was the dress, or more specifically, the way it showed off her breasts - because Harvey prevailed upon her to go down the hall to the restroom and mother the star of the proceedings a little bit because the ticker was ticking and everybody, frankly, was starting to get a little hot under the collar, if she knew what he meant. »Like pissed off? Like royally?« Darlene took a moment, lowered her head and peeped over the sunglasses to let her eyes rove over the room. »Poor man,« she said in her sweetest little-girl-lost voice, »he seemed a bit confused - maybe he can't find his zipper.« Everybody - she knew them all, except the strings - burst out in unison, and they should have recorded that . George Withers, the trombonist, laughed so hard he dropped his mouthpiece on the floor with a thud that sounded like a gunshot, and that got them all laughing even harder.
There was a dim clutter of refuse in the hallway - broken music stands, half a smashed guitar, a big waist-high ashtray lifted from the Waldorf with the hotel's name etched in the chrome and a thousand extinguished butts spilling over onto the floor - and a lingering smell of stopped-up toilets. She nearly tripped over something, she didn't stop to see what, and then she was outside the restroom and a new smell came to her: he was smoking reefer in there, the moron. She'd dragged herself all the way out here in the cold to do a job, hoping for the best - hoping for a hit - and here he was, the great Johnny Bandon, the tea head, getting himself loaded in the can. Suddenly she was angry. Before she knew what she was doing she was pounding on the door like a whole van full of narks. »Johnny!« she shouted. »Johnny, people are waiting.« She tried the doorknob. »Open up, will you?«
Nothing. But she knew that smell. There was the sound of water running, then the toilet flushed. »Shit«, she hissed. »Damn you, open up. I don't know about you, but I need this, you hear me? Huh?« She felt something rise in her, exactly like that geyser she'd seen in Life Magazine, red-hot, white-hot. She rattled the knob.
There was the metallic click of the bolt sliding back and then he pulled open the door and told her in an even voice to keep her shirt on, only he was smiling at her, giving her the reckless grin of abandon that ten years ago had charmed half the women in the country. She was conscious of the fact that in her heels they were the same height and the crazy idea that he'd be the perfect dance partner flitted through her head as he stood there at the door and the marijuana fumes boiled round him. What he said next totally disarmed her, his voice pitched to the familiar key of seduction: »What's with the glasses? Somebody slug you, or what?«
The world leapt out at her when she slipped the sunglasses from her eyes, three shades brighter, though the hallway was still dim as a tomb. »It's my eye«, she said, touching a finger to her cheekbone at the right orbit. »I woke up with it all bloodshot.«
From down the hall came the muted sound of the band working their way through the arrangement without them, a sweeping glide of strings, the corny cluck-cluck-knock of a glockenspiel and the tinkling of a triangle, and then the horns, bright and peppy, Christmas manufactured like a canned ham. »You're nuts«, he said. »Your eye's no more bloodshot than mine is - «
She couldn't help smiling. »Oh, yeah? Have you looked in the mirror?«
They were both laughing suddenly, and then he took her by the arm and pulled her into the restroom with him. »You want some of this?« he said.
There was something about the moment - the complicit look she gave him, the way she showed her teeth when she laughed, the sense he had of getting away with something, as if they were two kids ducking out of school to have a smoke under the fire escape - that just lit him up, just like that, like a firecracker. Neff could wait. They could all wait. He passed her the reefer and watched her eyes go wide with greed as she inhaled and held it in, green eyes, glassy and green as the bottom of a Chianti bottle. After a moment the smoke began to escape her nostrils in a sporadic way, as if there was something burning inside of her, and he thought first of the incinerator in the basement of the tenement he'd grown up in, and the smell of it, of cardboard and wet newspaper and everything scraped off a plate, cat litter, dead pets, fingernail parings, and then, as if that sponge had wiped his brain clean, of church. Of votary candles. Of incense. Jesus, he was high as a kite.
»What?« she said, expelling the smoke through her mouth. »What's that grin for?«
He let out a laugh - or no, a giggle. »I just had this image«, he said. »Very strange. Like you were on fire inside - «
Her eyes were on him, green and unblinking. She was smiling. »Me? Little old me? On fire?«
»Listen«, he said, serious suddenly, and he was so far out there he couldn't follow his own chain of thought, »did you go to church when you were a kid? I want to know. You're Catholic, right?«
Her eyes went away from him then, up to where one very stewed roach clung to the ceiling, and they came back again. »Yeah«, she said, ducking her head. »If you can believe it, I was in the choir.«
»You were? Wow. Me too. I mean, that was how I - «
She put a hand on his arm as if to emphasize the connection. »I know exactly what you mean - it's probably how ninety percent of the singers out there got started. At least the ones I met, anyway.«
»Church, yeah.« She was grinning at him, and when she grinned her dimples showed and her face opened up for him till he had to back up a step for fear of falling right into it.
He wanted to banter with her, say something clever, charming, keep it going, but instead he said, »You ever go anymore?«
She shook her head. »Not me. Uh-uh. It's been years.« Her lips were pursed now, the dimples gone. »You?«
»Nah«, he said. »All that was a long time ago. When I was a kid, you know?«
An achingly slow moment revealed itself in silence. She passed him the reefer, he took a drag, passed it back. »I guess we're both about halfway to hell by now«, she said.
»Oh, I don't know«, he said, and everything seemed to let go of him to make way for that rush of exhilaration he'd been feeling ever since she'd stepped into the can with him, »I'd say it's more like three-quarters«, and they were laughing all over again, in two-part harmony.
It was Harvey himself who finally came to fetch them and when Johnny opened the door on him and the smoke flowed out into the hallway she felt shamed - this wasn't what she'd come for, this wasn't professional or even sensible. Of course, Harvey had seen it all in his day, but still he gave her a sour look and it made her feel like some runaway or delinquent caught in the act. For a moment she flashed on the one time she'd been arrested - in a hotel room in Kansas City, after a night when she'd felt the music right down in her cells, when she'd felt unbeatable - but she stopped right there amidst the clutter and shook out her hair to compose herself. Harvey was white-faced. He was furious and why wouldn't he be? But Johnny chose to ignore it, still riding the exhilaration they'd felt in the bathroom - and it wasn't the reefer, that wasn't it at all, or not all of it - and he said, »Hey, Harvey, come on, man, don't sweat it. We're ready to slay ‘em, aren't we, babe?«
»Sure«, she said, »sure«, and then they were back in the studio, dirty looks all around, Harvey settling into the control booth with Fred Silver, and the opening strains of »Little Suzy Snowflake«, replete with glockenspiel and tinkling triangle, enveloping the room.
»No, no, no, no«, Johnny shouted, waving his arms through the intro, »cut, cut, cut!«
Neff's face hung suspended behind the window of the control booth. »What's the matter now?« his voice boomed, gigantic, disproportionate, sliced three ways with exasperation.
Johnny was conscious of his body, of his shoulders slipping against the pads of his jacket and the slick material of his pants grabbing at his crotch as he turned and gestured to the booth with both palms held out in offering. »It's just that Darlene and me were working something out back there - warming up, you know? I just think we need to cut the B-side first. What do you think?«
Nobody said a word. He looked at Darlene. Her eyes were blank.
There was a rumble from the control booth, Harvey with his hand over the mike conferring with Fred Silver, the session men studying the cuffs of their trousers, something, somewhere, making a dull slippery hissing sound - they were running tape, and the apprehension of it brought him back to himself.
»I think« - the voice of God from the booth, Domine, dirige nos - »we should just get on with it like we planned or we're going to be here all night. Know what I'm saying, Johnny?« And then Silver, a thinner voice, the Holy Ghost manifesting Himself in everything: »Keep it up, Johnny, and you're going to make me pick up the telephone.« Neff's hand went back to the mike, a sound like rubbing your sleeve over a trumpet mute, and there was more conferring, the two heads hanging there behind the glass like transparencies.
He felt scared suddenly, scared and alone and vulnerable. »Okay«, he said to the room, »okay, I hear you.« And he heard himself shift into another mode altogether, counting off the beat, and there were the strings pouring like syrup out of the corners and the whisper of the brushes and the high hat and he was singing in the unshakeable pure tenor that was Johnny Bandon's trademark, and forget Harvey, forget the asinine lyrics, he was singing here, singing: only that.
Something happened as soon as Johnny opened his mouth, and it had happened to her before, happened plenty, but it was the last thing she'd expected from a session like this. She came in on the second verse - Little Suzy Snowflake/Came tumbling down from the sky - and felt it, the movement inside of her, the first tick into unconsciousness, what her mother used to call opening up the soul. You're a soul-singer , her mother used to say, you know that, little sister? A real soul-singer. She couldn't help herself. She took Johnny's lead and she flew, and so what if it was corny, so what if the glockenspiel was a cliché out of some fluffy nostalgic place and time nobody could remember and the arrangement was pure chintz? She flew and so did he.
And then the B-side, warmer, sweeter, with some swing to it - »Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow« - and they traded off, tit for tat, call and response, But baby it's cold outside. When Harvey's voice came at them - »That's it, kids, you nailed that one down« - she couldn't quite believe it was over, and from the look of Johnny, his tie tugged loose, the hair hanging in his eyes, he couldn't believe it either.
The musicians were packing up, the streets and the night awaiting them, the sleet that would turn to snow by morning and the sky that fell loose over everything because there was nothing left to prop it up. »Johnny«, she murmured, and they were still standing there at the mike, both of them frozen in the moment, »that was, I mean that was - «
»Yeah«, he said, ducking his head, »we were really on, weren't we«, and from the way he turned to her she was sure he was going to say Let's go have a drink or Your place or mine?, but he didn't. Instead he just closed his eyes and began to sing, pure, sweet and high. Nobody moved. The ghostly heads in the recording booth pivoted toward them, the horn players looked up from their instrument cases and their felt rags and fragile mouthpieces. Even the strings - longhairs from the Brooklyn Academy of Music - hesitated. And then, on the third bar, she caught up to him, their two voices blended into one: It is the night/Of our dear Savior's birth.
The moment held. They sang the song through, then sang it again. And then, without pause, as if they were reading from the same sheet, they swept into »Ave Maria«, »O Come All Ye Faithful«, »What Child Is This«, the sweet beat of the melody as much a part of her as the pulsing of the blood in her veins. She didn't know what time it was, didn't know when Harvey and the A&R man deserted the booth, didn't know anything but the power of two voices entwined. She knew this only - that she was in a confined space, walls and floor and ceiling, but that didn't make any sense to her, because it felt as if it opened up forever.