“Oh God,” said red-haired Hannah. “It’s your friend. Who likes to read books.”
I looked over: There stood Henry on the other side of the velvet ropes that separated the bar from the dancing area. Swaying slightly on the balls of his feet, cradling a shot glass in his palm.
Marder had brought some business acquaintances to the Orpheum Dance Palace that night, and I had hand-selected the ladies at his table. Ones most likely to pass—at least, in the right light—as real human girls. Ones who would be amenable when it came to splitting the take.
At the words “your friend,” Marder’s ears twitched and grew an inch. “If he’s your friend
, June, we must invite him to the table,” he said.
“So kind,” I murmured. “I would describe him as more of an acquaintance. He’s rather a dull man. Obsessed with the Nordics—Strindberg, Knut Hamsun. Not really our sort.”
“Oh, no,” Marder said. “I insist. Look at that domed forehead. Suggests well-developed intuitive faculties! Possibly literary abilities, too.” And he snapped his fingers as if they could somehow be heard over the relentless jangle of the steam piano.
But Henry didn’t need a sound cue; he’d been watching us intently, only pretending to be distracted. He pantomimed delightedly, Who me?
and disappeared into the throng, materializing half a second later by my side.
I looped my arm through Marder’s. “Henry Miller, I’d like you to meet an old, dear friend—“
“Any friend of June’s,” said Marder.
The reek of alcohol was unmistakable.
“I see you’ve
been enjoying yourself tonight,” I said.
“A birthday party,” Henry said. “Though I tell you—I brought a knife to a gunfight.” He grinned.
Marder grinned back. “Why don’t you two dance?”
“Oh, no—“ Henry and I said simultaneously.
I looked down.
“I’d feel as though I were intruding,” Henry continued. “And after you’ve been so gracious inviting me to your table.”
“I like to watch,” Marder said with a rapacious smile.
The steam piano was struggling with Bambalina
. Henry had still not learned to foxtrot. “Well, he seems like a fine chap,” he murmured into my hair. “One of your admirers, I suppose?”
“He’s been very good to me,” I said. “He nursed me when I was very ill.”
“Was that the bout of consumption? Or the time you came down with diphtheria?”
“You mustn’t make him jealous,” I said. “He likes to pretend he’s in love with me—“
“Pretend?” Henry said. “What’s the difference between being in love and pretending
to be in love? You look very beautiful tonight, by the way.”
“We’ll talk about this some other time,” I said and, by way of mollification, took one of the red roses I was wearing at my bosom and stuck it in his buttonhole.
give you those? Must have been diphtheria then. If it had been consumption, he would have given you camellias. Come to the theater with me tomorrow night.”
I squeezed his shoulder.
He danced me around to the faded velvet banquette where the girls sat trading gossip between dances, and I felt their eyes on me when he tried to kiss me. “Don’t,
” I said.
“Tomorrow then,” he said, dropping my hands.
I expected to see him standing near the balcony staring at me when I got back to the table but if he was, he’d let the crowd disguise him. Swallow him right up.
“Well, I must powder my nose!” red-haired Hannah announced. “June! Come with.” And she dragged me to the water closet, which wasn’t a closet at all but a cavernous chamber with one foul pedestal and a broken sink. There were one girl there already, furiously dabbing at a stain on her white dress.
“Jesus, can you believe?” the girl said. “He spent on me. Be shootin’ his load all over me new dress.”
“And that’s why I only accept fast dances,” said Hannah, squatting on the pedestal. “When you add up the laundry charges, the extra money’s not worth it. Dangerous game, you’re playing there, June. You have it pretty good with Marder. He never even touches you.”
“I didn’t ask him to come—“
“Bitch in heat don’t ask the mad dog to come round neither,” Hannah said. “But he finds her. All I’m saying is be careful.”
“I don’t need your advice,” I said.
“No?” said Hannah. She retained her good humor. You could always rely upon Hannah to retain her good humor. That’s why I chose her so often to sit at the tables I organized. That and her red hair which naturally inspired the interest of those gentlemen predisposed to believe, As above, so below.
“You need this, though,” Hannah said. She had one of those swivel-up lip salves from France. Lipsticks
, they were called. It was bright, bright red. The way it rose and retracted in its gleaming gold case reminded me of a cock.
Hannah painted my mouth in a perfect Cupid’s bow, and stepped back to admire her handiwork.
I tried to kiss her.
She slapped my hand. She was laughing, but the slap was meant to hurt.
And it did.
“Make up your mind, girl,” she said.
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