“All Aboard,” a story by Susandale, was a finalist in our recently concluded 44th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author.
The dank and chilly hall echoed with a Marksmen rehearsal taking place. Lea and her spanking-new group rehearsed their music on a stage bordered by tables holding overturned chairs. And as David sat unnoticed in the dark hall, Lea’s caramel voice melted to run down the walls, and warm the empty pockets in his heart.
*Daydreams, I’ve got daydreams galore.
Cigarette ashes, there they go on the floor.”
Scooting around, he wrestled with the chair’s wooden slats and wobbly legs versus his long limbs.
And while Lea was singing the third stanza, *”Let them laugh, let them frown … “ David was plotting his exit from the trailer. He was so engrossed with his plans that he didn’t notice the satirical cosmopolite who had wandered over to stand by him.
But when he heard, “Say man, mind if I park it?,” David was startled out of his trailer-exit strategies. He looked up and into a chimerical face: calculation and camp dancing over his features. A shock of tousled hair scrambled about his head, even as a guileful grin played around the corners of his mouth.
David’s palms faced up in willingness. “Yea, err-rr no: have a seat.”
“Sam Meridan,” the stranger announced. He held out his hand for shaking.
“David Du’Jon.” On the verge of standing, but Sam was already down and curled around a chair.
Both listened while Lea sang, *Don’t you remember I was always your clown?” She sounded as though she was pinned to infatuation: David knew that he was.
Sam bumped him with his elbow. “You acquainted with the chick vocalizing?”
“Yea, I know Lea,” David replied in tight words; how dare Sam refer to Lea as a chick.
“I’d like to identify with her,” Sam said wistfully. He leaned towards David. “I’ve been draggen’ ass over here for a couple of weeks now: been trying to exchange labels with this Lea, but man-oh-man, this gal has a brother who is … “
“Conclude Sam; I am acquainted with Josh.”
Running his fingers through his messy-mop hair, Sam rocked on the back legs of the chair. “That Josh: he is some cat! He flashes on to every move his sister makes. Ten to one he’ll be a bouncer at her gigs.”
Inching himself to the front of his chair, David leaned over his knees and shook his head in surety. “Lea sing in bars? Not in our lifetimes.”
Sam propped his feet in the chair across from David. Looping his thumbs in his belt buckle, he said, “The gal’s got problems, her brother and his sidekick, Kelly, Daffy …”
“Yea, Killy: what a goofy guy. And then there’s Mark, the spokesman for the group.”
”What’s wrong with Mark?”
“He’s so yesterday, man. Lea, she is today; she has a unique way with a song.”
“Like she’s flirting and laughing at the same time.”
Sam circled a right gesture with thumb and forefinger linked. “She’s gonna’ splash when she gets over her bumps.”
“Yea, she pussyfoots around; she hedges the end of her lines like she’s uncertain where she should stop or when it’s time for her to get going again. Lea needs to push off pronto right after the intro.“
“Lea hangs back, which is to be expected. She has been held down and hampered by Josh since square one.”
Entwining the fingers of one hand with the fingers of the other, Sam cracked his knuckles while he looked hard at David “What are you, Jack, her main man?”
“That would be stretching it. And you, Sam, what is your slot?”
“What would be your guess?”
Considering, David subtracted infatuation as a reason for Sam coming to hear Lea sing. Sam was too old for Lea and Lea wasn’t his type. Lea, unopened like a rose bud, versus Sam with the lines on his face mapping a journey of rough roads.
“Maybe an agent?”
Sam peered intensely at David through his glasses, so thick that his eyes seemed to be swimming behind them like green fish in a fish bowl. “Right on,” he said back with bravado. His smirk widened into a spread-out grin. “But I got to profess, man, not many cats are as observant as you are, my man. However, I am fixing to roll that over.” While he talked, Sam spit his gum into the foil it came in. He then rolled gum and paper into a tight ball, which magically disappeared … before he tapped out another stick. The entire process Sam completed in one even motion. He didn’t miss a beat even while he talked, wrapped, tapped, chewed, and disposed of.
He continued. “In the glory days, a while back, man, I was sitting on three fronts. This is no joke, Jack, all is quondam now. My solo contract today is a broken mirror, black cat, Friday-the-thirteenth kind of gal.”
“Bad luck I take it.”
“The worst. Furthermore, she brings down anyone who has connections to her. I don’t claim her for reference; I can’t even pass her off as legit anymore.”
“Dubs herself Sheri Lou.”
“Oh yea? What do you call her?“
“Sheri Lou.” Lines of derision narrowed Sam’s eyes and anchored his mouth to a knavish grin. With eyes shimmering behind his glasses, he twisted the gum around his tongue, as he stared across the room at Lea. Both listened as she finished her second set.
Sam concluded, “I’d like to move Lea into the slots that Sheri used to fill.”
“Nothing but the best for Josh’s princess,” David mumbled. He added in a raspy whisper, “Mine too.”
Sam’s sympathetic laughter included David, who grinned in crooked abashment. “Yea man, I concluded you were all soaked up in love: agog when Lea went sliding along her sunny harmonies.”
But bored with David and his teenage crush, Sam figured that now would be the time for him to begin a fresh tale: this one about himself. “Sheri and me, we go back some: back across the Golden Gate.”
“As in San Francisco?“
Sam laughed happily. “Damn, kid; instinctively you know where you can find me.”
“I was with my old man when we laid up steel beams for a hotel on the bay. The fog, the street musicians, the trolley, the flower stands. Nice country.”
“Finest sticks anywhere,” Sam seconded in a pensive way. His voice took on virulence. “Likewise, I’d still be there iced in the company of cats and Kerouac if it wasn’t for Sheri.” Off and running, Sam huffily backtracked. “Born and bred in the city by the bay, I figured I’d be there for my lifetime. Not!”
“Me and Sheri, we had to make a hasty exit: going for good. We beat feet cross-country in my beater Ford. It smoked out of California, lickety-split. We pulled over for pit stops and grub only. Onwards, until we happened upon a place called Cleveland, Ohio. That’s where I arranged a three month gig for Sheri Lou. Then I moved on.”
“Fremont, Ohio: now there’s the sticks, my man. But even in a berg like Fremont, I got word of Sheri’s escapades. It seems that she dropped the singing gig I arranged for her and is now bumping and grinding on the East Side in what had been an old vaudeville theater. These days it’s a peep parlor for dark shades and trench coats.”
David stiffened. “I trust that is not the site that you’re thinking of moving Lea into,” he said with voice stretched tight.
Sam’s eyes crinkled in amusement at the preposterousness of David’s accusation. “Laying bare ain’t exactly what I have in mind for your pet, “ he lampooned while snapping his gum. “As a matter of fact, shucking to the skin wasn’t what I was calculating for Sheri either.”
“Long jump from piano bar to burlesque.“
“A natural leap for Sheri, which I wasn‘t on to then. I should have seen it from the start. However, I had some issues of my own, which were blinding me.”
And without telling David what those issues were, Sam hurried along. “When I first got on to Sheri, she was warbling a five-song-set on the North End of Frisco. Mondays through Wednesdays in Guido‘s Bar and Grill. The bottom line on that is — “Guido’s” was a front for numbers and dice.”
“Yea, and on Thursdays through Mondays, Sheri sang in a pub headed up by Guido’s brother, Sal. Sal, he was just moving into protection: a nickel and dime operation back then.”
David‘s nod moved Sam along.
“The Sicilian brothers were walkovers for Sheri, her legs long as their entire bodies. Moreover, Guido crept into the kitchen to catch Sal and Sheri doing the dirty deed. You can imagine the rest.”
“Yea, well Sheri was engaged to marry Guido, and there was his brother and Sheri on the butcher block, which explains that while Sal and Guido were shagging each other with cleavers, Sheri managed to escape.” Sam sneered. “No doubt, a miracle granted Sheri for her saintly life.”
“Far out,” David gasped before a perplexed look minced his features. “I can sure see why Sheri had to ride off from the bay, but why did you, Sam?“
Looking down evasively then up over his brows, sheepishness crept into Sam’s face. “Me? Well, I was saddling Sheri myself.”
To David’s startled expression, Sam rushed to explain. “I wasn’t on to Sheri being the Mafia’s clambake. The brothers knew I was her agent. I wasn’t going to hang around and find out what else that they knew.”
“Those brothers were scary! Not two minutes after Sheri showed up at my place wearing only a chef’s apron she grabbed on her way out the door, we were in my wheels burning rubber over the Bay Bridge: heading to places far off.” He sighed expansively. “And that was the last time I was in the city by the bay.”
When David saw Sam’s cockiness mellow to melancholy, he said, “There oughta’ be a way you can circle back, Sam.”
“A long shot,“ Sam returned bitterly. “If the Feds nab the brothers, maybe, but I ain’t holding my breath. Those two nickel-and-dime operators have since been ordained the sharks of North Beach, and in the four years since I left, the two of them kissed and made up. They went on to conquer and divvy up the whole north end — up to Chinatown.“
David cocked his head thoughtfully. “Sam, I think you’re making too big a deal of this. Sounds to me, Sam, like the brothers got too much happening to dwell on Sheri.“
Sam guffawed. “How easy do you think it is to draw a blank over a redhead with a mane flowing to her rump and a set of double D’s?”
Even as David shrugged his not knowing, his attention riveted over to the Marksmen and Lea. They were finishing up rehearsal, and David was smiling at Lea in a love stuck way.
Sam nudged him to get his attention. “In Cleveland she’s top billing at stag parties.”
“Sheri, that’s who, and though the mama’s past prime, she’s looking fine with pom-poms and four inch stilettos,“ Sam replied, as he preceded with another gum routine: the disposal of one stick continued on until the entry of another.
“I send Sheri her checks, book her at stags and peep shows, and indulge her with a cake she jumps out of when at bachelor parties. Whatever comes afterwards: hey, it happens.” Sam nodded in a sure way. “But I never, and I mean never, and in no way have any visceral contact with Sheri: double D‘s none withstanding.”
Unexpectedly, and from out of the blue a teasing inquiry — “What’s this about double D’s? You fellahs reciting your alphabet?”
Sam grinned. “Yea, Double D’s come after double C‘s.”
Abashedly, David looked down then up and lastly into a pair of blue-blue eyes. Standing up and almost taking the chair with him, he inclined his head towards Sam. “Another admirer, Lea: this is Sam Meridan.”
Sam nodded; his head cocked off to the side at an amused angle.
Studying Sam, Lea saw him as camp and daring. She couldn’t help but smile at the camp, but it was a hesitant smile for she felt his daring was somehow settling on her. She slid down on a chair followed by David into his; Sam hadn’t bothered to get up.
“Well, I thank you for being an admirer,” she said.
“No thanks necessary, it’s workday for yours truly. I’m habitually plugged into new sounds: yours is sunny and deep, I dig it!“
“Sunny and deep, huh?“ Lea repeated in a throatiness of depth with enough lilt to give meaning to her flirty words: Lea’s speaking voice was as intriguing as was her singing voice.
Meanwhile, the combo finished up: their notes taking flight when cigarettes were lit to glow in the dark hall. Voices and tired guffaws hung in the air. Westy was packing up his drums while MacMan was replacing a reed before he broke down his sax and interlocked it in a case. Mark closed off the piano keys.
Back to the table with the three of them connecting. “Is Mark going after bookings?” Sam prodded in a voice that sounded hollow in the cavernous hall.
“Nothing for a month, and that is if-ish.”
“Well, I can glide you into the Brown Derby: the one in Toledo,“ Sam promised her … and purposely used the word glide to make it sound easy.
Reared back, Lea sat straight up, and thought, ‘So this is the daring I’m feeling.’ And thought further. ‘I feel as if I’m on the tracks with a train coming fast. Sam is the train and speeding so fast, I wonder if he’ll stop in time. He is about to run me down on his way to scary destinations. And though I fear Sam’s quick pace, to my amazement, I am considering climbing aboard.’
“So, what do you say?“
She was too flabbergasted to speak. ‘He’s trying to take me to sudden and unknown destinations, but I didn’t plan on going this fast. I was counting on an orderly trip on my terms, on my train: Sam is shoving me into a whirlwind ride: one of his making.’
When Sam saw Lea hesitate, he said, “The Derby’s nursing a couple of pianos now: ruffled shirts fingering attic stuff. Rocky, he’s the manager: he’s antsy to move ‘em out.”
“Me sing so soon?” Her head fell forward as she considered, ‘this train’s a scary contraption rattling with unsettling noises: it is slowing down only long enough for me to climb aboard.’
Lea was amazed: she wondered where her words were coming from; her words were pushing her forward. They said, she said, “I’ve got a couple of sets shaping up.”
Sam nodded, but said nothing; his sly grin and crinkled eyes seemed to be focused on smug secrets. David squeezed Lea’s hand for affirmation.
Watching Lea, Sam saw a glow surfacing in her eyes. He said, “You can drive for two sets.” Clenching his fist in emphasis, he aimed to boost her confidence.
“Two isn’t much.”
“You can run over in the Derby piano bar. It’s a watering-hole, and the cats that congregate there do so solely to wait for their tables.“
“Take long intermissions until you build up your sets. Whatever group you’re with can fill in with a riff or two.”
Lea considered, ‘Sam, the sleek passenger car streaks on without doubt one. His wheels rush along, and they are pulling David with him.’
David jumped up and pulled a chair in front of him. Straddling it, he looked at Lea directly and said, “You sounded the best tonight, Lea. You’re ready.”
She opened her mouth to object, but nothing came out. Her eyes darted from Sam to David. ‘Should I climb aboard,’ she asked herself.
But before she could know, the gamboling conductor called out, “All aboard.“
But it sounded like, “What do you think of coffeehouses?“
‘Ticket in hand: one foot faltering on the first step.’
“Coffeehouse performers come from Mars.”
“There’s poetry and there’s folk. Folk messages are sung in angelic pitches.“
“She’s an angel,“ David averred. “She just doesn’t sound like one.“
“Yea, man.” With his hand waving in the air, Sam brushed off David. He moved closer to Lea.
*“Angel Eyes” you can do. Campuses and coffee-houses dig “Angel Eyes.”
‘My one foot elevated on the second step; the other hesitating yet on the first.’ Aloud, she said, “I don’t know “Angel Eyes,” but I guess I could pick it up, couldn’t I? Of course, I could. Why couldn’t I?”
“ **“May I Come In” is another. ***“Here’s That Rainy Day.” All of the above would be tops with your raspy renditions.”
‘Both of my feet planted on the second step while David is telling Sam that there is only one coffeehouse in Sandusky.’
“Yea man, but Fremont has a couple, and Lorain has a half dozen of ‘em. And Lorain is, as you mid-west hicks are apt to say, ’Jest around the bend‘.“
‘Two more steps to go and I will be in the door soon to slide shut; Sam’s next words are moving me up another step.’
“A mixed- bag medley is what you’ll be needing. One kind of jazz for the Derby: some snappy tunes. Another kind for coffeehouses: weepy, my man left me kind of stuff. Weddings, you’ll warble the old riffs, big band and jump for ma and pa. Today’s rock an’ roll for the bride and groom and their pals. Polish ‘em up with or without Mark. I can get you plenty of bookings, Lea: Mark, a few.” Sam’s words tumbled to fall over one another and hop scotch over to Lea.
‘Up the last step … hearing the train chuffing, the whistle blowing.’
Sam continued, “A lot of work, and still you won‘t be going to the bank anytime soon, Lea. And coffeehouse pay won’t get you much beyond free coffee. Nonetheless, young listeners are the most obliging; they‘ll season you up. Jazz singers must be comfortable with their audiences.”
‘Hesitantly stepping all the way in. The door is closing behind me, the train begins its rhythm of wheels down the track. Getting smoother, the wheels turning fast then faster …’ She shook Sam’s hand: all three on board, they chugged on.
“Angel Eyes”… Poole/Karen Ann/Mcerlaine, Michelle, Lena, Martin, Terrence James:
“May I Come In”…Fisher/Segal:
“Here’s That Rainy Day”…Van Heusen/ Johnny Burke
“Why Try To Change Me Now”…McCarthy Jr., Joseph/Coleman, Cy
Susandale poems and fiction are on WestWard Quarterly, Ken *Again, Penman Review, Inner Art Journal, The Voices Project, and Linden Avenue. In 2007, she won the grand prize for poetry from Oneswan. She has two published chapbooks on the internet: Spaces Among Spaces by languageandculture.org, and one online now, Bending the Spaces of Time by Barometric Pressure.