New York City, May, 1935
Billy moseyed out of The Stork Club whistling “I’m In The Mood For Love” because he was. The rain-slicked pavement glistened under the streetlamps. A cold drizzle tickled his face as he plopped his hat on. Fishing his keys out of his pocket, he stepped off the curb and headed for his new Packard.
An engine’s roar came at him and ended his whistling. “Hey!” He leapt out of the way, but not in time. He got hit so hard he went flying, landing on his side. He lay crumpled in the street, choking on the exhaust. The wheels screeched away.
Bodies hovered over him, but it was all a blur.
“You all right, buddy?”
“Stand back, give him some air!”
“Is he dead?”
“Somebody call an ambulance!”
He shut his eyes against the unbearable pain and, mercifully, he slipped away into pain-free oblivion.
The fingers brushing his cheek roused him, and he struggled to part his eyelids. They felt glued shut. He tried sitting up, but his entire body was wrapped like a mummy. He struggled to move. Panic hit him.
“Billy—it’s okay, I’m here.” His wife’s voice sounded a million miles away.
“Greta, what happened? What’s all this? Where am I?” He didn’t even recognize his own voice, a hoarse croak .
“You were hit by a car. You’re in the hospital in a body cast.” Her fingers grasped his, but lightly, as if she feared she’d break him. “You might be laid up for up to six months, but you’re under the best possible care.”
“Hit by a car? Oh, God…” Emerging from the initial shock, he remembered leaving the Stork Club, but nothing else.
He licked his cracked lips. “Anybody know who hit me?”
“No, Billy, it was a hit-and-run.”
Terror seized him and chilled his blood. He shivered. “They’re after me, Greta. They found out what I did and they came to get me!”
He cut her off. “Yes, Greta. They won’t quit till I’m dead!”
“Billy, it was probably just some drunk…”
He tuned out his wife’s soothing, loving voice as horrible scenes flashed before his eyes: putrid corpses rotting on the ground, machine-gunned bodies drained of blood, closed caskets hiding the mangled messes inside…
The mob finally wanted their revenge. But facing death was easier than running from it. So he lived every single moment like it was his last—just in case it was.
“Hold my hand again,” he whispered.
She clasped her fingers around his.
She leaned over. Her lips brushed his, like a feather. “Get some rest. I’ll be right here by your side. I love you, Billy.” Her singsong voice calmed him.
Before drifting off, he thanked God for the short life he’d been given. If it was ending now, at least he’d done more in the last few years than most people did in decades. From Tin Pan Alley to Broadway to riches beyond his wildest dreams, to the tragedy that ended it all…
…and it had started so innocently…
Billy sat at his piano composing another sentimental ballad when the buzzer went.
He wanted to finish writing out the measure, but the buzzer wouldn’t let up. Were they leaning on it or what?
“Okay, I’m comin’. Keep your pants on.” He opened the door.
His girlfriend stepped in and collapsed on him. “Pru! What’s the matter? What?”
She buried her face in his sweater. “I’m pregnant, Billy,” came her muffled voice.
Wrapping his arms around her, all he could say was, “Huh?”
Her breathing came in short gasps. “I ran all the way from Eighth Avenue. I just went to the doctor, and I’m three months already. What are we gonna do?”
“It’s okay, Honey Bear. We’ll manage somehow.” He held her close and kissed her slender neck.
“Never mind somehow. How?”
“Come over here.” He sat her down on his bed and held her till she relaxed. “I should’ve known, Billy,” she sobbed. “My chart said to watch out for it. I should’ve been careful.”
“Aah, come on.” He didn’t believe in that star stuff, but held a grudging respect for it, and for all things otherworldly. Maybe she’d gone to his fortunetelling sister.
“It did! Mercury went into Sagittarius at three twenty-six p.m. on December third, and the moon, in Capricorn, created a first quarter at twelve degrees at ten fifty-five. Almost the exact moment I conceived.” She wiped her teary jade eyes on his sleeve.
“How do you know what moment it was?” He handed her his hankie.
She tilted her head and eyed him up and down. “In the bathtub—remember?”
“Oh, yeah.” He remembered, all right.
The traditional route wouldn’t be an option here. She was a nocturnal bohemian who packed her one satchel every few months and hopped from SoHo loft to SoHo loft with every artist’s dream: displaying her canvases in the staid galleries of Paris. He had his own erratic habits—work till 3 a.m., snarf down breakfast at Billy Haas’s Restaurant, and sleep all day. Revolving their lives around an infant would take some rescheduling.
“So, you wanna tell your parents first?” He clasped her hands. “Or we’ll both tell them together.” New York City was Sodom and Gomorrah to her Bible-thumping parents. They’d condemn her soul to hell for this mortal sin. “I’ll go with you. I’ll do anything you want.” He nearly sang the words, in a voice as soothing as he could muster. “You know us Libra guys,” he joked, but didn’t get a smile out of her.
“I don’t think I’d better tell them. They’ll disown me,” she wailed. “They’ll say I disgraced them. I’ll say I’m going to Europe or something.”
“When you show up with a bundle of joy in six months, they might wonder. You gotta tell them sometime. How can they turn away from their own grandchild?” His voice gathered volume as his blood began to boil.
“It took all my courage to tell you about this!” She pressed up against him, her lips found his, and he soared into orbit. “I thought you’d be so mad when I told you,” she whispered when they came up for air.
“Uhhh…” What were they talking about? Oh, yes. The baby. “Mad? Me? Nah, of course not. Surprised, maybe, but not mad. I wasn’t expecting this to happen. I never planned for something like this. I mean, what guy does?”
She looked up at him, and he detected a pang of hurt darkening her eyes. He could read every emotion in those eyes, from the annoyance of a hangnail to the agony of grief. Her eyes always said it all for her, as his songs did for him.
“No, I didn’t mean it like that—you know what I meant.” Oh, why did everything he say come out like mush?
“I always know what you mean, Snuggles,” she cooed.
When she called him Snuggles, he knew all wasn’t lost. He grinned widely enough to produce his dimples for her. Her eyes brightened to the color of leaves under a spring sun. The whole situation was beginning to look like a minor inconvenience to him. The upshot was that she’d be his forever. No man would want to mess with a woman who’d been “tampered with” and saddled with an infant.
“Look at the bright side. This is the beginning of our life together, Honey Bear.” He nibbled her earlobe, gathered her hair in bunches, and brushed his cheek with it. Rich as mahogany, all that bobbing kept it full and bouncy.
“But I wasn’t planning on having children till we were much older.” She bowed her head, looking so proper, so guilty. “We should move in together. I want the baby to have his mom and dad home with him under the same roof.”
Billy calculated rapidly: now his parents entered the picture. He could see them holding their grandchild and wishing they could call the mother of this angel their daughter-in-law.
When would be the time to reel off his news to them?
So he wasn’t destined to be a bachelor forever. Younger fellas than him handled sudden manhood.
Her gaze locked into his. For his next words, he’d have to rely on raw talent; there was no time to write this down and polish it.
He clasped her hand, dropped to one knee, and cleared his throat for the most important recital of his life. “You’re the essence of my being. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, and even after that. Now you’re carrying my child, and I want us to be a real family. Pru, will you marry me?”
She threw her arms around his neck and smothered him with pink lipstick kisses. “Oh, of course! How can I refuse such a beautiful proposal?”
Whew! He wiped his sweaty palms on his backside. It worked! It was one of his most ambitious efforts, if he did say so himself. He wiped away a tear at this moment he’d always remember. If he’d put it to music, it would’ve been even more stirring. Best of all, it wasn’t the way his father proposed to his mother. Da had popped the question in the Breevort Hotel cafeteria and whisked her to the altar the next day to keep her father from marrying her off to some creep.
“…and we can have a nice church ceremony, and maybe a small reception afterwards…”
But he wasn’t listening. He was fretting: Where would they live? Could they afford three rooms? How much did diapers cost?
“We’ll have to get a cradle and stuff like that,” he broke in, but she was still stuck on the wedding plans.
“Do you think it would still be proper if I wear white?”
“You can wear anything you want.” He nodded.
“Can we go on a honeymoon?”
“Sure.” He shrugged.
“Anyplace you want.” That’s where his father had taken his mother. He hoped the similarities would end there.
“Oh, Snuggles, I love you.” Her lips found his. They fell onto his bed and celebrated their engagement.
From the moment he first saw her in P.S. #132’s lunchroom, sitting alone and drawing instead of snarfing down a bologna sandwich, he knew Prudence Muller was the girl he wanted to love, honor, cherish, and endow with his worldly goods: a Wurlitzer upright and a mechanical clown bank. By grade 8a-1, he finally got up the guts to serenade her under the fire escape of her Leroy Street walkup. In high school they started courting, which meant shared eggcreams at Fenucci’s Drugstore while playing footsie under the table. Smitten with his tall blond good looks, girls followed him home and made him all kinds of tempting offers. But he wanted only the shy Iowa farm girl who always got detention for drawing instead of listening in class. He wrote songs for her; she drew pictures for him. After smooching through a Lillian Gish filmfest in the balcony, they gave each other pet names: Honey Bear and Snuggles. He’d saved himself for her, and after three years of serious discourse about morality and even more serious begging, they consummated their passion in his Horatio Street basement apartment. An adolescence of frustrated desire exploded in splendor that seared the night in that hovel across from the furnace. He’d choreographed that tryst like a production of Romeo and Juliet: after his pal Charlie Burp delivered a veal parmesan dinner and vanished, Billy had doused himself with watered-down piano wax as a cologne stand-in, uncorked a bottle of his mother’s homemade wine, and donned the silk underwear he’d begged and borrowed from his sister’s boyfriend. The fella let him keep it, bless his soul.
The long-awaited event couldn’t have gone more perfectly if he’d written music and lyrics, built a stage and lined it with floodlights. He followed the flawless performance with two curtain calls.
Now, only five years later, the fairytale romance collided head-on with reality.
He tucked her into his bed and wanted to get back to composing, but the piano would disturb her. So he got out his journal. One thing he and his father had in common besides their last name: keeping a journal. It was Billy’s outlet for the baffling feelings that plagued every young man.
Another reason he wrote everything down—orally, he was a bumbler. But give him anything to write on, from bathroom tissue to cream parchment, and his words could move a career gangster to tears. In between the heartfelt prose were some catchy song lyrics. By eighteen, he was playing New York’s best clubs and had a nice catalog of published songs under his belt.
Now, at twenty-five, he was adding the role of family man to his repertoire, one of life’s little surprises.
An event like this deserved music. So naturally this journal entry became another song: a love ballad about a woman who tells her man she’s carrying his baby. It would start in A minor, then modulate to C, to end in that bright key. He couldn’t wait to sing it to her.
“Hey, Billy, shouldn’t you be gettin’ home to the wife?” fellow musician Ziggy Elman asked Billy as they finished another round of drinks. They were sitting in Piano’s, the speakeasy Billy ran with his sister Susan in the basement of her brownstone. Tonight was Susan’s turn to work.
“Don’t have to. She’s not my wife yet.” Even if she was, he wouldn’t want to go home; he was still trying to unwind from the gig they’d just played uptown.
“Well, I gotta get home to mine. I come in too late, she puts me out on the fire ex-scape.” Red drained his drink. “Enjoy your final days of freedom, pal.” He clapped Billy on the shoulder and headed out.
A mild shock went through Billy at those words “final days of freedom.” Would he ever get used to diaper pails and wheeling a carriage through the park?
And sleeping on the fire escape if he came in too late?
Susan came over and sat across from Billy. “Here’s your take for the week.” She dropped a billfold on the table. Ever since Pru’s announcement, he’d been socking money away. Times were tough out there, and he didn’t want his child to ever know there’d been a Depression. “Had a good week. Must’ve been the new shipment from that ladylegger in Jersey City.” She lit a cig.
“Mrs. Arnone?” He swept the bills into his pocket. “The redhead who owns all the apartment buildings?”
“She’s the one.” Susan nodded. “But we’re on more friendly terms now. I call her Josie and she calls me Suzie. She gave me some hot stock tips, too. She’s quite a shrewdie.”
“Then how ’bout celebrating?” He gestured at his empty glass.
“Expectant fathers shouldn’t imbibe.” She smiled and tousled his hair.
He glowed in her comforting warmth. Close kin distanced him from the poverty and misery on the streets. A vision of his father appeared in his mind, and he chased it away. Not all kin was so close.
She ordered another Scotch for him and a Pink Lady for herself. “You should buzz Ma. When you didn’t show up last Sunday for dinner, she almost had kittens. I had to convince her you weren’t sick or dead or—even worse—not hungry.”
“Yeah, I will. Tomorra.” He knew what this was leading to. “I hadda stay with Pru. She wasn’t feelin’ too great.”
“Well, that’s fine, but I think Ma has a right to know she’s a grandma-to-be.”
With only two years between them, he and Susan got along great, only she repressed what he let grow and thrive. He knew Susan envied his bohemian life, but her business sense overshadowed any artistic whims.
She ran a clothing store with her husband Irv and already had two homes, three servants, and enough jack to retire on. But tonight she looked the hostess part she liked to play: black velvet dinner dress with flared skirt and attached sash. A velvet cloche hat dipped over one eye. Her wedding rings dazzled on her left hand; a diamond doorknob sparkled on the right.
Susan understood him more than anybody; she never scoffed or laughed at his dreams to be famous and travel the world with his own orchestra. She didn’t utter so much as a syllable of disapproval at his untimely upcoming fatherhood.
He lit a cig off hers. “I’ll just go over there. I won’t call first. Ma likes that, when I just turn up and surprise her.”
“It’d be nice if you go when Da’s home.” She took a drag and blew out a stream of smoke.
“After the last blowup, I think it’d be better if I didn’t.” Deep in his heart, he regretted that he and the retired Chief of Police weren’t like other fathers and sons. But since he’d hit about fourteen they never saw eye to eye on anything, and the last squabble drove him away for good. His mother’s refereeing amounted to a lecture about money management as she slipped him a few simoleons.
Their drinks came and he took a long swig. “He might not show it, but he misses you, Billy.”
“I got nothing more to say to the man, Suze, nothing. He can’t accept me for who I am, that’s his decision.” He flicked an ash.
With a sigh, Susan glanced at her watch and stood. “Let’s not start this now. I need to add up tonight’s take.” She ground out the butt in the ashtray and went to the back, taking her drink with her.
Their assistant answered a discreet rap at the door, pushing aside the peephole cover that a detective, of all people, had installed. Billy heard their password, parlo pianissimo — “I speak softly” — and in walked a few fellas from the neighborhood, along with some dames they romped with. One of them, a Jean Harlow blonde, had gams that could put the Ziegfeld Follies to shame. The others were poor man’s versions of her.
Another guy swaggered in with them and removed his gray fedora. He could’ve been a prize fighter; his nose looked like a crooked weathervane permanently facing west. Could’ve been anywhere between thirty-five and fifty. Enough grease to lube the Erie Lackawanna Railroad coated his coal black hair. He gimped in his blue-and-cream lace-up shoes like he was trying to hide a limp. His double-breasted wool blazer with its flap pockets fit like it was painted onto his bulky build. Anyone who wasn’t from around here would think this guy had class, but Billy knew better. With that Chicago look about him, he was either a Fed or a hood.
“Excuse me, is the chair opposite you taken?” he asked Billy as the group settled at the next table.
“Nope. It’s all yours.”
“Be right wit’cha, Toots,” he said to the dame with the gams, and he turned back to Billy. “I know you from someplace.” He wagged a finger. “Didn’ you just play at the Back Stage Club? The piana player, right?”
“Yeah, that was me,” Billy answered. “I play clubs when I’m not runnin’ this place.”
“Oh, so you must be Susan’s brother.” He took the proffered chair, turned it around, and straddled it. So he wanted to stick around and beat his gums. That was all right with Billy; he wasn’t tired, and he wanted to stretch out his final evenings of singledom.
“Rosario Ingovito. Rosie Ingo for short.” Rosie’s diamond pinkie ring cut into Billy’s hand as they shook. He couldn’t imagine why any guy would want to be called Rosie, especially one that looked like him.
Just then Susan came by. “Hi, Rosie. Sorry I was in the back when you came in. So you’ve already met. Rosie’s a regular customer at the store, Billy.” Hence the natty suit.
“I have a joint in East Harlem, Billy,” he said. “Ever hear of Rosie’s?”
Billy nodded. “Yeah, I heard Red McKenzie and his Mound City Blue Blowers play there. Nice room.”
“You want a gig there anytime, it’s yours.” He gave Billy a cuff on the chin.
“Oh, so you’re that Rosie?” He never would have believed it. “I thought some ladylegger ran it. Thanks, I’d like to come down and play there sometime.”
“How ’bout tomorra night?”
“I run this place three nights a week, and I’m on tomorrow night.” He couldn’t resist adding, “I write a lot of those songs I play.”
A flash of gold caught the light as Rosie smiled his approval. “Then gimme a call when you’re ready. Your playin’ killed me over there.”
“Why, thanks.” Billy relaxed. The fella was okay. He had to be, if he shopped in Susan’s store and paid his tab. Susan didn’t put up with deadbeats. He was on the up-and-up; he wasn’t about to raid the joint.
But Billy soon found out that Rosie Ingo was the farthest thing from a Fed on two feet.
“The intricate and mysterious rites observed before patrons are allowed to enter seem to be chiefly intended to add romantic excitement to the adventure, since the authorities are not likely to remain long unaware of their existence. Introduction by someone who has been there before is usually required. Then there is the business of registering the new patron’s name and perhaps the issuing of a card of admittance to be presented on the next visit. It is sometimes made even more important looking by a signature or a cabalistic sign on the back of the card. Many persons about town carry a dozen or more such cards.
“The devious means employed to protect the entrances to speakeasies probably adds to the general mystification. Bells are to be rung in a special way. A sliding panel behind an iron grill opens to reveal a cautious face examining the arrivals…” ~the New York Times
“Aah, come on, Tess, you know I don’t go for any of that mumbo jumbo.” Billy and his younger sister sat at their mother’s dining room table. Coffee percolated on the sideboard. Four dessert places were set, but their father wasn’t expected home till later. That was fine with Billy. He just wasn’t up to facing the old fella right now. He couldn’t explain why, even on paper that morning.
Tessie shook her head, trying to conceal a worried frown as she studied the arrangement of cards before her. “It don’t look good, Billy.”
“Then shuffle ’em again till it does look good.” He sat back and stretched his legs.
Her green eyes, identical to his, bored into him. “That’s not the way it works, Billy. This is the reading, right here. You don’t wanna know what it says? You a-scared?”
“I ain’t a-scared of a pile a cards. I just think they’re all wet. How can a pile a cards know who I am and what’s gonna happen to me?” He sensed the cards were symbolic of his relationship with his father. Da didn’t know who Billy was either.
“They represent the spirit guides.” Tessie looked down and studied the spread. “It’s not the cards talking, it’s the spirits talking through them.”
Just then their mother came in carrying a tray of cannoli and cheese-filled cupcakes for which there was no English word, pasta ciotti.
“Hey, I’m still full from lunch, Ma. One busta chut and I’ll bust. But I can squeeze in half a cannoli.” He grabbed one and sucked the cream from the middle.
“It was good to see you mange.” She bent down to embrace him, and he rested his head against her softness, breathing in the powdery scent that brought back his earliest memories. He had no qualms about his mother hugging him like a little kid, as long as it was at home. “Well, I don’t always have time for a feast.”
“I hope Pru’s eating enough for two. Is she taking care of herself?” Ma draped a napkin across his lap.
“Yeah, real good.” He nodded and chewed. “She went to the doctor yesterday.”
Ma smoothed back a few of his stray locks like she always did, but she no longer licked her hand first. “I’m so glad you found the right girl.”
“Yeah, I know.” The thought of Pru as the mother of his child gave him a sense of pride he’d never felt before. Now he could prove he was grown up. “I already wrote two songs about us. I’ll play them before I go.”
“Ma, he don’t wanna listen to this reading I’m doing on him. It looks onim—ominous.” Tessie gave a resolute nod with the new word she’d just mastered.
“Teresina, don’t make him worry. Maybe he just doesn’t want his good mood spoiled. To be honest, I’d rather not hear it right now either. I just found out I’m going to be a nonna and you’re going to be a zia, so let’s keep the atmosphere happy. Tell the spirits to let up a little, or to go back to the other side for a while.” Ma’s tone was never stern, never authoritative, but its convincing quality made a person do anything she asked; that’s how she got so far in politics. If she ever became president, her nickname would be The Great Persuader. It made Billy proud of her; she’d done all right. His father never would’ve made Chief of Police if it wasn’t for her; he’d have spent his career pounding a beat at Five Points. But he didn’t judge his father for his shortcomings. He just thanked God he didn’t inherit any of them.
“But, Ma, look what it says here!” Tessie pointed a beringed index finger at a card with a goofy-looking Ethel drawn on it, draped in medieval robes and holding a long stalk with what looked like asparagus sticking out of it.
“Who’s he?” Billy asked. “He don’t even look like me. Thank goodness.”
“It’s the Nine of Rods. Upside down,” Tessie explained.
“He ain’t upside down.”
Tessie rolled her eyes. “Not to you it isn’t, but to me it is. I’m the reader.”
“Then straighten him up.” Billy took another bite of pastry.
“No, they have to stay the way I turn them over. The Nine of Rods upside down means obstacles, adversity, problems, displeasure, calamity, disaster, barriers to overcome, ill health. That’s the sphere of influence that’s coming into your future, in a broad sense.”
“Come on, Tess. If I listened to you every time you read my fortune, I’d be…” He stopped himself by shoving the hollowed-out pastry into his mouth. He couldn’t argue, because every damn thing she’d ever predicted about him had come true. And Susan, and their parents, and their ex-stepgrandmother, who’d run off with the creep their mother was supposed to marry. Tessie had a knack. She’d predicted that he would drop out of school in his senior year, which he did, that he’d get very sick, which he did—with chicken pox—and last year, she’d turned over a card that foresaw a birth in his future. He’d howled with laughter. Now there wasn’t so much to laugh at. Sometimes she spooked their parents, the way she claimed to talk to the dead—and not just any dead, but famous people, like George Washington and Rudy Valentino.
Why couldn’t her cards ever come up with the trifecta winners at Belmont Park?
“Your cards say anything that’s not gloom and doom for a change?” Billy challenged.
“Susan’s gonna make a lotta money in the next year.” She swept her cards into their wooden box.
“I coulda told you that, and I ain’t got no cards. I got news for you. She’s gonna make a lot the year after that, and the year after that, too. And her husband’s gonna die countin’ it. The guy’ll be found smothered under a pile of pennies. Tell Susan, if Irv disappears for more than three days, to look in the attic before calling missing persons.”
“Don’t knock them, Billy, just because they’re business minded. They don’t criticize the life you chose.” Ma poured him another cup of joe.
He looked away and sucked on another cannoli so he wouldn’t talk back. The life he “chose.” Like it was a choice.
“Yeah, Billy, I wish I was as smart as her,” Tessie chimed in.
He couldn’t help speaking up before he swallowed. “She’ll never admit it to nobody else, but she wishes she could be like me. But the almighty dollar tells her what to do. She divides her time into fifteen-minute blocks, ’cause her time is lettuce. Me, I don’t even know what day it is, never mind the time. That I can usually guess. If it’s gettin’ light out, I go to bed. When it’s dark, I go to work. When it’s cold, it’s winter, when it’s hot, it’s summer. When I don’t take an umbrella, it rains.”
“You’ll know it’s two a.m. when your baby starts wailing,” Ma replied with a wistful smile. “If he’s anything like you were, he won’t let you sleep a wink.”
Actually, he did know what day it was—he had exactly thirty-one days till the wedding. He didn’t count his days forwards like most people; he was counting backwards.
Just then the door slammed shut and footsteps echoed down the hall towards them. That steady tattoo of beat cop footsteps was ingrained into his memory.
“Hi, my lovely ladies,” Da greeted them. Ma got up and hugged him. “And who’s this stranger? Feeding vagrants again, Vita?” With a hint of joshing in his tone, he smiled down at Billy.
Billy stood and acknowledged his father’s presence. “Hi, Da.” His flat voice expressed neither gladness nor reluctance to see him. Soon enough he’d be out of here and back to the life he “chose.” He only had to endure this for another couple minutes.
“Billy has some fabulous news, but I think father and son should be alone now,” Ma said, ushering Tessie out.
So father and son stood facing each other. Seeing his own reflection in the mirror above the sideboard, Billy looked at his father and himself at the same time. He was starting to look like the old boy: the same lanky build, the same crease over the brow, the generous heap of hair. But it ended at looks.
“So what’s your fabulous news?” Da asked, like he was doing a routine questioning.
Billy cleared his throat. “I, uh—” He knew how his father would want to hear it phrased, so he thought it out as best he could, looking down at his feet. “I’m settling down, with Pru, finally. We’re, uh, that is, she’s—she’s gonna have a baby.” He looked up. “Mine,” he added for emphasis, and to quelch the possibility of a sarcasm match.
To his surprise, Da smiled and tugged Billy’s left ear, something he hadn’t done in twenty years. “You never cease to amaze me, son of mine.” He beamed like Billy had never seen before. Was he proud that his son could impregnate a female and obey the code of honor? To his father, this was a real rite of passage. To Billy, it was a detour on his road to fame.
“So when’s the big day?” Da asked.
“The birth or the wedding?”
“Should’ve qualified that one.” Da chuckled. “What’s coming first?”
“The wedding, of course!” Billy glance at the kitchen doorway for eavesdroppers.
“Well, how’m I supposed to know? Did you expect me to?”
Billy drummed on the chair rung. “Nah, I guess not. But she’s making all the plans. I don’t even know what church it’s at or anything.”
“So when is it?” Da asked.
“Uh—” He didn’t know the calendar date. “Just—thirty-one days from today. That’ll be April, I guess.”
“Anything you want to talk about before you take that plunge, son? I mean, the plunge down the aisle.” He winked. Now he wanted to be Dear Old Dad again. Last time they saw each other, his final words had been, “Go ahead, write songs. You’ll starve, I tell you! You’ll wind up on a bread line with the rest of ’em!”
“I ain’t exactly proud of you, either!” had been his last retort to his father that day as he slammed out of the house.
But at this moment Billy felt like an only son. He was glad Da had come home early and found him there. He didn’t want advice on his personal life; that was the last thing he needed from a guy who’d beat up a rival for his mother’s affections. He didn’t know quite what he wanted from this man who’d raised him with nineteenth-century values yet backed away with every display of his son’s uniqueness and, finally, refused to accept it.
“So you’re happy for me?” Billy didn’t know why he cared, but he did.
“Sure, I’m happy you’re going to have a wife and a child and a home life.” He nodded. “As long as you can provide for them. Is it what you want?”
“Well, I didn’t plan it.” Billy looked everywhere but into his father’s eyes.
“You don’t plan to cross a street till you’re halfway across.” Not insulting, just matter-of-fact.
Now Billy’s eyes met his father’s. “Yeah, but I’m diving in head first, and I’m looking forward to it.”
“I think she’ll straighten you out.” Da leaned on the sideboard. “She’s a levelheaded gal. You could do a lot worse.”
And just where do you, in all your wisdom, believe I need this “straightening out”? Billy wanted to snap out loud. But he knew what that would start. So he bit his tongue and, instead, reminded his father, “She could do a lot worse, too.”
Da didn’t agree or disagree. Instead he changed the subject. “You staying for supper?”
“Nah, I gotta work tonight. This joint in Harlem I never played before.” He jerked his thumb in the northerly direction.
“Well, be careful up there,” Da warned.
He nodded. “I’m always careful.” That was hardly true, but the less his father knew about his “chosen” life, the better.
A long but comfortable silence followed. Da went for the coffee pot. “You okay for money?”
“Swell. I even got Susan to sock some away in the stock market or whatever market she puts her dough into.”
“Good. She’s done just great since the market recovered after the crash. She’s one smart cookie—a real businesswoman.” Da poured himself a cup.
Which means I’m just a musician with beans for brains perched at the tip of his tongue. But once again something stopped him. He’d done pretty well not to start an argument up to this point. Maybe being in the last thirty-one days of bachelorhood did that to a man.
He felt like sharing that revelation. “Hey, I think I’m growing up, Da. Really. I mean, not intentionally. It’s just that since—well, I feel like I’m on the outside looking in—or maybe, down. I’m looking at things through my son or daughter’s eyes now. And the world looks like a pretty shitty place to be a kid.”
“Things’ll get better. They always do.” Da sipped, his eyes shut. “I’m thinking back to when I was your age. It was worse than this, and there was no Great Depression going on. Everybody was just poor. Not like we were rich one day and poor the next. I mean, we were poor always.” He focused on Billy. “But I was determined to escape that trap, because I wanted to have a family and show them a good life. It happened in reverse for you, okay, so you’ll have to work harder at it. But now you’re living for your family, and your life will revolve around that. You might not be able to give your kids everything money can buy, but give them something more important. Your time.”
“Yeah.” Billy nodded. “I will. But still—it’s miserable out there.”
“You can only do your best, son. Surround your kids with your music, and happiness, and love. That’ll keep the elements at bay most of the time.” He sipped his coffee.
This was the first time his father had referred to his music as a positive thing, or even uttered the word “music” in the same sentence with a reference to him. What had changed in the last ten minutes? Was impending grandfatherhood even more profound than fatherhood? After all, if Billy felt old now, he could imagine how his father felt.
“Hey, maybe the three of us can do stuff, when he’s old enough. Assuming it’s a boy,” Billy said, a hopeful note in his voice, thinking the three of them should get along better than the two of them.
“I would love nothing better.” He gave Billy a genuine smile.
So that was it. This baby was going to bind them, bridge their differences, be the common bond.
“We’ll see. Hope for a boy, then, Da. But if not, I’d like a few sons later. A pitcher, a shortstop, and a first baseman!”
“Then eat broccoli,” came his sage advice.
So he stayed for supper. And he ate broccoli.
He showed up at Rosie’s joint for his gig, armed with tooth powder to mask his garlicky breath. As the other cats warmed up on stage, the place filled up. He wondered if somebody important was playing here tonight, or if some politician or mob boss was throwing a bash.
Rosie knocked and entered the tiny room where Billy changed into his “play clothes.” Dressier than his street clothes, the double-breasted red satin jacket with black velvet lapels and black trousers looked real natty on stage.
“Who’s the guest of honor?” Billy expected the answer to be Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, or even Mayor Walker.
Rosie pointed an index finger at him, thumb up, like aiming a pistol. “You, kiddo.”
Billy halted with his pants pulled just past his knees. “Me? This is the first time I’ve ever played here.”
“Oh, I spread the word aroun’. Worda mouth’s the best way to get famous, ya know. Told everybody I know to come down and hear this piana player. They’re all here, every one of ’em—Larry Fay, some o’ the Tammany boys, Walter Winchell might even show up. And if you want dames, you can have one a minute if you want.”
“Wow! Winchell might write about me in his column?” He couldn’t think of a better start than a mention in the Daily Mirror. He couldn’t take it all in at once. “Me?” is all he could say, standing there with his pants now puddled around his ankles. Never mind the dames. “I mean—I’m good, but—to headline a place like this—oh, and I have a dame—a girl. I’m getting married. So thanks for the offer. But the other cats in the band—”
“They don’t look like they go for dames.” Rosie snickered. “But you—you got a real future aheada you, kiddo. Now I ain’t no musician, but I know what I like. I heard you play, and I know good music from schlock music, and a good musician from a schlock musician. I know what people wanna hear and what they don’t wanna hear. You wanna have your own club or your own band someday, you can do it. You got it.”
Coming from a big shot like Rosie, that was encouraging. But it was scary to hear it, at any rate. Now he knew Tessie’s cards were phonus balonus. Obstacles? Adversity? Barriers? Says her! Yesterday, he was just another Tin Pan Alley songwriter; now one of the premier nightclub owners in New York was gushing about how brilliant he was.
“Well, thanks, uh—I don’t know what to say.” He stood there and shrugged, not thinking to pull his pants up.
“Come out here and say ciao to your audience. Er—when you’re dressed.” Rosie backed out and shut the door. Billy stood in the light of a bare bulb, shaking his head in amazement. Tonight he would give it all he had.
Billy lounged on a couch in The Park Avenue Club, on the uptown side of 75th Street, a Scotch in one hand, a cigarette in the other. His head was too fuzzy to talk business. They’d been at it since Rosie’s driver brought him there in a Pierce-Arrow. It had to be going on five a.m. His rumbling stomach wanted breakfast. But all Rosie Ingo’s partner wanted to do was knock back booze and talk turkey.
These fellas were opening a new joint, on West 52nd Street, and planned to call it Swing Street. A dance club in front, speakeasy in back. But by the gist of the conversation, Billy knew who the clientele would be; the same as the owners. They offered him part ownership if he’d just play there, hire a band and slick it up, get real tight, with fancy matching suits, a glitzy-looking piano, and upbeat, danceable numbers.
How could he refuse? More importantly, how would he tell Susan he wouldn’t have time to run Piano’s with her, and how would he tell Pru he was now in business with these guys? But after all, this was their future, and his shot at the big time. Once he got there, he could open a theater, make records, tour the world with his own orchestra. Those dreams he always entertained now resembled reality.
As a leggy brunette slipped another Scotch into his hand, he found himself nodding all right, but nodding off. He pitched forward, out of exhaustion, and spilled eighty-five proof contraband all over Biaggo Gazzola’s silk tie.
At least something good came out of it when they propped him up—he referred Biaggo to Susan’s store for a new suit, on him—Susan always gave him a 10% referral fee.
As Billy and Pru sat on his bed, he ripped open his second pack of the day. Cigarettes calmed him. But not now.
“What do you mean, you don’t like the looks of this?” He halted, about to light a match. “This is the chance I’ve been waiting for!”
“To run a nightclub with a bunch of gangsters?” Her eyes stabbed him. “Susan’s basement is one thing, but this—this could get dangerous. I read about the raids in the papers—you could go to jail, or worse—you heard what happened in Chicago.”
“Do you think I was born yesterday?” he shot back. “I’m a musician, not a gangster, just ’cause I’m goin’ in partners with ’em. Who do you think supplies the booze for Susan’s place? You think a bunch of little old bootlegger nuns hide John Barleycorn in the convent for us? No, we get it from these guys, after they get it from who knows where. But that’s the way it is. I ain’t puttin’ us in any more danger than anybody else in New York is in. I’m a businessman, pure and simple.”
“There’s nothing pure or simple about it, Billy. This sounds bad.” Her hands shook as she fumbled with a button on her blouse. “I hear all kinds of stories about these guys.”
“Yeah, and that’s prob’ly just what they are. Stories.” Heaving a frustrated sigh, he flicked the cigarette butt out the window and held her. “Just trust me. It’ll be all right. We’re gonna have a nice place, nice furniture, nice clothes, even maybe live as good as Susan and Irv. And all they have is a clothes store. A joint like this can rake in a lot more.”
“At least Susan and Irv aren’t running their store with gangsters.” Her body stiffened as he held her.
“Yeah?” He struck a match and lit another cig. “Who do you think buys most of those silk suits? Especially these days? Not the down-and-outers on the bread lines, I’ll tell you that much! Susan ain’t stupid. She knows who her customers are.” He took a drag and blew out a stream of smoke.
“But she doesn’t own the place with them!” She pulled back. “Unless Irv is involved in something we don’t know about. Is there a Jewish mob?”
He laughed. “Of course. And an Irish mob and a Chinese mob and probably a Zulu mob. But Irv’s not in it, you can count on that. Look, Pru, you have to trust me. It’ll be all right, I swear. I know what I’m doin’.”
She rolled her eyes as if to say, “I’ve heard that one before,” and spread her fingers over her middle, which was just beginning to swell. He looked at the small mound and couldn’t help but gape in amazement. “Hey, a life is growing in there, a part of me,” he marveled with a powerful surge of protectiveness, another new emotion. Now he had two more lives to look after, and he wanted only the best for them. “You’re not letting me do what I’m s’posed to do. I’m s’posed to be the provider here.”
“You just want to be famous and see your name in lights.” She gave him a cynical cock of her brow.
He shrugged and nodded. “Well, yeah, that too. It’s what I always wanted. Besides you, of course. I mean, I’ve always wanted to be famous and be with you. I never thought I’d be lucky enough to have both. And this young! Look at me, I’m like—you know what Rosie called me? The wunderkind. That’s German. That’s what they called Mozart, you know. I learned that in my first piano lesson.”
“Wunderkind, huh?” She smirked. “I didn’t think he could manage all those syllables.”
“Well, he did. And the joint was packed, and they all loved my playing, and the dames all—uh—” He nearly choked on his words.
She stabbed him with those sharp eyes. “The dames all what?”
“Well, there were dames there, but I didn’t pay any attention to ’em. I was too busy playing. I mean, I don’t pay attention to ’em when I’m not playing, either, but—”
“Forget it, Snuggles!” She held her palm up, her fingers stained with blue paint. “I wasn’t born yesterday either. There will always be women hanging around you. I’m sure young Mozart had the same problem.” She gave him a half smile. “But these characters you’re getting involved with—” She sighed, clasping her hands together. “Please, God, look after my two babies!”
“Billy, I got some things out of the attic: your christening gown, which my brother Dominic wore, the silver rattle Aunt Eileen gave you for your first birthday, and the cradle Grampa and Jadwiga made from scratch when Susan was born.” Ma showed him the items in the hall before he even got to the table.
“Hey, they’re nice. I didn’t know you saved that stuff,” Billy said as Pru hung back, clasping his hand.
“Oh, there’s loads of treasures up there.” She waved toward the trapdoor in the ceiling. “Why don’t you kids go exploring later?”
Kids. He wished she wouldn’t call them that anymore. Okay, Tessie was a kid. But not him and Susan. I guess I’ll always be a kid to her, he groused. Even after I become famous.
“I love this cradle, Mrs. McGlory.” Pru knelt and rocked it, tilting her head, a thoughtful expression softening her features. “Can I refinish it? I’d like to varnish it white, and paint the baby’s name in little pink flowers on the sides.”
“Of course, honey, you can do whatever you want.” She smoothed down Pru’s hair. “It’s yours.”
Da came out and nodded at Billy in greeting as he gave Pru a fatherly hug. “How’s the bride-to-be?” Not mother-to-be, of course.
“Fine, Mr. McGlory. I love these things.” She shook the rattle.
“Yeah, these kids had more than we ever had.” Da’s tone took on that soft reminiscing lilt. “We never had toys. Billy, you know your mother didn’t have any dolls, so she dressed up the kitchen table instead? Sewed it a pretty tablecloth and decorated it real nice. I was lucky to have a brass paperweight in the shape of a bunny to play with. Hey, Vita, where’s my brass bunny?”
“Right up on the shelf there, dear,” she called from the dining room.
“That’s a hint, Pru,” Billy half-whispered. “Make sure we spoil the kid rotten.”
“Oh, I will, don’t worry!” She rubbed her tummy, and Billy looked over at his father.
He saw the old fella’s eyes sparkle in wonder. Then Da tossed his head in the direction of the dining room. “C’mon, dinner’s almost ready. Billy, go wash your hands.”
On early Monday mornings, Billy enjoyed walking the empty streets. As the first day of the week, it had an innocence to it, like a newborn, not yet tinged or tainted with the world’s filth and corruption. This morning greeted him with a warm embrace when he opened the club’s back door and stepped outside. He listened as his footsteps echoed down the deserted Fifth Avenue like a solitary drumbeat.
He took a deep breath. Even the air was clean, somehow untouched, this early. Nobody was out to dirty it up yet. He didn’t even want to light a cigarette. Only the night people, like him, were still up. They slept when the serious stuff was going on. His were the dark hours, of entertainment, boozing, and hedonism—the hours of the night.
“Oops! I almost forgot!” He snapped his fingers, spun on a heel, and went back to the club, heading for the office. “Rosie, I’ll be a little late comin’ in tonight. Can you get one of the other cats to cover for me?”
Rosie sat at his desk counting the night’s take, smoothing out dollar bills, an iron resting on a hot plate. Like the tailor pressed his clothes, Rosie pressed his money. Then he folded it in half before slipping his gold money clip over it. He’d handed Billy his first payment with a wax coating. It had felt counterfeit, so he went outside and stomped on it, scraping it along the sidewalk to get the wax off. But he knew Rosie had his reasons. Like Billy’s parents, Rosie had grown up in poverty; he was probably Billy’s age before he held his first dollar bill instead of loose change.
“I wish you told me sooner, Billy.” Rosie looked up. “It’s your crowd. They want to see you, ya know. Those other fellas in the band, they just decoration.”
“I’ll ask Jazzy Lou Grecco if he can play till I get here,” Billy offered. “I’ll only be an hour or so late.”
“Why? Whatcha doin’ tonight that’s more important than performin’?” Rosie gave Billy that warm, gold-toothed grin that came much more freely since they’d opened the club together. Rosie had no children or siblings; Billy knew he needed a youngster to watch over, like a kid brother. Billy liked the arrangement, too. He looked up to Rosie, in a strange kind of way. Sadly, in a way he could never look up to his own father.
“Well, I’m, uh—” He shuffled his feet. “I’m gettin’ married this afternoon.”
Rosie almost spit out his cigar. “Says you!”
“No, really,” Billy assured him. “Even I wouldn’t joke about something like this.”
“This afternoon? And you wait till now to tell me? Somebody out there wit’ a shotgun or somethin’?” Rosie grinned.
“No, no, I just—” Billy kicked a cigarette butt out of the way. He threw his head back, stretching his stiff neck. “I, uh—kinda forgot. Till now.”
Rosie chuckled, expelling puffs of smoke, reminding Billy of a locomotive, and that went for the way he was built, too. “So you’ll be doing a different kind of performin’ tonight, then. Take the whole night off. For a honeymoon.” When their eyes met, Rosie winked. Then he took the top bill off the pile, newly ironed, and tossed it to Billy. “Here’s a weddin’ present.”
Billy reached over to retrieve it. It was a C-note. “Hey, thanks, Rosie. I appreciate it. It goes out as fast as it comes in, you know.”
“Yeah, I know how these brides are. Just wait till you’re married a while. She’ll take ya for every cent ya got. Take some advice from me—always stash a little away for yourself, don’ matter where, under the floorboards, in your shoes—just somewhere she won’ fine it. You’ll need it, trust me.”
Rosie wasn’t big on marriage, having had his own annulled after six months. But Billy frowned at the thought of hiding anything or fibbing to Pru about something as superficial as money. Everything had become theirs from the day she told him their baby was inside her—no more “mine” and “yours.”
“I don’t have to hide nothin’ from Pru.” He shook his head as he slipped the bill into his pocket. “She’s not like that.”
“None of ’em are ‘like that’ till later. Sometimes much later.” He sat forward. “I’m just tellin’ ya—you know why they call it mad money.”
But maybe he should heed his older, wiser friend who’d seen much harder times than Billy ever would. Rosie had come over in the bowels of an immigrant ship, like Billy’s parents, and those tales of poverty and privation never stopped swimming in his head. What was the harm in stashing a little dough away? He knew how Pru didn’t believe in hoarding for a rainy day. So he began slipping the hundred back out. “Okay, I’ll start with this.” He walked over to the safe, concealed behind a portrait of the Mona Lisa. They each had a key that opened a different lock. Neither of them could open it without the other. Not that they didn’t trust each other—Rosie said this was how everybody did it. Billy fished his key out, and Rosie got up to open the door with his. The musty smell of money wafted out. Billy wished he could talk Rosie into investing it, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “After ’29, my money stays safe. You know why they call it a safe?” he’d once said, tossing another wad inside.
Rosie didn’t want to hear that the stock market eventually recovered and became a field of bargains. Susan had snapped up a bunch of cheap stocks that were worth a bundle again. So Billy played it “conservative” as he called it: half the money went into the vault, the other half into the portfolio she’d set up for him. He liked the idea of having a “portfolio”—it made him feel like he had some business savvy.
“It gonna be a big wedding?” Rosie asked nonchalantly enough, but Billy could detect the underlying question: “Why wasn’t I invited?”
“Nah. Just my family. Hers ain’t attending. They’re kinda against it. They’re rubes from Iowa—well, they’re a little high-hat, too, but we did a few things bass-ackwards, you know.” Billy placed the C-note in his half of the safe, shut it, and covered it with the Mona Lisa. “They think she’s a woman of loose morals now and I’m the spawn of the devil. Bunch of Bible-bashers. Beware the flames of hell and brimstone.”
Rosie nodded the whole time. “I know the story. You don’t hafta tell me. Shame. You’re holdin’ up your honor, marryin’ her. Never mind what her family thinks. Don’ ever let another person judge you, Billy. ’Specially your in-laws. You know what in-law means? Just what it says. And they’re made to be broken. Some of ’em.” He cast Billy a sideways glance, and Billy felt a strong sense of connection at that moment. Sometimes they spoke half-sentences and didn’t have to finish.
“The trick is in knowing which ones, right, Rosie?” Billy winked as he straightened the Mona Lisa. “What the hell is she smiling about anyway?” he wondered out loud.
“Maybe DaVinci took good care of her,” Rosie said. “I’ll see ya tomorra then. Congratulation.”
“Thanks.” He headed out the door, back into the innocent morning, feeling as clean as the new day. Then it hit him—today is your wedding day. Nothing would be the same after today. Not the way he looked at himself, at Pru, or at the world.
He leaned against the door for a moment, lowered his head, and shed a few tears. Then he pulled himself together and moved on.
Crossing 14th Street, Billy saw the sign, bigger and higher than any other on the block, FINK’S, the letters stacked vertically—upright, imposing, yet plain and sharp. Refreshed from his four-hour nap, he hoped there’d be no customers pawing through the racks, so he could spend some time alone with Susan. This was their last visit before the wedding. They’d spent some private time before she married Irv, and mostly they’d reminisced about their childhoods, which seemed like ancient history even then. He’d felt pretty grown up, and that was five years ago already. Now he needed a talk with his sister more than any stag party or wild night out with the guys.
The door was still locked, but he spotted her in there arranging hats on a rack. As he rapped on the glass, she looked up and tore around the counter to open the door. Bells clanged. “Billy! I was hoping you’d come by early!”
“Yeah, well, I wanna make sure the suit fits, and talk, maybe.” He stepped inside the empty store.
“Let me go get it. Then you can try it on, and we’ll have a whole hour before opening time. You’re going to be a regular Joe Brooks with that suit!” She dashed to the back to fetch his wedding suit, which at the last fitting had made him feel like the Prince of Wales. All his clothes came from her store, but this wedding suit was the fanciest—and most expensive—he’d ever bought. He knew how important all this was to Pru, especially after her parents gave their final boycott notice in a letter addressed to both of them and his parents. Pru read it and used it to wipe her paintbrushes on.
Susan handed him the suit, and he held it up to himself, looking in a full-length mirror. “My kid brother, getting married!” Her eyes welled up, and she blotted the tears with a lace hankie.
“I don’t feel like such a kid anymore.” He actually felt pretty old at this moment. “Don’t get all teary on me, Suze. I gotta get through this with Ma, too. Not to mention Pru. She cries at a parting of the clouds these days.”
“Your top hat is over there.” She ran to get it, sweeping it off the head of a male mannequin bowing to a lady mannequin at the entrance to her menswear department. “It came out so nice, I wanted to display it. I hope you don’t mind.”
“As long as he don’t mind.” He pointed to the now bareheaded gent, his bald pate exposed. “Give him a toupée or something.”
“I’ll put one of Irv’s on him.” Susan placed the gray hat on Billy’s head. He tilted it to a rakish angle. “That’s not the way you wear a top hat!” She slid it back into the correct position.
He glanced into the mirror again. “This hat makes me look like a giant. I don’t know about this, Suze. I’m wearing this to get married, not deliver the Gettysburg Address.”
“It looks classic and imposing,” she insisted, brushing a speck of lint off his tails. “Now put this on, and here are the gloves and walking stick, and you’re New York’s newest fop.”
He wasn’t used to dressing classically or imposingly. Or foppishly. Putting on the suit, he felt stiff and unnatural. “How do I sit down in this thing? What do I do with the tails when I sit?” he asked from behind the dressing room curtain.
“Nothing. They sit with you.”
He came out, and she gasped in delight. “Oh, mama mia, I didn’t recognize you!” She placed the hat on his head again, thrust the gloves and walking stick at him, and he strode over to the mirror. The transformation astounded him. Seeing himself look so different made him feel different. He turned to the left, then to the right, in the single-breasted gray wool tailcoat with double-breasted lapels. Underneath it he wore a single-breasted collarless waistcoat that matched the black-and-gray striped pants. Lastly, he put on his new black shoes and gray spats.
“How’d I get into this, Suze?” He turned to her, and they laughed. “Did you ever imagine me looking like this?” He turned back to the mirror and, for a brief flash, thought he saw his father looking back at him. He swept the hat off for reassurance. The blond locks once again dominated his appearance, and he relaxed. He was still Billy.
“Come on back to my office.” She took his arm. “We’ll have some coffee and crullers before I have to open.”
They sat in her throne room, an oasis befitting a society matron rather than the back office of a clothes store. She’d decorated it exactly like her lounge at home—the same velvet burgundy drapes, the same flowered carpet, even the Queen Anne sofa and end tables were identical to what she had at home. The only thing not duplicated was her nineteenth-century marble fireplace—here, she’d used scagliola, the Italian art of mixing marble dust, paint, and resins to make plaster look like marble. She was her mother’s daughter, all right; she never passed up a chance to economize. But she had a comfortable setup here, considering it was her workplace. Cramming himself into nightclub dressing rooms wasn’t exactly his idea of glamour, either. But once he was famous…
“Nervous?” She rubbed his back up and down.
“Me? Nah.” He didn’t want to admit his stomach was churning like an overloaded washing machine. He slid out his silver hip flask and emptied it into his coffee cup. She fetched a bottle from her portable bar and placed it on the cocktail table in front of him.
“For a refill.” She sat back, crossed her legs, and admired him, nodding her approval. “My baby brother. A husband and a father.”
“Cut it out, Suze.” He flicked his hand. “You know I wasn’t ready for this. It happened to me when I wasn’t looking.”
“You never would’ve been ready. But you’ll have no regrets.”
“Why?” he asked. “It’ll make me grow up even more?”
“You want to grow up even more?” Susan looked him in the eye.
“Well, yeah, I was planning to. Soon. But not this soon. I thought I’d knock around New York a few more years, head to Europe, try to get my name made…” He trailed off, knowing it wouldn’t happen so fast now.
“Plenty of musicians have families, Billy. Look at all the kids Bach had.”
“Everybody had servants in those days. Us, we’re just gonna do it ourselves. She’ll take time off to raise the kid, then I’ll do what I gotta do.” He sat back, tugged on the pants and crossed his legs.
“I’m sure Rosie and your other partners will understand. Family comes first.” She took a sip of her drink.
He studied his sister in her navy-and-white crepe dress with the V-neck and pointed cuffs. She eased up the scalloped hem of her bias-cut skirt. Her matching beret sat on a dummy head on her desk.
He wasn’t sure he’d heard right. Family comes first? They never saw her anymore—she was always here. Or running Piano’s. Or on a buying trip. Or at some three-day stock market seminar. “Whose family?”
“Yours, of course,” she answered. “Your family is your wife and child now. When the child is sick, you rush home to take care of him. When the child starts school, you help him with his homework. Then there are the school plays, the ball games, the teachers’ meetings. You know. Things that come with raising a child. All the things Ma did for us. She took lots of time off her city job to take care of us, didn’t she?”
“Yeah, but she’s the mother.” He sat forward, flustered. “That’s the mother’s job. Where was the old fella when one of us got sick or somethin’?”
“I like to think differently, Billy. Irv and I share equally. You see the way we’re raising Rachael and Thomas. Irv stays home part of the time, takes them to school, the things the mother traditionally does. I run the store and the speak, but I still go to the school functions, come home when they’re sick, all that stuff.”
He had to admit they did a great job of raising their twins, who had just started school this year. Irv and Susan were equally close to the kids, their roles very blurred. But it seemed to work. Those kids were bright as hell, and enjoyed both parents’ company.
“You think that’d work for us? But you know the way I am. I don’t even know what day it is. Well, I know what day today is, but I usually don’t. I go by the phases of the moon, almost. That’s what scares the hell out of me.” His voice shook. “I wanna be a good father, I wanna know my kid, go to ball games, and the whole bit. But who the hell has time? All I have time for is work and sleep.”
“If all you had time for was work and sleep, you wouldn’t be expecting a baby.” She re-laced her coffee.
“Okay, work and bed. Besides, we won’t have a maid and a chef and a butler and a driver and a bottle washer like you guys.”
“Is that what you want?” she asked. “I’ll hire you a live-in maid. That’ll be my wedding present to you.”
“Cripes, no.” That made him laugh. He could just see a maid flouncing around their third-floor Jane Street walk up. “Where the hell would we put her? Out on the fire escape? I’m not the master type, and neither is Pru. She’s looking forward to the mother part. She wants to do all that nurturing stuff. Me—I don’t know if it’s in me. Changing diapers? I don’t even know if I’d get the right end—of the baby, that is.”
“You’ll learn, believe me. There’s no mystery to it. There are two of you. But even if you had to do it alone, you’d do just fine.” She seemed to take too quick a sip after that, as if to hide what she’d just said.
“Now where did that come from? Is this from another one of Tessie’s visions?” He wiggled his fingers in the air.
“No, course not. I’m just saying you’re a lot more capable than you give yourself credit for. It was just—” He waved his hand. “A poor choice of words, that’s all.”
He glanced at the clock. He could no longer count off his remaining bachelor days; now it was hours. That thought made his heart thud against his chest like it wanted to get out. He swiped her bottle off the table and took a swig.
“You want a glass and some ice or water with that?” she asked.
“Nah, straight from the bottle and down the hatch is better sometimes.” He held it up in a toast. “More direct. Salut.”
“You need to stay awake for a few more hours, you know. We don’t want to have to carry you down the aisle,” she warned.
“I’m not gettin’ squiffed. I just need to calm down.” He grabbed a cruller and stuffed it into his mouth.
“You want to tickle the ivories a little, relax you?” She gestured at the piano across the room.
“Yeah. That’s a good idea.” He got up and went over to her upright Steinway, another replica of what she had at home. She even had them tuned at the same time, although this one didn’t have the kids banging on it every day. He ran a few scales and arpeggios to warm up. Lost in his own musical world, he played some of the request numbers he did in the clubs: “Body and Soul,” “I Got Rhythm,” and one of his favorites, “Happy Days Are Here Again.” He only stopped once, to slide his feet out of his shoes, which were pinching him. But he kept playing, now completely calm and himself once again, until Susan poked her head in the doorway and told him it was time to go.
“But I only started.”
“Billy, it’s one o’clock.” She tapped her watch.
“Christ in a bottle.” He grabbed his hooch and went to get married.
The ride to the church went by too quickly; he didn’t even have time to think.
The back door to Susan’s car opened and someone helped him out. He looked up into the eyes of his father, smiling down at him with approval, for once. He nodded and gulped.
Da walked him down the dark aisle to the altar. They had no ushers or bridesmaids. No one was giving Pru away. This was the two of them—the three of them—against the world.
The bridal march was in the key of F. The organist hit a few bum notes as Pru came into focus in her white dress with a pearl-edged neckline, a gift from Susan. Her gauzy veil reached halfway to the floor, gathered from a fabric cap trimmed with little roses. She looked like she’d come straight from heaven.
It all happened so fast. He repeated a few words, said “I do” and slid a gold band onto her third finger as she did to him. Never having worn a ring in his life, he hoped it wouldn’t get in the way when he played the piano.
They stood for what seemed like a long moment. “Is that all?” he whispered to the priest, and he nodded. “Yeah.”
“We can go now?”
“Go in peace, my son.” The priest raised his hands, palms up.
“Okay, thanks, father.”
Billy turned and looked into the eyes of Mrs. Virgilio McGlory for the first time. It all seemed right.
After the small reception at his parents’ house, Susan’s chauffeur took them back to their tenement. Billy saw Rosie’s Morris Cowley Tourer parked outside the door. He waved Susan’s chauffeur off just as the driver’s side of Rosie’s car opened. He recognized Fritz, Rosie’s driver. “Fritz! Something the matter?” He instantly pictured Rosie full of bullets somewhere.
“No, Mr. Ingovito just wanted me to give you this wedding present.” He proffered two jingling keys on a gold keyring that glinted in the streetlamp.
“Keys? To what, the car?” Or maybe the safe. Was this his way of telling Billy all the money was his to keep?
“No, to a residence. He gave me the address and told me to take you there. Uh—” He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. “Nine-Twelve Fifth Avenue. Penthouse A.”
“Why, that’s—the Upper East Side.” He felt Pru tugging at his sleeve and heard her clearing her throat to get his attention.
“It’s your new home. Congratulations, partner.” He held out his hand, and Billy shook it. He glanced at his bride glaring at him.
“Uh—can we have a moment, Fritz?” Billy mumbled.
Pru turned and entered their building. He followed on her heels. Halfway up the stairs, she spun around and pointed a finger.
“Billy, I’m not taking any gifts from him. A penthouse on Fifth Avenue? You know what that must cost?” Her voice echoed in the empty stairwell.
“Come on, Pru, he’s loaded. It means nothin’ to him. He’s just bein’ nice, I’m his partner, and he’s always generous with all of us in the band. He gave Floody a trip to Europe, gave Jinji a new Caddoo.”
“But a penthouse?” She grasped the banister. “Why?”
“Why not? I deserve it.” Sure, the hundred simoleons was nice, but… “I’m the club’s headliner. I’m his partner. I make a lot of jack for the place. It’s always mobbed. You should see it some time.” He couldn’t help commenting on her continued refusal to attend the club.
“Did you know about this?” Her eyes narrowed.
“Of course not. But come on, Pru, we can use a nice place. You wanna bring up a kid here?” He gestured toward the top of the narrow stairs at door so rotten it hardly closed.
“We did just fine. I fixed it up nice.” A defensive tone crept into her voice.
“Yeah, it’s nice. But compared to what he’s giving us, it’s a dump. Let’s face it. The Upper East Side and this dive is like night and day. And what a beautiful way to start our life together. In the lap of luxury.” He moved to embrace her, but she pulled away, gathering her gown, as if the stairs would contaminate it. Not like she’d ever wear it again. He couldn’t wait to get out of this suit, classy as it was, and into a bed with his new wife.
“I don’t want to go there, Billy, luxury or not. I don’t want anything from the likes of him.” She sliced the air with her hand.
“Come on, Pru.” He expelled an exasperated breath. “You refuse this, he’ll be insulted. I like being in business with the guy, I don’t wanna do nothin’ to piss him off. Refusing his wedding gift will be like a snub.”
“And accepting it will be like you owe him a favor. I know the way these people operate.” She took a step up.
He rubbed his temples. “It’s a gift, Pru. Nothing to do with favors or payback or any of that stuff. Where do you get these kooky ideas? You read too many of them penny dreadfuls.”
“I’m not going, Billy.” She stood there in the dark stairwell, glowing in her white gown. The only light shone from a bare bulb on the landing. She turned, the gown gathered in her fist.
He clutched her arm. “Pru, we’d better go. I don’t wanna get on the wrong side of him. Look. Just for tonight. Then I’ll tell him—I don’t know, you’re allergic to the paint or you’re afraid of heights or something. But we can’t flat out refuse. Let’s just get Fritz to take us over.”
She’d jerked her arm away and fished the apartment key out of her white satin bag, holding the envelopes from the wedding. “Tell him what you want, but I’m not having anything to do with that slimy gangster. They’re all the scum of the earth as far as I’m concerned.”
“Look, Pru, he does have a heart, you know. He is a human being,” he snapped. Now she annoyed him, judging Rosie for no good reason.
“You like him so much, you stay there!” She fled up the stairs in a swoosh of satin. Her footsteps echoed and died above.
“Pru! God dammit!” But she’d already entered their apartment. Their door slammed shut. Man, she was touchy these days. “All right, I will!” But he stood there for a long time, torn between his wife of five hours and his powerful business partner. Finally, he went back out and slid into the passenger’s side next to Fritz.
“Uh—she’s ill. She’s—you know—expecting. Doesn’t think she’d make the trip up there. Just take me there. Go back to Rosie and tell him I’m—we’re settled in and thank you.”
Fritz nodded and started the engine.
So Billy spent his wedding night alone in his beautifully furnished new palace at Nine-Twelve Fifth Avenue, Penthouse A.