Dan sat in the blue velvet seat and pushed his hair back.
He shouldn’t have run. He should have checked the time, that’s what. Running a finger on his neck, he felt the familiar wetness of perspiration drip off and into his cotton wing tipped dress shirt.
The woman next to him wore a light pink dress, her collar of tulle seeming to blend into her finely powdered collarbone. It hung around her smartly, shoulders free except for two dangling strings of rose jasper that clicked against the metal lining of the seats. Strung on in the front in neat crescents were even more beads, and to Dan’s delight, embroidered peacocks sat on the skirt, as if posing for their coronation portrait.
Up on the stage in front of him a mass of trumpet was already blaring back at him, sliding and dancing against the piano. The pianist shook his hands as if his playing was determined by hair speed alone, languid at the soft parts and violent when blasted against the trumpets. His eyebrows too inched up as if unimpressed with Gershwin, shaking his head as any pedestrian would on the streets of New York. It filled Dan with momentary joy to see such a spectacle of sound and character, and at the whine of the trombone, his face blew into an unmasked smile.
The sweat was merely hysterics.
“Say, would you hear that,” he whispered as he shook his head in disbelief.
The blonde woman next to him nodded. “It’s all quite something.”
It was only a few weeks ago Dan had been down at the hotel, reviewing columns for the New York Journal when Harry Peters passed down the paper.
“Read that.” He pointed to a short bottom paragraph Harry had circled.
George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto, Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem, and Victor Herbert is working on an American suite.
Dan was confused until he looked back up the bespeckled eyes of anticipation. “I don’t care, Harry. Please, let me work on my editing.”
Harry ignored him. “Oh boy- you’ve just gotta go- at least to one- don’t you see-? this is the future of music right here!” He said this all in a single breath. Harry, Dan had figured out long ago, was a man who acted like the seconds coming was always just a strike of noon away.
“Er- Harry-” He doubted it. Whatever the future of music was, Dan didn’t much have the time for it anyways. His job at the Journal was what concerned him most. “Give me a few days to think about it.” That was Dan for please leave me alone until you forget.
“Oh alright, Dan.” The staunch tweed of his coat stretched uncomfortably as he hugged himself in disappointment. “But tell me if you want to go, alright?”
“Will do.” Dan put his fountain pen down to reassociate himself. Review the editorials. Put out a few new column ideas. Read the competition.
He still hadn’t left his position in front of the club’s lone oak table. “Is that all Harrold?”
“Oh-Yes. Sorry. Leaving!” Harry scampered off to the rest of the boys farther down in the wood-paneled room.
He looked back at the orchestra a tinge happier. The trumpets sure knew where life was taking them.
“We should go get a drink.” The woman whispered to Dan amidst the applause. “Oh- Your hair’s curled, Dan.”
He brought his hand up instinctively. “Oof, you’re right Alice.” He laughed “Probably should cut it again, huh?”
“Oh no, I sure like the length right now,” she attempted the press it down with thickly ringed hands. “Very Pretty.”
Dan smiled shyly at the compliment. Alice was an old society friend, her father sold life insurance to anyone and everyone with a clean set of teeth and less than a gram of dirt under the nails, even if the money in their pocket begged to differ. It provided Alice with furs that could turn heads and beading that hung in hypnotics, so uniquely oblivious to her father’s business Alice was the thousand dollar diamonds only seemed to shine brighter on her innocent little neck.
“Yeah let’s get out of here, I know a-” As the bowing stopped up on stage, Dan saw an unfamiliar man pass below the stage. His hair was long and parted, razor straight and pushed behind his ears. Furrowing out of the man’s bistre hair was a pair of delicate round tortoise shell eyeglasses, the bridge sitting on an equally unusual nose. It had the shape of a hawk’s beak, and he saw they were connected to thin nostrils. Through the glare of the glasses he caught just for a moment what he thought were blue eyes, and he marveled at the contrast the man was born with.
“Alice, do you know that man there- no see where I’m looking,” he furiously tried to point with his eyes to no avail. Alice only lightly tapped his shoulder to get his attention again.
“I don't see any tall man Dan.”
“He was just there,” he whispered angrily. “He had black hair-”
Alice tapped him again. “C’mon, let's go get a drink-”
“No!” He whipped his shoulder from her grasp. A few people looked at them curiously before turning back to clap, and Dan reddened from the scene. His dress shirt rose with a deep breath. “I'm sorry I snapped at you, Alice.” She nodded and smiled. He took it as his cue to continue. “That sounds lovely- honest. Where should we go?”
Alice continued to smile and pretended the outburst hadn't scared her the way it had. His sudden look of wild frustration had manifested in his eyes, wider than she had ever seen. She brought her gloved hands back toward her dress before continuing.
“I know a place down on Fifth just a few blocks away. It’s by the hotel so I thought we could go after that... “ She added as an afterthought, “will your father let me stay without a reservation?”
Dan allowed himself a moment to calm down before answering. “Oh, my father?” He laughed a little sardonically. “Please, even if he locked the doors and had the pigs out front I’d sneak you up the fire escape. He has a surprising eye for letting dirt get way if they happen to have the name Howell.”
The crowd was starting to file out now, thousands of little bespeckled and jeweled heads that swarmed among their money and were almost as glad to set foot onto 42nd Street, as their gowns and glitter shone briefly to the rest before retreating into their Rolls Royce’s. Dan didn’t see the black haired man among the shuffling bodies as they were leaving, and he felt a note of sadness play throughout his body.
Coming out onto the dark street the pair were glad for the overhanging tarp that hung down as a pummeling rain went down around them in sheets.
“Remind me to be a more prestigious guest when I go to events like this. Where’s Reynolds?” The chauffeur (and to a lesser extent, the Royce) was nowhere to be seen. Alice walked a little ways but came back shaking her head.
“I guess we’ll just have to come back for him.” Dan sighed and led Alice down 42nd Street, tapping his fingers against her silk gloved arm.
“Are you alright dear?” It was always Alice-like to coddle slightly, and though probably frightfully disapproved by someone, Dan– and he suspected everyone else– quite liked it. She was around 6 years older than him, and so at a comfortable distance of 24 and 18, Dan thought the dears and honeys were more of a sweet substitute for motherly affection than serious causes of worry. Alice had her beau after all, and Dan wasn’t going to get in the way of that if he could help it.
“Oh-” He hadn’t noticed his tapping. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just want to go work on the paper, that’s all.”
She turned right on 5th and attempted to shield her eyes from the downpour. “God, you know Harold would have an umbrella- You know it. Poor bird. He was so excited for tonight. You think his father could have a heart attack on a worse night. Stuck out in Nebraska, poor bird,” she repeated, as if the litany would make him appear.
“Password or card?” he asked expectantly as they neared what he believed was the stop Alice was taking him.
“Card, I can’t keep up with passwords with work. Only do passwords when I’m with the girls.” She rounded the pair at a mock delicatessen, slipping her pink beaded bag out from her fur as she made her way inside.
“Well, hello darling, who is this you’ve brought here?”
She smiled amiably before taking out an oyster color card and showing the man behind the counter. “Just a friend-”
“Wait- don’t tell me- you’re what's-his-name's son… Howell… You’re the Howell boy from across ain't ya?”
Dan forced a smile. He just wanted a drink. “Yes, sir.”
“Well, why didn’t you tell me? Come on in! New York Royalty you got here miss, wouldn’t let him go if the cat dragged him dead!”
Alice looked back as if in apology and quickly followed the owner, leading their way into a greenly lit room.
It was like the 1880s had never died. Rich tapestry lined the walls in mismatched and knotty squares, and the gaslight burned everything in it a rich green from the colored covering each wore. Women lay around, in oriental robes and bare breasts, handing customers drinks and touches amid the smoke and inebriation of men. Like angels, their lips stayed one clean color of dark maroon, their short hair untouched from the bustle of want. It was like a mix of a high-end brothel and opium den and was a haunt for the artistic types in town. Everyone fancied themselves a Van Gogh nowadays, and dissolving a sugar cube over an absinthe seemed to do it for them– Dan and Alice included.
“How poetic,” Dan drawled dryly, looking at the emerald surroundings. “I am as green as envy and the liquor can only bask in self-congratulations with it.” He was suddenly struck by how the cut flames in the absinthe spoon seemed to light aflame from the candles around him.
“Oh hush.” Despite Alice’s look of sobriety, the mean streak in her father only manifested artfully in his daughter, who could probably take more liquor than him.
Dan chuckled. “Give it here. I’m not getting any work done tonight. I want to get piss drunk.”
“That’s more like it.” Alice raised her crystal glass to his. “To our papers.”
“And to the sweet lull’s of the green fairy– I say we drink.”
When Dan stumbled out, he was surprised to find what he believed was the black Royce with
–Say– was that Reynolds?
“Mr. Howell. I thought you might be here. Forgive me for not finding you earlier. You gave no message of your whereabouts”
Dan tried to process a word of what his driver had said. A firm “take me home,” was all he could get out.
Alice got in after him without even trying to help her in, and though the hotel was quite literally across the street, they were happy to not have to navigate 5th avenue alone.
“Tired,” was all Alice could muster out, and Reynolds had to practically lift the woman off Dan to get her out.
“There there m’am.”
Once inside (and after a few scuffles), Dan let Reynolds take Alice to a guest room. While he waited for him to come back to work the elevator, he thought dimly of the work ahead of him. 1924 was going to be big year for him. These drinking stints were going to have to dry up.
“Ready to go up, sir?”
“Yes, Reynolds. Thank you.”
The floral carpet made a faint thump thump as he padded his way to his room. Dan almost ignored the mail on the little table outside his door had it not been for the mysterious gold ring and fresh gardenia strung into the hole that seemed to shine up and into his eyes. Like a miner, it struck him with a tremendous sense of energy, and instinctively he grabbed it. He inspected both lazily, even trying it on before putting it back and placing the flower in his front pocket. It must have been a mistake.
To Mr. Daniel James Howell
Dan blinked his eyes groggily at a plain, cotton paper calling card that looked up next to the ring. He took this one more carefully, eyeing the blue pen ink with a certain level of incredulity. He turned it around to see an equally unassuming print with only the initials P.M.L.
How archaic. Perhaps the absinthe is working, he thought to himself. He opened his door and placed the card on his bedside table next to a Cartier clock his coworkers at the paper had bought for him. He slipped off his tails and dress shirt and shed the black oxfords like they were skin, finally taking off iron creased black pants. The ring forgotten and the fresh flower spread against the clock, Dan dreamed a pleasant sleep of the successes of the paper and this new, black haired mystery.