Today I am Happy to feature an excerpt from Margo Christie’s novel, These Days, These Days is a semi-autobiographical romp down memory lane on Baltimore’s world-famous “Block.” in 2012, it won Second Place in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award and Publisher’s Weekly Independent Review described it thusly: “As original as it is addictive…A truly compelling read that is worthy of high praise.” She will be reading locally at several upcoming dates, so I suggest you go check her out in person:
Wed. May 7, 7-9 pm @ The Ivy Bookshop: Balto-rama series part II, features several Baltimore-centric authors.http://www.theivybookshop.com/
Fri. May 9, 7 pm, The Annapolis Bookstore, 35 Maryland Ave., Annapolis. http://annapolisbookstore.com/
Sat. May 10, 5 pm, LitMore Literary Arts Center, Reading/Signing THESE DAYS, along with poet Shirley Brewer.http://www.litmore.org/
On the Shoulders of Legends
August on the Block dragged by hot and sleepy, with sales lower than any month yet. Lenny said men took their families on vacation during the summer, but would be back with an appetite for some real fun in September. Meanwhile, beer orders were smaller, tips were fewer, and Lacy rarely needed Becky’s help behind the bar. Afternoons languished in pointless activity – Nails painted over and again, bold new hairstyles debuted to an empty room. Girls bitched that the rent was due and their regulars hadn’t been all that regular, and Lenny treated everyone to a coffee and a hot dog, sending Snail or Pocket Change to Pollock Johnny’s because two minutes on those steamy streets would have him sweating through his shirt. Then he and Lacy would chat up the good old days, and Becky would rest her hand on his thigh to hear the stories she loved: spicy ditties about the burlesque queens who’d come before her, waxed with loving nostalgia, like her father’s tales of life in the Big Apple.
There was the one about Belle and the Mayor of Philadelphia putting her up in Philly’s finest downtown hotel when she featured at The Globe, and then sending the bill to some construction hot shot who’d been vying for a city contract. And the one about the guy who brought Pearl Diamond flowers every night for two solid weeks, each bouquet bigger than the last, until the dressing room at The 408 was so full of roses and carnations the girls couldn’t breathe in there. Pearl got mad and tossed them all in the alley, then told the guy to bring furs and jewelry or don’t even bother. He did as he was told, and she amassed two mink stoles, a fox coat, and a diamond bracelet before he finally gave up on her.
And then there was Salle LaSalle, who’d gotten so inspired by Pearl’s bravado she tried the same thing on a pitiful sap who’d been sliding love notes under the dressing room door. She’d found him parked in front of her apartment one morning, a hose clamped tight to the tailpipe of his car, his head slumped over the steering wheel; one last, lingering plea scrawled in shoe polish across the windshield: “Must it always be about money?”
And who could bring up the good old days without mentioning Julius “Lord” Salisbury, King of the Block, its best-known fugitive? He’d disappeared back in ‘70, along with his yacht, after getting indicted on federal corruption charges. Lenny said “Now there was a man who knew how to run things;” and Lacy said he was running things still, from a marina somewhere in the sunny Mediterranean.
They talked about Rudy Stefano plastering the walls of the Top-Hat with every old stripper poster he could find, so that the glory days could live on, even on days like this. And they talked about how the Block was segregated back then, Lenny turning to Becky to ask if she’d ever wondered why there were no black dancers in those posters.
“The colored joints were in the colored neighborhoods,” he said, before she had a chance to even ponder it. “And the Block was white. Not a nigger to be found anywhere, unless you count the maids some of the big names travelled with.”
Cringing at the word that made her cringe every time her step-mother used it, Becky raised a hand, ready to take a playful swat at his arm. But then she glanced over at Lacy – birdlike chest held high, righteous stare letting her know she’d best keep her place – and let her hand drop to her thigh. Lenny chatted on about the handful of dancers he called “half-breeds;” light-skinned blacks that faked accents and used names like Betty Bonita and Little Pocahontas, names designed to pass them off as something other than colored.
“Speaking of,” he said, smoke curling into his mouth. “Remember the one that did song-and-dance numbers at Lucky’s?”
“The one that called herself Cubana?”
“That one. Faked a good Spanish accent ‘til she got drunk, then the ghetto came through loud and clear. What was her name?”
Thumbs hooked in Wrangler denim; Lacy leaned back on the beer coolers, waiting for her boss to figure it out. Lean Cuban hips rolled across Becky’s memory, and she almost uttered Teri’s name. But then she stopped herself. What if there were other singing Cubanas? She didn’t like the way Lacy clucked; the way Lenny chuckled and called her ‘cute’ when she tried to talk about things she couldn’t possibly know.
“Teri the Canary,” he finally said. “She’s back, you know. Working at the downstairs Gayety. Now there’s one’s seen better days.”
Just then the door swung open. A customer walked in, blinking toward the stage until his eyes adjusted. Fancy called, “Have a seat, handsome,” and Lenny stood, hands clapping then rubbing each other – Somebody needed to be on that stage. Becky stood, felt blood rush from her head then sat back down. Her father’s old flame was right around the corner! What if her dad was back in town, too? She took a swallow of ice water; felt Lenny’s breath tickle her ear.
“Get up there for me, will you, honey?”
“I don’t feel so well,” she said, holding her stomach.
“Just one song, angel. Fancy’s working that guy for a drink. Give ‘em a little ambiance.”
When Becky stripped, to swinging horns and move-defining stops, for a crowd of well-dressed weekday men who rewarded her with dollar bills and eyes that dreamed of filling Lenny’s shoes, she loved her role as his favored performer. But now, watching Fancy and her customer settle into a booth – her hand where no one could see it, his eyes lapping at Becky – she felt creepy. She wasn’t “a little ambiance” for getting down-and-dirty in front of everyone. She was a striptease artist, a star of the caliber of Belle Legend and Pearl Diamond; and Teri Canary, her first and only real mentor, who not only danced, but sang, too; Lenny’s remembrance of “song and dance numbers at Lucky’s” having breathed new life into a memory she’d let die. Tossing her boa into a useless heap in the corner of the stage, Becky shed her gown and danced her “one good song,” in a bra and G-string, with gyrating hips and little for the imagination.
Flinging her gown onto the dressing room table, she dropped onto the bench and snuggled into her boa, shivering in the air conditioning that Lenny always kept too cold. The door swung open and he glided toward her, Bromo-Seltzer fizzing in a glass. She swilled it, swiping her lips with the back of her hand as she stared into his midsection, past the fine fabric of his expensive shirt to the diamond-shaped sweep of soft, dark hair she familiarly loved, extending downward from his rippled abdomen; sexless now, as she thought about doing to him what Fancy did to that customer.
“So what if she was half-black?” she said, looking away. “She could dance and sing.”
“My angel,” he said, stroking her cheek. “Always worried about something she don’t know. How many times I gotta tell you? These girls down here, they dig their graves and dive right in.”
“But I do know. I know Teri Canary. She was Cuban, from Miami. She and my dad were on their way down there when he…” She bit her lip against the word she still couldn’t say. “I need to see her. You have to take me there.”
Head shaking, Lenny chuckled. “Teri the Canary. Never knew the old man went for dark meat.”
Fists balled, Becky banged them into his legs, conscious of his groin and not hard enough to really hurt. He let her wail at him a few times, then gripped her elbows and pulled her up into his arms.
“I’ll take you there,” he whispered into her hair. “But I’ll tell you right now you’re not going to like what you see. Teri was what you might call easy to love, especially if you were holding a bag of pot or a few pills.”
“She was his favorite,” she cried, adding, “Mine, too,” as her fist found his chest. He grabbed it, raised it to his lips and kissed each knuckle, slowly, lingeringly, until she unwound her fingers, sobbing, “I love you,” again and again.
In the 400-block of East Baltimore Street – the light-speckled strip, the real Block – where a guy could duck out of one joint and into another in the time it took to light a smoke, there was only one place Becky had seen on the inside. That was Lucky’s Cabaret, where Pops twisted the horn-brandishing, band-leading image she’d held of her father into an unmistakable question mark when he told of a piano man named Burly and his trumpeter, a cat called Shuggie. The rest of the 400-block was a dirty mystery; club after club of sleaze so cheap and close Lenny didn’t want her tainted by even a passing glance. She was safe with Buck at Stage Door Johnny’s – The rowdies tended to stick to the strip – and safer still with him, since sleaze needed crud to flourish, and his new Showcase was classy and clean.
When he led her down a trash-strewn stairwell then through a black-painted door into a dank room beneath the theater that was once the classiest burlesque house in town, Becky wasn’t shocked to see an empty stage. The girls at the downstairs Gayety – some overweight and not-so-pretty, all beyond their prime – found it best to dance mere inches from the hands that stuffed dollars into their garters, if dancing was what you’d call the splay of flesh Becky saw in two or three places along the top of the bar. She wasn’t shocked when she saw a naked girl on a barstool, either, flanked though she was by men who couldn’t seem to get enough of her. Lenny had described this place and its indiscretions to a T. What did shock her was that a sleazy hole-in-the-wall like this would be where she’d find the bronze goddess Teri Canary, slinking out of a dark corner booth, absently tucking bills into her bra as two back-slapping men walked away from her.
Teri was a mixer, like Tiny Dancer, a 40-something friend of Cookie who worked for Buck. If ever Tiny was tiny or a dancer, it must’ve been long ago. These days she weighed about one-sixty-five – too large for a first- or even a second-rate show – with big, floppy breasts she brushed against a man’s arm when she approached, whispering words that rendered small-talking splits a waste of time. Tiny was perfect for what Cookie called baiting: A sweet young thing like Becky getting a guy hot and bothered with promises, a real worker like Tiny moving in at the last minute. But Buck, like Lenny, kept things discreet, the monthly “insurance” payments guaranteeing nothing against the stupidity that could get a place busted; the flagrant stupidity Becky saw now, as Teri moved toward them in a tight yellow dress that accentuated her large, brown nipples, vacating the booth so the naked girl and her two men could take her place.
“Teri,” Becky cried, reaching for her arm. Lenny pulled her back, whispering “Wait.”
Molasses waves cropped to shoulder-length frizz, shapely bronze shoulders thin and hanging, Teri looked worn, half-closed eyes locating the female voice that had called her name, but moving on, to the bar full of indiscriminate men.
“You bring me something good, Lenny, or you just here to see how the real money’s made?” a deep voice called.
Becky glanced at the bar. A tattooed woman, as broad-shouldered as Lenny, winked back.
Pulling Becky along, Lenny leaned across the bar to whisper that they had business with Teri Canary, but they’d make it quick.
“Who’s the young one?” the barmaid wanted to know.
“A new girl, learning the ropes,” Lenny said. The woman gave Becky a skin-crawling once-over then shouted Teri’s name.
Teri sashayed over, hooked one hand into Lenny’s arm and absently stroked Becky’s with the other. “I like your girlfriend,” she said with a hungry grin. “You like to see me please her?” She rolled her eyes in feigned rapture then flicked her tongue between her teeth. Burgundy lipstick bled into tiny creases above her lips, and she was missing a prominent top tooth. Becky closed her eyes, wanting to cry.
Lenny offered his hand. “I’m Lenny Moss, Teri. Maybe you remember me, maybe you don’t. What matters is this is Becky Shelling. She thinks maybe you know something about her father, Ernie.”
“Dios Mio! Becky?” Crossing her arms over her erect nipples, Teri stepped back and studied Becky squint-eyed. “Why you here, Becky? This place is no good for girl like you.”
The barmaid cleared her throat. Teri glanced that way, and the woman shook a pudgy finger. Giving Becky’s elbow a squeeze, Lenny slipped a five out of his money clip and started for the bar.
“Now you’re talking my language,” the barmaid purred. Snapping up the five, she barked “Five minutes, Canary Girl.”
Becky watched the woman wiggle her heft onto a stool at the far end of the bar; then she turned her attention to Teri. “I work down here now, at the Showcase, over on Gay. That’s Lenny’s new club. You could work there, too.” Taking Teri’s hand, she turned to Lenny. “It’s classy, isn’t it Len? Like in the old days.”
Rubbing her face like a snotty, dirty child, Teri swayed close to Becky’s ear. “Wanna know about the old days, daughter?” she whispered. “We danced real pretty and they still called us whores. Nowadays we cut out the fancy stuff and give ‘em what they come here for. That’s what this Block is really all about.” With a toss of her head at Lenny, she added: “Don’t believe me, just ask your fancy friend.”
Her speech drained of its Spanish edge, this Teri was more Ernestine Castle than displaced Cubana, and Becky wondered if Lenny wasn’t right about her mix of “breeds.” Pulling her aside, he whispered that she’d better hurry up and get to what she came here for.
“Is my father dead?” Becky blurted.