Only natural considering my iffy relationship with DC’s boys in blue. Luckily enough, before I could make for the john and drown my bagged cat I realized I was only hearing the phone, and so I restashed my stash. Usually I unplug the ringer at check-in, but this time it had slipped my mind. You always risk clipping a good buzz in mid-hum, when you sign on for a twenty-four-hour shift. Goes with the territory.
‘morning,” I shouted at the receiver, trying to remember which end was which.
“Evening,” Bennett said. “Can’t you tell the difference?”
‘six of one, half dozen of the other.”
“Are you drunk?”
‘dog’s on the leash,” I assured him.
“You finish the distribution?”
“Hold on.” My hand was getting numb. I’d put a tourniquet round my arm with the phone cord somehow and thought I’d better unwrap it before I could spontaneously amputate. “You were saying?”
“Was there anything left to distribute?”
From afar Bennett came on like a Harvard Dillinger, but up close you knew he was just another dental hygienist. On his evolutionary scale I topped out around Fishhead level – try as he might, he never cottoned to watching his boss treat me like Future Man. Too bad for Benny but Martin and I went back many moons, plus we had more in common than old Ivy League ever would with either of us. “Cut the j”accuse,” I said. “Produce reached the market.”
“What about it, then?”
“About what, my brother?”
‘don’t brother me.”
“Not to offend. I mean only in the broader sense.”
“When’ll the wolves start howling?”
“English, Bennett. Please.”
“When should the roundup start?”
I reviewed my own experience. “Body phase lasts maybe twenty minutes. Then it calms down a little and you think everything’s square. All of a sudden chemistry takes the wheel and you park yourself in Mars orbit for nine hours or so, depending on whether or not you ate beforehand. DuPont boys be able to handle that?” “They’re capable men.”
“You say so. Motto of a park ranger’s be prepared.”
“Oh, hell –”
Without warning I found myself listening in counterpoint. Side effect? Could be, but Bennett was a prankster. “You going stereo on me?”
“What are you talking about?”
Whoever was shouting help was broadcasting through a separate channel. He wasn’t in the phone but didn’t seem to be in my head either. I gave the room the onceover but I was the only one on duty. Whoever he was he sounded like he’d been sealed up in an oil drum. Possibly an unfortunate who’d run afoul of one of Bennett’s less restrained subcontractors.
“That’s not you, is it?”
“What are you on now?” Bennett’s words popped out of the receiver; they were purple, and diamond-shape. Amazing how long the effects last sometime.
“Help you what?” I asked. “Who’s out there?”
“What?” I thought it best not to go into a lot more detail; things like this kind of disturbed Bennett’s peace of mind. ‘must be hearing things, compadre. Nothing to write home about.”
He hissed like a stabbed tire. “I’ve got a message. Think you’ll remember?” “Try me.”
‘mister Rollins says they want to meet you again tomorrow morning for breakfast. It’s essential that you reconsider the offer.”
“Can’t oblige,” I said.
“Essential, I said.”
“I heard you the first time.”
I knew my limits. He’d be putting the needle down again and again till I finally got up and changed the record. “All right, but tell “em I got to charge a full day rate.”
“Understood,” he said. ‘meet them in the Willard coffee shop, nine sharp. The Willard Hotel. It’s a hotel. Know the place?”
“Warren G. Harding shot his niece there, didn’t he?”
“Nine sharp. Willard Hotel. We’ll be waiting. Think you’ll need any help waking up?”
Bennett skipped the gracious goodbye pages when he took his Emily Post lessons. Once he hung up I savoured the sound of blood rushing past my ears. The seller goes where the market calls but these assignments in DC were always a trial. Nothing like a trip to the land of the two-headed men to remind you why they dumped all that marble in a swamp. Nowhere else will you get the lingering miasma and rotting vegetables that sustain sound government. On a regular schedule the fen’s trolls burn off excess gas. The glow attracts fools and children. The stench overcomes them, the gas hits the blood like carbon monoxide, the bog sucks them under. They’re done for. Stay out of politics, my brothers, there’s no keeping clean.
Bennett’s call had rung down the curtain on my mind’s nightly adventure. Even though I considered taking it from the top I noticed it was midnight, and since I’d been hit with this unforeseen breakfast subpoena I decided I’d better take the sensible road and toddle off to snoozeville. While shedding my outerwear I let myself go blank. Listened to walls creak as they eased their weary stones, heard the wind tickle the ivy’s dry threads. I was stashed in the usual drawer, an N Street townhouse with 1850 skin and 1965 guts. Claims adjusters infested the ground floor offices but the apartments were available for government transients. I don’t know who crashed in my suite when I wasn’t in town. Martin didn’t say, I didn’t ask. The joint must have been classville in buggywhip days but the trolls had been hard at work since. On a five-star scale I’d give the leftovers a negative four. A junkman wouldn’t take the furniture if you paid him. Turn on the faucets and take bets on what colour the water’d be. Cockroaches big as chihuahuas and just as quiet. Every morning rats raced through the groundcover out front to the point where even a dead sober man would think the yard was trying to sneak away from the house. Well, it was never more than a couple nights’ flop to me and after all, I’ve done time in places that made this look like the Savoy-Plaza. I’d just started kissing the sheets when my unseen friend returned.
Definitely not Bennett this time. I tried hauling myself up but it wasn’t easy.
Where was that boy? Somewhere on my left, maybe? Don’t believe the yarns, there’s not much to be gained when you start hearing people who aren’t there. “Yo boyo, your signal’s coming in clear. Show yourself.”
“No need to be shy,” I called out, thinking I’d pinned him down on radar. I tiptoed to the bathroom and pushed at the door. “Hey Livingstone. Stanley here.” No answer, so I flipped on the brights and peeked in. “Anybody?” Nobody. Now if I’d stayed horizontal I could have probably convinced myself that the evening’s entertainment simply intensified those bad DC vibes, but once up my reptile brain couldn’t be rubed. Maybe I landed in the middle of one of those CIA campfire tales you always hear. Those necrophiliacs had no need to unscrew my bulbs, but they wouldn’t have cared. This was probably the kind of fun they had when they weren’t out shooting Nixon. Help.
I did a Norman’s mother. Nobody in the shower so I checked under the sink. Bug city; ten thousand long-term leasees but none of them were talking. Men of science test all theories, so I stared down into the toilet bowl. In heightened states the sight of running water calms me down, and the longer I looked in the better I felt. Nothing but an unexpected side effect, I told myself. No telling what’ll bob up when the mind starts simmering. In my more adventurous days I once dropped a little blue tab, supposedly some derivative extracted from San Pedro cactus buds. Maybe so, but all it did was make me sneeze uncontrollably for fourteen hours.
I looked up and I saw them standing there. Almost there, I’d better say. This was the first time I could eyeball somebody’s front and glim their back simultaneously, but that wasn’t the real mindbender. It was hard getting a fix on them because half the time they were turning colours and half the time, shifting into black and white. Made me want to shout focus at the projection booth. He wore what looked like a Bellevue suit, except the arms didn’t have those fashionable belts and buckles. Just as well because if they had he couldn’t’ve lugged the doll. His honey lay in his arms like a swoonstruck bobbysoxer. She gave every indication of being out on a heavy nod. Under the circumstances, mind you, I’d hesitate to say either one would have bled if you cut them. From what I could tell he’d had it hard wherever he’d had it, and she looked like she’d been dragged by a truck from Cleveland way past Detroit.
Please help us.
Neither of them were flapping gums when the words came through, but I heard him stone clear. The shakes hit me where I stood and that’s a side effect I never get from that evening’s particular family of chemicals. Closing my eyes, I tried to think of something to say. When I raised my shades once more my new pals were starting to fade. They didn’t seem to notice, but I didn’t think they were too conscious of anything, to tell the truth. Going, going, gone – and that was that for them.
Somehow it was worse having them gone. I rolled back into bed and listened hard. Even though I didn’t hear him anymore it still took time before I could start copping Zs. What with all the excitement I’d worked myself into a tizzy. I couldn’t shake the notion somebody was hotfooting over my grave. Seeing ghosts will do that, I suppose, and that’s the way I finally chalked it up. Axe-murdered in this room years ago, probably, and the walls couldn’t hold back on what they’d seen any longer. Fortean phenomena, the logical explanation. Nothing weird about it until it happens to you. Just one of those strange things happening every day, like green snow or a frogstorm, or buses showing up in threes.
I couldn’t wait to get back to New York. Of course I didn’t foresee I’d have guests along for the ride.
I cooled on my slab till roostertime, then rose and soaked my head in sunshine. No distressing afterburn, I was pleased to note – no neckache, no blurry vision, no need to brush one-handed while propping myself up with the unused paw. While scrubbing I decided to show up extra sharp for these boys. I shaved close, played coathanger for my priciest suit. Sparkled like a diamond in the rhinestone counter when I got there. The Williard Hotel’s slavemasters weren’t big on face control, and the coffee shop was almost one hundred percent DC riffraff. Most looked nitrogen-poisoned, stumbling around blind with walking bends, good for nothing but taking fingerprints or filing them. I breezed through their midst and ignored the looks the secretaries shot me. Martin and Bennett held court at a booth in the rear. Most of the dregs on hand favoured official federal government style. But my boys were men of taste, and put on a Washington style show. Seven-layer silk ties, trifold linen squares, cuffs overloaded with silver and gold; suits thick as overcoats and shoes shiny enough to scare away the schoolgirls.
“Everything went exactly as you predicted, Walter,” Martin told me. “Congratulations are in order.” My boss came on like he always did, the head man in Statuary Hall. Bennett looked like he’d sat on a pickle and couldn’t get it out. He eyed me as if I were some evil bird swooping down to bag his waffles.
‘muchas thankas.” Taking a load off, I signalled the waiter.
‘sleep well?” Bennett asked.
“Too much on your mind, perhaps –”
I lit into the mocha java the second Pierre set it down in front of me, but that was a serious mistake. Gave my tongue third degree burns and for a second I thought my throat was going to seal up
“Hot?” Bennett asked.
“Beelzebub,” I said. “Like drinking the sun.”
“You remember our associates,” said Martin, stretching out his hand like he was introducing the dog act. ‘mister Hamilton. Mister Frye.”
‘morning, my brothers.”
The co-conspirators nodded and winked and I returned the favour. Hamilton was silver-haired, silver-tongued and slippery as wet glass. I don’t think he was a mammal. Old mellifluous knew anything he served up had to drip with syrup, otherwise it’d never slide down. His sidekick Frye seemed content with the job of vestigial twin. If you taught a ferret how to walk on its back feet and put it in a three-hundred-dollar suit, you’d have Frye. He sat there emitting a series of sinister chuckles. Those two were kingsize trolls but it was never clear to me what precise realm of the swamp they oversaw, and they seemed the sort who’d like to keep it that way. Martin screwed a Lucky into his holder. Bennett almost fell out of his chair, offering his lighter.
“You get it?” he asked. Martin fired up and shot one smoke ring through another.
“The Willard used to be such a magnificent hotel,” Hamilton proclaimed, oozing the grease of sociability. He knew if he came on like Uncle Bob he’d get an invite to any Friday dinner. ‘sad, how much it’s changed over the years. You’re not old enough to remember what this was, before it was a coffee shop.” I’d have guessed nobody was. “It was a corner of the grand ballroom. The ceiling and those walls are false, you see. My friend Donald Cook’s graduation party was given here in 1926. Donald was the son of Senator Cook, he died on the Brittannica.” I was starting to wish I had. “An unforgettable evening. We kept our flasks at the ready, filled with hooch. Whenever the chaperones turned their heads we’d have a snort. I danced with Sally Patterson half the night.” He went all cow-eyed, recalling the scent of long-lost fur. “Fifty beautiful young men and women, learning the ways of the world.” I suspected he placed himself pretty high on the beauty scale. “The stage was there.” He pointed at the steam table, where two Japs stood slinging hash. ‘seven smoke musicians. Real hot poppas from New Orleans, as we used to say.” He burst out in soft song. “If the man in the moon was a coon, coon, coon –”
Hambone pursed his lips like he was spitting out watermelon seeds. Frye made with the chucks: hmnf hmnf hmnf. Bennett sighed; he probably spent half his life hearing about parties he wasn’t invited to. Martin, like me, played icecube.
“I did some stepping out back in Cambridge myself,” Bennett said, at the same time eyeballing me. “Not very good at it, though. Two left feet.”
“I suspect you underestimate yourself,” Hamilton said.
‘surely I wouldn’t have held a candle to you, sir.” Bennett kissed most people’s feet because he was too short to reach their ass.
‘sweet memory is all that lingers once the ball is over, gentlemen,” said the old codger. ‘so soon we forget.”
If this went on much longer he was going to drag out the uke and start yodelling. After he tossed off that little lyric from the hit parade I was in no mood to foxtrot. “I’ve forgotten why you asked me here, actually,” I said. “Not to cut you short, my brothers, but I’ve got a train to catch.”
‘mister Smith,” Hamilton said, speaking in my direction, as if he’d been struck blind but suspected I had a quarter. (My legal given is Bullitt, by the by, but I use a more forgettable monicker for piece work.) “I want to offer you the opportunity to reconsider our proposal. We think you’re our man for the job.”
“I don’t even know what your proposal is,” I said. I’d turned them down simply because I hadn’t liked their looks; you get to my level and you can start getting away with that, sometimes. “Told you I like to see the sandwich before I bite down.”
‘son, your qualms are understandable,” Hamilton said. “Ordinarily we’d have already enlightened you, but I fear a certain restraint was and is called for in this situation.”
‘restraint’s my middle name.”
‘so Martin has told me. And Bennett, as well.” Little mongoose glared at me with beady blue eyes. “All the same your talents are such that we’re willing to make allowances for your, uh, personal style.”
“I appreciate your appreciation,” I said. “Need more than that, though.”
“In the fullness of time you’ll be provided with all necessary information.”
“Time’s filled up. Spill or I’m walking.”
“Walter!” Martin looked ready to come down hard, but I fired back my own daggers and he eased off on playing up the Great White Father bit. Hamilton didn’t look any more or less upset than he had when I’d said no, two days earlier. There was something about this I hadn’t liked from the start. Since I wasn’t officially on the payroll, and wouldn’t have been one of Martin’s Bennetts even if I had been, I wasn’t covered with the kind of insurance you have to have when you get too far out in the jungle.
“Hear Hamilton out, Walter,” Martin said. “It’s a very simple proposition. Once you have all the details I’m sure you’ll change your mind.”
“OK, so let’s play catch. You going to tell me, or am I going to have to guess?” Our waiter slunk back to top off the percolations, but I shooed him away.
“I always appreciate forthrightness.” Hamilton’s eyebrows hopped like caterpillars doing a mating dance. “What would you guess, if you guessed?”
“This have anything to do with pharmaceuticals?” I asked.
That’s to be decided.”
“Will I be playing the old sucker game?”
‘sowing the seeds of disarray?”
Hamilton dipped a shard of toast into a pool of yolk. ‘do you read the newspaper, son?” he asked, leaning over so far I could count his fillings.
“How else do I know what I’ve been up to?”
Hamilton hooted. Hmnf hmnf hmnf, said Frye. They were in on somebody’s joke, that was for sure. ‘surely an intelligent man such as yourself,” said the Grand Codger, “understands that at moments sotto voce is preferable to fortissimo. You understand the broader problems with which we constantly grapple –”
“We who?” I asked.
“Is that a question, Walter?”
“Who are you, anyway?” I asked. “Can’t quite put my finger on it.”
“Walter –” Martin started to say.
“You don’t have J. Edgar’s thumbprint on you,” I said, thinking I’d better start sharpening the pencils. ‘since you’re out in daylight and aren’t moist, I can rule out CIA.” Hmf hmf hmf. “You’re about as military as I am. My man Martin generally doesn’t let on who pays for the groceries long as I make the delivery. Usually, I don’t care. But truly, my brothers, all this incognito cum laude is making my mind start to wander. Feel like I’m in a tryout for Skull and Bones.”
“You’re thinking of Yale, Walter,” said Bennett. “We look like Yalies?”
Martin glared like an icy road. For a minute I gave them the benefit of the doubt, thinking they simply feared being taped al fresco. In truth there’s no better place to talk trouble than out in the out and about. Every time Martin and I faced off to swap tales we took to the ozone, and hit the bricks. An old trick, never fails to keep nosy parkers from tuning in on the party line. It’s a subtle concept for the layman to grasp, and these two clowns were no laymen. Just as I was starting to give in the old gringo flipped me such a death’s head that I realized he was doing the Miss Priss bit purely for entertainment value. I got the notion he didn’t care who heard what he said, since he never exactly said it.
“Walter, are you aware of what happens this November?” Hamilton asked.
“This is February.” Hmnf hmnf hmnf said Frye.
“Good things take time,” Bennett said.
“There’s an election this November,” said Hamilton. “You’ll be voting?”
“Never,” I said. “99 bottles of beer on the wall. I don’t sing along.”
Hamilton made with the tut-tuts. “Possibly we’re not as cynical as you are.”
“Are you familiar with the field of candidates? Does anyone in particular come to mind?”
He had me there, but I wasn’t going to let on. Thinking for a second, the obvious name popped into my head. “President Lodge.”
“Thought we were going to have to cue you, Walter,” Bennett said.
“What about on the Democratic side?” Hamilton asked.
“Usual suspects, I suppose. Johnson, Humphrey. Pritchard. You think it’ll matter?” “You are cynical, son.”
“Call me son once I’m in the will,” I said. “If I had to guess I’d say Lodge’ll be re-elected. Incumbents always are.” Hamilton eyed me like I was a puppy who wet the rug. “No?”
“We’ll be clear on that by the end of next month, Mister Smith,” he said. “But that’s no concern of yours.”
“There’s a name you’ve forgotten, Walter,” Bennett said. “Among possible candidates. Who do you think you’ve forgotten?”
I shrugged. “Gimme a phone book.”
“An old family name,” Martin said.
“But not that old.” The shift in Hamilton’s vocalese as he purred his way into a growl made me appreciate the ease with which this old coot could hop from his wheelchair and whip out the shiv. Takes practice to glint like Jehovah when you’re wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, but he had it down pat. “The Kennedys –”
“Walter, hear us out.”
“Not a chance. I’m no steeplejack. I work the ground floor and mezzanine and I want to keep it that way. “Not a chance –”
Hamilton lobbed his dentures my way and flashed those big blue peepers. “This would entail your serving in the traditional agent provocateur position, Walter.”
“Walter, you could do it in your sleep,” Martin said.
“Probably done it in your sleep,” said Bennett.
“There’s nothing to it –”
All signs on this eightball pointed to no. Number one swoon tune in DC was Never Waltz With A Kennedy. Once you involved yourself, even with a third cousin of a third cousin, it was only a question of time till Old Black Joe, reliable as napalm, caught you and dipped you in his deep-fryer. Giving his public rap sheet the onceover could crack your mind like a bullwhip, and nobody knew scratch about the deals that strayed from the path en route to Grandma’s. His five boys couldn’t match him except in pawing frails, try as they might and by all indications they tried. Nature herself had taken the girls out of the competition, there were five of them but every one strangled themselves in the womb to keep from coming out. Every spring through the thirties the Kennedy Curse struck anew. Once between the cartoon and part six of Perils of Nyoka I caught a glimpse of the gang in the “Ten Years Ago Today” segment of The March of Time, filmed just before they went to London in 39″. They’d lost another one, the last. The boys wore black tie, Rose shrouded her weeds. Old Joe pried the top off the blarney jar and told the reporters Willa God, boys, all’s jake but you got to watch Willa. She’ll get you every time.
“Not a chance, not one in a million.”
“Walter, you need to hear specifically,” Hamilton started to say, but I wasn’t listening. I heard something else.
Like I needed to see old brother Jell-O and his snoozy moll just then. They hung out by the cash register as if intending to clean out the till while a crony caused a distraction.
Without signalling, my ghosts took the off-ramp and faded. I told myself I’d kicked back too long in the tub last night and was still pruny. But I wasn’t kidding anyone, the luck of genes makes my system flush like a storm drain. Possible, though, that this new product was time-release. That could bring any number of complications about on down the line. Might mean all kinds of trouble uptown as well but the Dupont Circle boys could find out on their own without a park ranger. Even now their slammerful of potential perps were probably tearing the roof off the drunk tank, ripping out the porcelain, shitting on the ceiling, standing there franks in hand and howling for the bastards to turn the northern lights back on.
“What’s so funny, Walter?” I heard Bennett say.
“Is he having a stroke?” Hamilton said.
“Just weighing the odds against the house,” I testified, coming out of my stew, laying both hands near but not on the Big Book. “Pardon the trance.”
“No question you’re the man for the job,” Martin said, and then demonstrated the folly of total self-assurance. “You’re Irish as they are, why wouldn’t it work?”
Fortean ghosts were hard enough to bear but this took first prize in the Stupid awards. Something must have short-circuited in Martin’s head, or else he was feeling more comfy around these characters than he had any right to be. He was no more tater tot than I was, and he knew that as well as I did. Now neither of us played the rules according to Hoyle, and while no VIP players who might suspect ever admitted seeing us deal with our spades hidden, we knew they always kept their guns on the table. Couldn’t speak for my boss but I had no yen to scope scenic Guatemala and the deeper south unless I had a return ticket tight in my hand. It especially made me sweat buckets when his idle comment provoked Frye into burping up something other than chucks.
“Black Irish, maybe.”
Bad, bad news. No question his superior snagged it, but old Methuselah didn’t return fire. Martin’s mask slipped enough to show me he knew he’d been bugging too frantic on the canyon’s lip. “If you would hear us out, Mister Smith, you’d understand what a valuable opportunity this could prove to be for you,” Hamilton said, steepling his hands as if to pray to himself. “Carpe diem. A new world hitherto unimaginable to you will either open or close, depending upon your decision. May I continue?”
His picnic basket was starting to sit heavy on my grave. “Pass the mustard,” I said.
“Need to spread it on those fat slabs of spamola you’re slicing off.”
“Now, Mister Smith –”
“I’m passing. Thanks anyway.” Easing myself up slowly, I aimed a finger at the timepiece hanging on the wall. “Got to roll, I fear, New York’s waiting.”
“You strike me as an infinitely adaptable fellow of subtle resources,” Hamilton said. The smile he gave me would have shamed a wax museum. ‘martin knows you’re the man for the job. Perhaps we should agree to leave the matter open. It seems to me you should be considerably more interested in hearing us out than you’ve yet understood.”
I understood he could probably corner the market in nasty if he wanted, but I didn’t want to wait around and find out. “Tally ho, my brothers, that train’s at the gate.”
“I’ll be calling you,” Martin said.
Didn’t look back as I strolled but I knew they kept me in the crosshairs. Took the long way out through the lobby, to tell the world I was in no rush. Soon as I was out of range I let my feet do their business. Had the admiral outside whistle up a cab, and two minutes later I was cruising up Connecticut en route to DuPont Circle. Neglecting to stop by the stationhouse to give the gang my regards I bounded down the escalator and hopped the noon express. Settling into a crowded car I switched off the seat’s radio and settled back, trying to put breakfast, that song, those ghosts, everything out of mind. In two hours I’d pipeline straight into Penn Station’s warm marble barn and then it’d be hello, New York. I couldn’t wait.
Once I was back in the free world I wasted no time heading for my castle. No sooner did I get there, though, than I realized I might as well have left the drawbridge down. My greeting committee floated above the corner of the living room, near the window and to the left of the hi-fi.
What really made my bag rise this time was my quietude in the face of this species of unnatural. Bad pennies are forever turning up but not being surprised when you find them is another matter indeed. There was only one thing left to try. Hair of a different dog taken in ideal conditions proves an unfailing remedy in most cases of aftershock, and I could see no reason it wouldn’t work here. I have to be truthful and say I don’t know how hard I looked. Unplugging the phone, I greased and papered my Victrola’s spinner and slid a new needle in the tone arm. Thumbed through the C shelf until I spotted the right man. Lay down the shellac, grooved the point and let it spin. No crime in listening. Never was.
“Pastafazoola, Tallullah –”
No crime in singing along, though the neighbours might disagree.
“Pass me a pancake, Mandrake –”
No doubt about it, these palefaces weren’t hep to the jive. My two ghosts took the hint and condensed. Suspected they’d be back but that was then and this was now.
Alone again I stashed the cash Martin’d slipped me for my efforts in the strongbox, then pulled down my humidor to keep a date with Mary Jane. Dressed her in something tight and kissed her down to her toes. Got a Pepsi out of the fridge and lent Cab my ears. Though I don’t teetotal I’m not one for putting on the boozebag. Body trips leave me too full of that old ennui. The ideal agents as I see it are the ones that take your head off and let you hold it awhile. I cooped inside, content, till delirious night came creeping through the streets. Then, after a quick rinse and shave, I snatched up my wrapper and ankled downstairs.
Two blocks west on the slum end of Park was my crib away from crib. Those up on their long-gone New York know the tale of McGurk’s Suicide Hall, famed Bowery hotspot of the gay nineties, a most favoured lure for the addled and unsavoury, whilom HQ of the fearsome Coney Boys. If you soaked McGurk’s in cheap black and Chinese red you’d get Max’s. All the ambience of an opium den full of Dada girls, though louder. El perfecto, in the vernacular. No Packards lined the curb two deep so I suspected the night’s talent didn’t attract the riffraff. When I checked the marquee I saw that I was right, WELCOME THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO TO MAX’s KANSAS CITY. I’d head upstairs to revel after I perambulated the lower depths to see who was where. Before I could go in I noted out of the corner of one eye some character in a Rogers Peet suit, passing out flyers at the corner. He had a small table set up and a sign hung on the front. MAX YOUR PO INSTEAD, Some kind of anti-war gig I figured, and headed inside.
Smoke of all notions hit me like perfume as I stepped out of the ozone into the pressure chamber. Once my peepers adjusted for night vision I made out the personnel on board. In the far distance Warhola’s full moon hair beamed through the night. Candy and Jackie had been bookending him but now they got up and were making for the stairs. Judging from the pudding bowls at the far end of the bar I reckoned Mancusian talent passing through town had dropped by to judge the competition. Closer still huddled the usual gaggle of Brooklyn tomatoes and Bronx bagel babies, decked out in their slickest Serendipity flash. If you didn’t choke on hayseeds those farmgirl charms could warm the coolest heart. In the middle of the action were my two most usual suspects, and I gladhanded cheer all around.
“What’s happening, hepcats?” I asked, doffing my homburg, and calling for the drink that hits the spot.
“Walter,” Trish said. “Where’ve you been hiding?”
“Here there everywhere,” I said. We pecked cheek and did the vertical rub. Trish and I were hard on the sheets not that long ago but when she showed too much interest in how, exactly, I harvested my cabbage, I took to the fields. Knowledge is danger, knoweth the man, and I doubted she’d have approved of my every escapade. Even so we remained tasty pals. She was wanton that night, a flame-haired vixen, smoky and dazzling, total Gernreich on the hoof. As I eased my paw down her treacherous rear slope I found myself as always sliding across a Lothrop and Stoddard unitock. Trish had spent her heedless youth in a stately Wayne Manor out on the Philly main line, and the domestication clung. “What’s with the girdle, Myrtle?” I said. “I’ll need brushes to keep the beat on this tom-tom.” Our compadre Borden lounged close by, swilling with a smile, his fedora’s awning hanging low. As usual he rode out in standard Fourteenth Street undertaker drapes. Good to see he’d regrown his chin shrub, made him look like a top shrink doing field work. Over time I’d clipped my own hedge down to its most nefarious essential. Kittens purr like mad when you brush their fur with the old pussy tickler.
“How deep’s the scene, my brother?”
‘subcutaneous,” he said, a man of select words.
“You’ve been missed,” Trish said, playing bumpercars with my hip.
“Just a weekend cruise,” I said. “Felt like a month.” A sudden flood of would-be cognoscenti streaming in threatened to do a Johnstown on us. Felt like I was taking the Sea Beach Express on the fourth of July. We started sliding our feet to the rear of the bus, trying to miss the wave.
“Care to divulge?” she asked.
“Lips, ships,” I said, shaking my head. Realized, scanning the room, that I half-expected to spot my silent Cals floating somewhere over the backbar, trying to find space before coming in for a landing. Wished I’d upped the dosage on my nerve tonic. “I earn my gold stars. You?”
‘mother’s pearl,” she said. “You have to ask?”
“When’s showtime?” No sooner did I wonder than I felt the vibes ripple through the floor, and saw the lamps start to shake.
‘shortly. Let’s move,” said Trish, and with Borden we carved a path through the wall of superfluous flesh, making for the ascent. “I’ve been on tiptoes all day looking forward to this. They’re so fabulous.”
“Utmost,” said Borden, playing jungle guide as he led us off. “Utmost fabulousity.”
Hard to slouch walking up stairs, but he pulled it off. “After you,” I said to the beauteous one, keen to see what lay under that doily she’d wrapped around her waist, but my chivalry went begging.
‘my turn to take the scenic route,” she said, pointing upwards. ‘scamper.”
I did. Once we topped out we parked ourselves next to sweet Candy and ever-charmless Ondine, near the front. The band kicked off Venus In Furs and we let our heads fill up. The usual goofball light show was in progress, the band looked as if it were being attacked by yellow amoebas. Sterling stood there strumming away, Cale did his Bob Wills on Seconal bit, crazy Angus wandered back and forth whacking that Tibetan oildrum and weaselly Lou glowered like a nine-year-old looking to get spanked. Blondie sat off in the corner slapping her tambourine and making with the teutonics. I was just starting to settle in for a long decadent night when I heard Trish shouting at Borden.
“New girls in town, must be.”
“Tres wild,” Borden shouted back. “Canadian?”
“Hardly,” Candy said; even though she tried to whisper, her voice always carried. I turned in what had become an unexpectedly popular direction. That was it, listeners. I saw them, and I was sunk.
“Check the ensembles,” Trish told Candy. “These girls can shop,”
The little one – five four, near as I could tell – was severely mod, and radiated cuteness. Hair Sassooned, eyes raccooned. The white go-gos were strictly 1967 but I wasn’t going to argue with the Nancy Sinatra look. Her mini kept riding up over the shoreline but that gave her something to do with her hands. Most inviting indeed, but that night it was hard not to savour the lure of the economy size. At first I thought Little Mod’s gal Friday was tall as Sterling, maybe six four. Then I realized she was taller.
“What’s that on her hip?” Borden asked.
“Looks like a whip,” Trish said. “Gerard’s understudy?”
“Nobody told me,” Candy said.
Big Girl’s queenly strut distracted the audience and even the band, but they kept playing. As she and Little Mod crossed stage front Lou swallowed his lines but recovered nicely and nobody really noticed. For the first time in her life Nico demonstrated a facial expression. I guided my mouth towards charming Miss Darling’s ear. “Candy, my brother sister. Is that a him?”
She shouted into my own receiver. “Goodness, no. She’s real.”
“The hands,” she said, glancing at her own, frowning.
‘muchas thankas, my angel.”
Where she wasn’t black, Big Girl was blonde. She drew her crowning glory up in thick golden ropes tied in a topknot. Over her birthday buxotica she wore beatgirl tights, though hers covered arms as well as legs. She hid her hands in fingerless gloves and her stems in boots of shiny shiny leather. No question she was blessed in the torso department. The plastic shell she’d squeezed herself into clung to her soft centre like frozen chocolate. Knobs big as desk erasers tipped her rocket launchers. Sunnyside up, she was unsinkable, and miraculous to behold, but I favour mine over easy. When Little Mod aimed for the stairs, Big Girl followed and I caught the full rear view in Cinerama. You could stack a week’s dishes on that shelf.
‘my brothers. My sisters,” I mumbled, feeling that the window for action was a narrow one indeed. “The pink ray’s nailed me. Please excuse.”
‘don’t waste valuable resources, Walter,” Trish said.
“Rugmuffins,” Borden muttered, giving them the fisheye as they headed downstairs. “Tag team, I’d guess.”
“You’ll be sorry if you try,” she said. “Those praying mantises will bite your head off.”
“Tiny tiny,” I shouted as I left. “Tiny whips of leather.” Once I’d barrelled back down to the first floor I swivelled in every direction, trying to pick them out in the crowd until I caught them in my beam. Wasn’t hard to spot the big one, archons willing. The ladies looked like they were still fishing, and hadn’t seen that I was ready to take the bait. I was just circling in for the thrill when some Long Island desk jockey who’d mistaken the place for an Automat came out of nowhere and made a move on Little Mod.
“You got a pencil?” I heard him ask her. She shook her head. “I need to write down your phone number.”
The little one looked at him like he was a dead cat. For the first time I noticed she was packing some kind of transistor in her hand. New model, I supposed, all black and shiny as Big Girl’s boots. She had turned around to see what delayed her little friend. El Dopo, figuring out that he wasn’t getting anywhere with his original target, now turned his attentions to the secondary, with as much charm and success. “How’s the weather up there?”
I was close enough now to hear the full script. “Exit,” the big one told him. She had the voice of an eight-year-old but the lung power of a nursery. “Presence undesired.”
“Excuse me?” he said, pulling a Bennett and going all smirky. Just as I was ready to cut in on this dance my gut told me I should hesitate, and I did.
“Fly the coop,” Little Mod said. “Offer service elsewhere.”
“You’re the ones look like you’re selling,” I heard him say, obviously taking the wrong turnoff. “What is this, sugar? Only dykes need apply?”
Big Girl raised her little voice. Half the room turned to look, and then the same half of the room turned deaf mute. ‘motherfuck you,” she broadcast. I looked around for Max’s bouncers, but they’d evidently taken the hen’s teeth route. The would-be charmer deflated, somewhat, but he puffed back up in no time at all. That was his mistake. He put his paws on Big Girl’s knobs as if wanting to tune in the ballgame. “Look, honey,” he said, pinching them, “you come prancing around like this and you might as well put a sign on your ass saying, for sale –”
Big Girl clicked her elbows against her sides as if getting ready to have her posture checked. Two small metal umbrellas suddenly appeared on the backs of the wiseguy’s hands and snapped open. Looked like it was a carnival trick until I saw the blood start to run down onto his cuffs. Big Girl licked her lips. His knees buckled, but he was held in place. Maybe he wanted to scream; maybe he couldn’t feel it, yet. My own interest in the ladies was fading fast, and I thought I’d better get out while the getting was good. I nearly had but as her would-be inamorata’s knees started buckling, my personal interest faded like ink in the sun. I’d nearly sneaked by them when Little Mod spotted fresh prey. Looking in my direction, she tapped her moll’s arm.
“Him,” I heard her say, staring directly at me. Big Girl made with the elbows again; Casanova came loose and hit the floor. Only then did he let out with a wail that would have deafened a banshee. Onlookers gave him the Kitty Genovese treatment, and pretended to sleep standing up. Before I could get any closer to the door Big Girl had put me in her vice, and no matter how hard you run, you can’t get traction on air.
“Pacify,” she said, hauling me up like a side of beef. “Presence essentialled, comprendo?”
“Klaatu barada nikto,” I stuttered, unable to elaborate.
“Your place,” said Little Mod, leading the way. “Let’s go.”