When you don’t know how you feel about someone, and you haven’t seen him in a while, you lie to yourself about what he looks like. In my mind, Henry Miller had grown quite handsome.
So I was shocked to see how plain he looked, how small, how insignificant, huddled in the recess between the drugstore’s two display windows, checking his watch, then two seconds later, checking it again. He clutched a limp bouquet of roses; his fingers looked freakishly slender, his hands looked abnormally small. I almost turned around and fled. I don’t know why I didn’t.
Instead, I waved to him airily from the other side of the street. He didn’t see me. Too busy checking that watch. I sauntered through the traffic, never minding to make sure the cars would stop—they always did—and stood six feet away from him. He still didn’t see me.
“Excuse me, Mister,” I said. “Do you happen to have the time?”
He began to smile the pleasant smile of someone who genuinely enjoys dispensing small kindnesses, and then he recognized me.
“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” he said.
“That makes two of us,” I said. “But here I am. Where would you like to go?”
He studied the display of Egyptian cigarettes and the sign for Velvet Kind Pure Ice Cream in the drugstore window. He snuck a shy sideways glance at my shoes. “These are for you,” he said, shoving the flowers toward me.
“We’ll go to Jimmy Kelly’s,” I said.
We took a cab to Sullivan Street where a blacksmith shop had recently been converted into a speakeasy by Mr. Kelly who, as a Captain in Greenwich Village’s Tammany Machine, was immune from prosecutors intent upon enforcing the Volstead Act. The place served genuine Canadian booze and featured a floorshow of sorts. Florrie had danced there briefly, but the tips were better at the Orpheum.
“And how have you been?” I asked magnanimously once my bourbon was in front of me.
“Well, you know. I’ve been working. And I’ve been writing letters to you.”
“Where to you work?”
He laughed. “Oh, your basic portal to hell, cunningly disguised as a profit-making enterprise. I like to call it the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company. It calls itself Western Union.”
“What do you do there?”
“I listen to the shit that’s served up to me with a pleasant if somewhat vacant smile upon my lips,” he said. “I understand that the sounds I’m forced to endure are the little bleating noises that well-intentioned herbivores make as they gather round their Serengeti waterhole and that I, too, am an herbivore. I bleat when I’m required to bleat, and I forbear.”
What effective rejoinder was there to that? “You should be a writer,” I said.
He laughed. “I like to talk, and I like to read. Does that mean I’d like to write?”
“If you write what you like to read the way you like to talk,” I said.
“Let’s dance,” he said.
His dancing hadn’t improved any in the four days we’d been apart. In between tromping on my insteps and fighting off the impulse to clamp his moist and slightly trembling hand more firmly upon my rump, he kept up a stream of sotto voce stories about the other couples in Jimmy Kelly’s polished glide zone. That one was a prostitute and her pimp. That one there was a gambler and the missionary who’d sworn to reform him. Those two were transvestites—the one in the three-button suit was the lady, the one in the plunging gown was the man. There was Adolph Hitler who’d flown secretly to New York to keep a secret rendezvous with Florence Harding—she’d stood him up. I laughed.
I don’t like to laugh, but I couldn’t help it.
The more I laughed, the more relaxed he became. The more relaxed he became, the more tense I became.
We drank more bourbon. A lot more bourbon.
“Tell me about yourself,” he asked. And then, he laughed. “That’s such an awkward request. Don’t tell me about yourself. Let me tell you about yourself.”
“But you don’t know anything about me,” I said.
“I know English isn’t your native language. I know you grew up among strangers. I know no one has ever loved you the way you deserve to be loved. That’s a start, isn’t it?”
A man three tables away was staring at us. Staring at me. I could tell he was a Jew. Impeccably got up in pearl-grey pinstripes and an immaculate white shirt with a high-buttoned collar. A white linen handkerchief peeking from the pocket of his suit jacket. Sitting alone at his table. Staring at me. Had he followed me there?
“We need to leave,” I said to Henry Miller.
“Leave?” he said.
“You need to pay,” I told him.
I pushed him hard, and he almost fell off his chair.
“But I only have a couple of dollars on me,” he said mildly.
“Give them a check,” I suggested. “You’re here with me. They’ll accept it.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt that. But, you see, I don’t own a checkbook. In fact, my only asset is my salary. Also”—he looked at me sideways—“I’m married. I have a kid. I might as well make a clean breast of it to you.”
“I see,” I said.
He held up a single finger. “But I never run out of ideas. In fact, I have one now. Do you know if there’s a telephone in this establishment?”
“There is a coin-operated booth near the facilities.”
“Excuse me for just one moment then.” He made me a little bow as he rose from his chair, and he lurched off in the direction of the bar.
If Henry Miller didn’t return, I thought, I would have to approach the man in the pinstriped suit. Now that I thought about it, the man in the pinstriped suit looked like that Jewish millionaire from Rivington Street, the man my mother fancied from the old neighborhood. The man my mother thought was giving her money except that I was the one giving her money, and my head was swirling from too much bourbon, too many foxtrots underneath the scalloped dome with its glistening chandelier that swirled over Jimmy Kelly’s dance floor. He wasn’t real though, was he? That millionaire? Could you lie someone into existence?
“It’s going to be fine,” Henry Miller told me, crashing back to the table. “Although it may take a few moments. Would you like to dance some more?”
“No? What’s wrong, June?”
“Wrong? Why nothing. Nothing. Except—“ I was surprised to find myself gasping for breath. “I’m not who you think I am. You think I’m a taxi dancer. That I sell myself. But I’m a gypsy. From an old, old family. From an ancient line that dates back to before the time of the Romans. No one will ever own me—“
“Stop,” Henry begged, and he reached over and took my hand. “I think you’re brilliant,” he said simply.
An old man in an ill-fitting blue uniform and a billed cap with a satchel slung over one shoulder marched up to our table and handed Henry a crisp stack of bills. “Western Union” read the metal badge on the old man’s cap
“Creighton!” whooped Henry. It was amazing how quickly he could pass from the depths of tortured emotion to the good-humored bonhomie of a foot solider a safe distance from the war. “And how’s business? Saved any lost souls recently?”
“A few, Miller. A few. Likely, I’ll save yours, too, if you’re not careful.”
“Oh, I’m always careful, Creighton. Prudence and Circumspection—my second and third names.”
The old man shot a shrewd, disapproving look my way. “Likely you’re not, but the Good Lord loves you just the same. Say, Miller, will a half C be enough? Just say the word. Because I’d be proud to lend you something out of me own pocket. It would be a pleasure to be of assistance to you.”
“Why, I will say a word, and that word will be, ‘Thank you.’ Two words: ‘Thank you, brother.”
Three words, I thought.
The old man pressed more bills into Henry’s hands. He didn’t look at me again.
Henry grabbed the money and settled the bill, left a generous tip for the waiter. He shook hands with the waiter. And with the manager. And with the assistant manager, the cigarette girl, the hat check girl. The bouncer yawning over a cigarette, he pounded on the shoulder, standing on the tips of his toes to murmur something into the giant man’s ear that made him spit with laughter.
Prairie dawn breaks over the roofs of the tenements, warehouses, factories, and dilapidated warehouses of the West Village. Henry sits a respectful six inches away from me in the back seat of the cab. He has the audacity to smile at me.
“But this is what you really want, isn’t it?” I say, and I stick my hand down the front of his pants. He gasps. His cock jumps and spits, but his eyes look dazed. I unbutton his fly, make the necessary arrangements in my own underclothing. Straddle him.
The cab takes a sharp corner too fast: Henry’s teeth knock against my teeth. I hear a crack. He groans and gives a little shake. Withdraws.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” he say.
“Don’t stop,” I say.
He nods, still dazed. The base of his cock is slick and slippery; I squeeze it, and he begins to engorge. He thrusts it into me; the cab takes another corner.
Out the back window of the cab, I spy a grand black car. Brilliant chrome wings jut out from a circular emblem on its elongated hood. A Duesenberg. You have to be rich to drive a Duesenberg. I can’t quite make out the driver’s face. I hide my face in Henry’s shoulder, but it’s too late: The driver has seen me.
The man in the pinstripes from the club.
Henry shudders and stills.
“Wait, wait,” I beg.
“The sun’s coming up, June,” Henry tells me gently.
“Please, please –“
He works his hand into my crotch. Relief. But when I open my eyes again, the car is still right on our tail.
“Someone’s following us,” I tell Henry. “No, don’t look. Driver, please. Go faster.”
“Lady, I’m juicin’ her as much as I can,” says the driver. “Can’t give her anymore. I got a wife and kid at home.”
“June, June, the girl in the moon,” says Henry, “who eats my heart with a rusty spoon. Everything is jake. Everything is fine –“
But he was lying.
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