As far as she could see anywhere in the room, no one was keeping watch. Expecting to find someone, she saw only herself. At one end of the entrance, distant, light was projecting her off-red hair into gray in the end huge wall mirror. Its silver alloy cracked into a fine mesh, so her flesh was a ghost.
Or was it an alabaster bust in the attic or plaster head of a composer won as an award in a piano playing contest? She rotated her own to see which and flicked her eyes to see neither of these. Instead, she was awake, after all the long trip home.
On this giant mirror screen, she could see who was in back of her. Who shot pool? Who pressed their hands to their heads during board games, when the vast room contained restless groups with a constant z-z-z? Seeing or hearing no one, she landed in a booth. Her fingers traced unknown names scratched into the table, stick forms, and one “Kilroy was here.”
Some called this vast room a refuge, a bunker. Not wanting to be surprised while seated, she stood up. The living would soon arrive.
* * *
A year ago, wary of this spot, she’d hunted at dusk for the door into the building. Looking for insiders, one in particular, here was the door but not the man.
The right door was one lined up in a series of false front buildings near the city’s main square. The storefront, like so many headstones one of which tipped, waiting for the past to thrust into the future. The door one gave way.
Once an ice cream parlor for great-grands, this semi-underground now revisited with its fogged windows, had allowed passersby to gaze in until closed.
Her mother’s best friend had sung earlier on in this speakeasy, called the Cave for cavern. Later landlords used its expanse for a storeroom, until the break-in.
Into its lower reaches, youths forced in against the metal plate that covered the opening into a rundown restaurant, closed for the night on a particular night twenty or thirty years ago and only now reopened.
On into the dumbwaiter, others followed, swinging down below. This original core called their hideout the Cell for cellar. “We’ll make us our own hangout,” said Joey.
“Yeah! No drug sellers.” Louie mocked short Joey.
* * *
The community hullabaloo ballyhooed this gang hangout. The building’s latest owner said, “No place to go. So, they stay.”
Later though, Pete said, “He’s losing interest, as some of the town’s dailies and weeklies wrote that this drop-in for dropouts and some grown-up volunteers was drawing ‘riffraff and rejects with ducktails, and hellers dishonorably discharged.’” Something must be done for this trouble in Riverton.
If anyone asked Michaela, nicknamed Micki, “Why go down to that hideaway?” she would have skittered away. It drew her into its whiffs of Prohibition, the twenties with speakeasies that dazzled and the thirties that dimmed the experiment. What mattered?
For Pete, the youth worker now semi-in-charge, tall and loose-limbed told her, “Keep an eye on the females, cut out the clinical people.” Once in sight, the Cell types were bouncing, pinching, punching, and other actions unknown to the sippers, stool sitters and hoppers of another era.
The patient load getting used to the medical center differed from these here on the Cell’s floor. Steadying herself, she was unsure how to deal with these kids or grown-ups or those in between.
Because of soles with cleats, their steps clicked on the stairs, fists pounded the stairwell and sounded like a drumming dance warming up. She jumped. Down bowling alleys, they were shooting scratched bowls at helter-skelter pins on alleys.
On the sidelines, some with eyes sunken into their heads watched, until one put a coin into the jukebox. On flashed red, green, and blue into the low-lit atmosphere. The music of Gladys Knight and the Pips rollicked out.
* * *
Instead of Pete, the one she was looking for, another older man sauntered in through the dancers on the floor, while a child, Annie, giggled behind him. Then the little one stayed to bob dance in time with the others. “Don’t leave,” he told her, as he pushed on toward the bar counter. He leaned on it. His fingers began tapping to the musical sounds on the marble, its graphite veins almost wobbled in time to the off-white staticky music, scratchy from jukebox. Distracted, his head fanned to lock into points across the span of the room to study each youth. After rotating for minutes, he said, “Girls hardly touch boys these days, do they? No cheek to cheek in this wartime. Just touch and go.”
* * *
Micki glanced up at him. He removed his windbreaker that matched his chinos, pressed. With his kerchief, he wiped the damp from his temples. A musical staff crossed his frown lines beneath his white hair, swept to one side. Sadness that crouched between his eyes dropped away from time to time. Mostly, it stayed during the loud music.
Years earlier, in the nightspot where they stood-in, he said, “I performed here and in clubs all over town and country.” Still scanning the Cell for someone, he revolved at times, pausing toward her at a diagonal. This man walked away from the bar, only to come back and reminisce, until the loud music stopped him.
“After the Upper Peninsula Conservatory and Study with a master from the North, I landed my first job.” Trumpeters heard him in his school combo before Lent. “They’d come to talk me, while my pop was fixing the roof over our head, into joining their show.”
Pop resisted. “No.”
Mom relented. “Let him go with the circus.”
Eventually, he arrived at Danceland on the edge of Chicago, where he played most weeknights. Dancers never seen before impressed him.
“What they did at the beginning of the Second World War was before anyone else in the know knew the way. We tuned up for all the gals out there, kicking off their shoes and performing in their stocking’d feet long before the fellows came in. They hadn’t paired off yet. You’d never seen such grateful people in your life for our music. Away they’d go!”
Hank had moved on, he let Michaela know. She’d been the neighbor he’d known by sight and the neighbor she heard by his jazz music.
The dancers lay within him forever. Moreover, besides the violin, he had taught himself the saxophone. So, the leader of a new show band asked him to join up, playing two instruments for the pay of one.
Between the discs on the red, green, blue, and red jukebox turnstile, he must have dreamed aloud this all back to her. “When the outside grew cold,” he continued, “the band moved farther south, and we turned inside while touring from place to place. Luckily though,” he said, “we did not zigzag every day, breaking the jumps.”
“What was that?” she asked.
In time, Hank had teamed up with another bandleader, whose brother played with Paul Whiteman, though Hank said he’d been aiming for that band or another big one, when deciding the Whiteman band was too sentimental.
By his late teens, he was recalling and enthusing with Micki. Of the youthful dances catching on in his hometown and hers, the one band gave Bunny Berigan his start at the Hollywood Gate. In its first “dime a dance,” Berigan dumbfounded the dancers with his special, “I Can’t Get Started.”
“He stopped the show.”
“He did. Who else could?” Later, the younger bandsmen parted into several small bands. She listened. He’d spent the following season at the River City Garden. In a big show band they performed—the players that is—for an hour at least twice a night, lasting until late in the morning. Onstage every so often, stars from comedy to opera also appeared, Hank said, “Names you never heard of.”
“I might have.”
Sometimes two or three bands were booked-in at the same place. After the evening finished, some of the players would turn on their portable Victrola for others coming back from the ballrooms and clubs. They would sit around listening to thousands of “Louis records” by the hour.
“Armstrong was jazz,” Hank said. “His New Orleans was all jazz. Chicago was jazz.”
“Some jazzmen arrange their music like a symphony. The ’go-men improvise. Sidemen play choruses. The band he played in played for thousands in the great big ballroom.” On its ceiling, a machine projected (Micki imagined) through an endless film over blinking lights for stars. “They’d play a medley of all the old familiar tunes.”
Hank could still hear Berigan, still a sideman, who would let go with his “Was That a Dream?”
“He was a ’go-man, I was a sideman. He’s dead now, I’m alive.”
As Hank talked, she slid her eyes on a younger man alongside the organizer Pete and watched him with his scrolls. She could not tell for sure if he was he; she’d been holding him in her mind for so long, creating reality, sleight of hand, sleight of mind.
She could see his long neck leading to the dip in his back. Sensing her stare, he glanced over his shoulder at her.
She was studying the ceiling over him. Others there in the great maroon were also tilting themselves toward the Cell ceiling, tin pressed into a squared-off design, to see it. She was looking up. Hank too was staring. Everyone was stargazing.
* * *
Hank was rattling on. “Berigan joined us in the last months in Detroit. All the celebrities came, the big shots. The time was Prohibition. Mr. Sloane, head of General Motors, came on weeknights, Amelia Earhart on weekends. They applauded Berigan, as he stopped the show with ‘I’m Nobody’s Baby.’”
When the Crash came, everyone was standing around, bemoaning what they’d lost. They did not tune up for dance music much at first. Eventually, players tried “PC dances” for a percentage of what was taken in at the door. We’d play and earn only a few cents the whole night long. We were trying to hang on.
Things started to come back. “Talking pictures became the thing. Unless you belonged to the biggest band in the world,” he was saying, “you found little to do. Finally, the next world war brought Swing to a halt.”
Who knew if this man before Michaela would stay around the Cell for long? Was this here Hank volunteer material? He asked her for a drink. Without telling him that the Cell offered nothing soothing or lifting, no alcohol, pills, uppers or downers for its youthful clientele, now that grown-ups took over against other townspeople who wanted the Cell clubhouse banned and banished.
The cupboard below the counter held two warm drinks. One she handed one to him and the other hers for a later make-believe pick-me-up.
The music was loud; they could not talk, nor could she. Or hear. Or see. Hank looked around the floor.
* * *
The great maroon room held the usual groups. They little intermixed. One, the truants and wayward ones, called the other the would-be collegians and collegiates. They danced or hung out and around, both of them or neither, insulted each other, hardly suiting each other.
Everyone though was occupied. No one was out of order now. The organizer Pete was at the end of the space and with the younger guy at the other end to measure the floor space.
* * *
Only the musician stayed nearby scrutinizing the growing crowd coming in, now that night was falling.
* * *
Near dusk, Michaela had been standing on the street, all silence, when she’d glimpsed the player’s early family once again. The last light of day inflamed windows, still visible in the area buildings, unlike the Cell’s mucky blocked-up ones, as she waited for its youth organizer to unlock the door to the Cell farther down the alleyway. Something creaked behind her just before sundown. On the flats of the land along the riverbed, the unexpected arrived.
Lamps awake lit up the carriage sheen poised there on the street, while someone flashed a camera for photographs, and some museum somewhere came to life. The hair of its passengers flew around their faces, while Michaela’s then shorter hair stayed put. Center of the night, Lana, daughter of Hank rarely seen, wore a long black skirt cut on the bias. She pulled it up as if it would drag. Her toe touched down on the coach step as if the ground would fail her. Her partner in sideburns and crown waves above his white tie, steered them ahead toward the nearby supper club. A flip of her long hair alerted Michaela the onlooker.
Lana and her brothers grew up half a generation behind Michaela, and next-door. The celebrated younger woman was shown in the newspaper the next day, where Micki confirmed what she knew. The man with the hair and tux from the night before would dance with his truelove at the club and was quoted in the society news, “I wooed her for years as a teenager.”
When Lana had first met him, she avoided him. He’d continued with a local reporter. Still, he sought her until she consented. Still, they’d not yet married.
Michaela’s widowed mother was surprised. “See how well the younger woman turned out from her role as sweeper to her mother’s and Hank’s brood of kids.” Temporarily, their mother, Micki’s now former next-door neighbor, resorted to public aid, while their sons began to join the military.
Her by-then ex, Hank, had exited long before. Michaela had known his music from their next-door basements. Before she had been aware of the silence of the music, the music stopped. Those who lived nearby had been relieved by that family’s departure.
* * *
She turned. If the mirror displayed her as ghastly or ghostly, it pictured him as deathly. “Name’s Hank,” he extended his hand to hers. She said, “I remember. Mine’s Micki.”
* * *
Spying them, his youngest daughter, Annie, her dance done, scrammed off the dance space, ran up to him and poked him in the ribs. Beneath her unruly yellow hair, her huge blue eyes looked smoky and seldom blinked.
She yowled, “Pip died. Pip, Pip, Pip. You promised me a new bird. You did. Jimmy took him out of his cage. He pulled out his tail feathers, not me. You promised.”
“Maybe,” Hank replied. She danced off. “She’s almost nine and gives me trouble. I clean up in the morning. But later she calls me at work at night to tell me she’s picking everything up for him, cleaning up. Instead, she messes up the house. When I came home, I saw the pots were on cushions every which way. The lampshades were upside down. My records, Bach partitas, were all over the place out of their covers. One minute she’s good, the next so bad. She’s told so many lies, nobody believes her when she tells the truth.”
“That’s not true,” the girl spoke up, as she popped over again.
“What’s the matter? Can’t you supervise her instead of leave her alone?” Micki asked.
“I’m used to loneliness,” he said. “I’m a loner. But she plays alone too much.”
“At times, she’s too bossy with her only friend. They’re both losers.” Still, to help the friendship along, the only one the girl had, all along, Hank gave some of her old things to the other girl. Mandy objected, by saying, “You’re helping yourself to my new things.” Hank denied this problem. “Not so.”
“Her older brother’s troubled himself. When his mother, my wife, left me.”
Mandy said, “You left.”
“Her older brother’s a mama’s pet,” Hank, the father, said, about the son “who was admitted to the Pavilion. Now he’s better and living with someone else.”
Hank had fixed up the basement of his home, dividing it into rooms with cinder block walls, for them and their new baby.
“When I work at odd jobs day or night, they watch my little daughter Annie, who stays with them and, then, belongs to a real family.”
* * *
Abruptly, in the Cell, someone turned on extra lights. Micki could see how someone must have stained the counter over layers of grime, the spills darkening it. Over the serving area center, Hank braced himself. Near where they stood, a large lamp with a globe of opaque glass with brilliance in old Technicolor. These colors edged the mirror. In it, the light now backlit her face to semi-human, until someone else once again shut it off, leaving the room to its fewer lights, as the organizer and the other man unscrewed the lamp to keep roughhousing Cell boys from breaking it. So, they carried the turn-of-the-century globe to the sub-cellar.
During this activity, Hank was telling no one in particular at the end of his musical career he used to play in places like this one. Now the Cell was reorganizing its own passions. Sooner or later anyone there fell into talking, taking part.
While telling him about the Cell, Micki lifted herself off from leaning on the bar, while he rolled his sleeves up, ready to go out into the heat or make himself at home.
He used to blow a horn every day, “But not so much now. I can play rock. Or classical. But I’m better at jazz. Swing.”
“Swing’s making a comeback.”
“Nostalgia: It was a musical war. Yours won.”
“No, only yesterday someone said she was getting into old crooners.”
“That’s different from swing.”
“Along the same line.”
After a pause, he said, “It was a musical war; rock won over swing.”
On his forearm, when he squeezed his daughter to his side in his style of hug, Michaela watched his arm. When he twisted it, the tattoo gestured and jabbed the air. This she-dagger rode his ulna, inside his funny bone. Busty pectorals cleaved there above an American flag bodice expected to end in a mermaid’s tail bone. Instead it tapered into a blade.
“What war were you in?” Micki asked.
He’d just missed WWII. The Navy wouldn’t take him, nor the Army, but the Merchant Marine did. So he missed active duty, when married with young ones, and he was too old for the one going on in Indochina.
Over the jukebox music, he yelled. “Two of my boys went to ’Nam, one never made it home. The youngest never got there.”
“Ever in a battle?” Micki asked.
He didn’t answer. “One’s alive, the one I’m looking for. He’ll do anything for a fast buck.” He gave Micki a card with telephone numbers for home and work if she caught sight of his son. He made a fist down low for emphasis, the tattoo on the arm flexed, when he spoke. He moved it behind the counter and talked. Mandy rushed off the dance floor.
Once when his daughter was asleep, he started talking about her when she saw her brother walk by her bed. She tee-heed. “My brother Jimmy Tony was stealing my best clothes and money. But I pretended not to see him, because he might do something to me. If you spy his cow boots, their skin’s two-toned stitches.”
“He eats so much of his girlfriend’s pasta, everyone calls him ‘Tony.’ If he’s down here in the Cell, in cow-boots, call him ‘Tony.’ Besides he relieves others on the job, like me a floater. Time off, he might drop off here.”
“The best brother,” Hank whispered, “drowned nine months ago in the river.
“Now she has one less brother and no mother. I’m her mother, her father and her brother, the one she used to go everywhere with. Her sisters are somewhere. She really only has me.
“She needs friends,” he said.
“I have friends,” Annie insisted.
“You can’t have too many these days.”
His eyes darkened. To get over his troubles, his last wife’s death, his son’s suffocating, he said, “I have a few drinks, slip on Paganini, lift weights to keep going. I moonlight in extra time for money.
“I’m grown now. I have good memories, bad days. My life’s done. But hers is different. It’s beginning.
“She’s got troubles.”
“I’ll think about her,” Micki told him. She would too, though the girl was too young for the Cell gang. Maybe, maybe not.
“If you ever see Jimmy Tony with blond loose hair, let me know?”
“I’ll get him before he gets at me.”
He saluted. She saw the lineup of black-and-blue indelible puncture marks and scabs on his arm, jabbed by tubular needles.
He shouldn’t be here with kids, she thought.
He retreated upstairs out of the Cell.
Someone flashed the lights off and on. Must be closing time. Thudding resounded within the walls of the stairwell. Everyone looked up.
A rangy youth seen first in the mirror, with longish blond hair, stood at the door of the Cell’s top of the stairwell.
Joey tried to run up to plug him. Tall Louie sought to slug him but stopped short and bracketed the blond guy with his arms with sharp elbows pitted outward to prevent him from hitting some other guy.
Pete the new organizer signaled with the lights on and off. One Cellmate threw himself up on the marble counter to reach the clock and spike off its hands. From then on, the Cell was a timeless place. Everyone left for the night.
About the author, Jean E. Verthein: I earned a master’s of fine arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College and received two writing grants from the Ragdale Foundation. My work has been published by Adelaide Literary Magazine, Artifact Nouveau, The Saint Ann’s Review, Downtown Brooklyn, Gival Press, Green Mountains Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Hypertext Magazine, Litbreak, Oracle Fine Arts Review, and other presses.