The Club Araby, named for Valentino's Saharan epic, promised chorus girls worthy of a sultan's palace, even if none of them had ever actually been any further east than Queens. Said chorus girls were now crowded backstage, flushed and steamy after the "Baby with the Bathwater" number, peeping through the velvet curtain at table #13.
The Egg was back.
The Egg was an irregular regular at Club Araby. He appeared just before New Year's 1923, an oily-looking bumpkin in a cheap checked suit. Gladys pegged him for a Butter and Egg Man and predicted he'd blow a wad of cash at the club and then hightail it back to a wife in Ohio, wiser and poorer for his trip to the big city. But the Butter and Egg Man didn't disappear. He came every night for two weeks, and he and Gladys got close. So close that Gladys left the line all together. “So long girls, the Egg’s going to make an honest woman of me,” she said at the going-away party they threw in the dressing room. She was wearing a new dress that Fitcher—that was the Egg’s name—had bought her, along with the diamonds in her ears and the mink stole around her shoulders. Gladys had sure hit the jackpot when she met the Egg.
Or so it seemed at the time. Because Fitcher reappeared at the club a few weeks later alone. He told Rita that Gladys had broken his heart. He told her this over lobster and caviar and champagne. A couple days later they were kissing Rita good-bye. Now the Egg was back again, sans Rita.
“I’ve got dibs on him,” Ruby whispered. “Me and Fitcher, we’ve got what they call a rapport.”
“Oh, is that what they call it?” said Ida. “News to me.”
“Clam up,” said Ruby, “or just see if I invite you out on the yacht this summer.”
“Do you really think he’s got a yacht?” said Daisy, sighing as if it was Valentino himself eating shrimp cocktail at table #13 and wiping sauce from his moustache with the back of his hand. “I’ve never been in anything bigger than the peddle boats at Coney Island.”
Only one chorus girl wasn’t impressed by Mr. Fitcher. Esther Schiller had a lot of questions about the Egg. Where did he come from? Where did he get his money? And why, once a girl left the chorus line with him, was she never seen again?
Ruby O’Malley didn’t care where Fitcher was from, only where he lived now—on Park Avenue. And he probably made his money like all the other punks she knew: bootlegging. As for why no girl ever showed her face at the club after getting dumped well, Ruby had her pride. She reckoned other gals did too.
“Wish me luck, girls,” she said when she’d slid out of her bubbles and into a slinky red number. “I’m off to lay me an egg.”
Soon a new girl had taken Ruby’s place in the chorus line next to Esther and then Fitcher was back at table #13, sending Ida pink roses, poetry and pearls.
Esther missed Ida and Ruby and Gladys, but she didn’t dare ask Fitcher about them. She stayed as far away from his table as possible. Maybe she was just jumpy, as Ida used to say, but there was something strange about that Mr. Fitcher.
She didn’t know how strange until Gil, the director, dreamed up the mermaid number. Esther, being the only harem girl who could swim, was placed in a shallow pool downstage and instructed to flop her tale seductively in time to a calypso beat while the other girls shimmied around in grass skirts and seashell brassieres. It was pretty corny as numbers went, but Fitcher ate it up sideways and demanded to meet her.
“Play your cards right and you’ll be swimming in champagne,” Gil told her, pulling her by the elbow all the way to table #13. “This is Esther, Mr. Fitcher. She’s our little mermaid.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Esther mumbled.
Up close Fitcher was even oilier. His eyes were flat and silver like old nickels and he had a face like a bowl of cold farina.
“You’re a cute little minnow,” Fitcher said, his wide mouth spreading to reveal rows tiny teeth. “Would you believe fishing was a hobby of mine?”
Fitcher took Esther’s hand in his. His palm was warm and clammy, like the inside of a mouth, but suddenly Esther didn’t mind. Nor did she mind his sharp little teeth or his tarnished nickel eyes or his cold farina face. Maybe it was the dim lighting of the Araby Club or the slow tango the band was playing in the background, but in that moment Mr. Fitcher was the bee’s knees. Who would have thought that at the Club Araby, Esther Schiller would find a real sheik?
* * *
Esther woke the next morning in a four-poster bed next to a lump which turned out to be Fitcher. She screamed.
“Good morning, darling,” he said as he rolled over and let out a belch that smelled faintly of sulphur. “I hope you slept well.”
“I slept fine,” Esther said, reaching a toe out from under the covers to gather up her clothes. “But I really must be going.”
“Oh, you have plenty of time,” said Fitcher. He wrapped a meaty paw around Esther’s shoulder, pinning her to his side. “You and I, we have all the time in the world.”
There was no escape. Esther figured that out soon enough. Whatever kind of hocus pocus Fitcher had used to get her into bed (she shuddered to think of it) also kept her from leaving the swanky apartment. Fitcher himself left for only an hour in the early afternoon and returned with boxes of new clothes and jewelry for Esther. He brought her three new gowns, all very old-fashioned, with corsets and trains that dragged on the ground.
“I want everyone to admire you at the club tonight,” he said. “Oh, not that dump where I found you, no sir. I have my own club just downstairs. A very select clientele.”
“That’s real nice of you, sweetie,” said Esther, “but I’ve got my own clothes, honest. You didn’t have to go out and get all these gladrags just for me. I could run home right now and change...”
The meaty hand clamped around her arm again, hard enough hurt. “This is your home now,” the Egg growled in her ear. He ran a finger through Esther’s bobbed hair. “Too bad there’s no time to grow this out. Ladies should wear their hair up.”
“Okay, sweetie,” said Esther. “Whatever you say.”
So Esther put on the corset and the corny green dress and the veil that covered her short hair and accompanied Fitcher downstairs to the nightclub hidden in his basement. The select clientele, as Fitcher had called them, made the drunks, brunos and gangsters at Club Araby look like choir boys. Esther considered herself a modern girl, but as Fitcher led her to a table she found herself trying to remember every folktale and bubbe meiseh her grandmother had ever told her about demons. Because she was pretty sure she had just met one or two or a baker’s dozen.
On the stage a creature with grey skin and long nails took the microphone to warm up the crowd. “Hello, dames and dybbuks! I’d like to say I’m glad to be here...I’d like to say it, but I can’t.” Ba-dum tish! “Mr. Fitcher! Good to see you back, sir. Is that a really skinny girl you’ve got with you or did you forget to check your umbrella?”
The room erupted with screeches and cackles, which Esther assumed was what passed for laughter among demons.
“No, seriously dear, it’s good to see you,” the comedian continued, pointing a claw at Esther. “I wish there was time for the two of us to get to know each other. I have the time, I’ll be here all month. But you won’t.”
The laughter this time was, if possible, even more disturbing and Esther was relieved when the emcee announced the floor show. “It is my greatest pleasure to introduce to you the act you have all been waiting for. A bevy of beauties from every borough. They sing. They dance. They’re sure to entrance. They’re the dishes delishes you wishes to kishes. They’re Fitcher’s Dancing Dolls!”
The red velvet curtain rose to reveal a chorus line of not girls, but puppets. “I think you’ll find the dancing most delightful,” Fitcher told Esther. “Like a little taste of home.”
Delightful was not the word Esther would have used to describe the grinning marionettes with their thick painted faces. Nor would she call it dancing when their arms and legs jerked up and down at the pull of the ropes tied to the metal hinges that joined them up at the elbows, shoulders and knees. Esther knew puppets didn’t have brains, but looking into their vacant kohl-lined eyes she couldn’t help but think that if Fitcher’s Dolls could open their bee-stung lips they’d be begging Esther for help.
“So you like puppets, huh?” Esther asked in the elevator on their way back to the apartment.
“Immensely,” said the Egg. “Real girls can be so disobedient. Can’t follow the simplest rules or instructions.” He slid his dull nickel eyes over to Esther in what could only be described as a Significant Way.
“Follow the rules,” Esther said. “I think I got it.”
The next morning Fitcher went out for the whole day, but not before giving Esther a new dress and instructions. “You may go in any room in the apartment or the theater,” he said. “Except the dressing room. That room you must never enter. That’s where the magic happens. You savvy, my dear?”
“I savvy,” Esther said. “But do I hafta wear this kind of dress even at home?” She tugged impatiently at the long satin train of her new white dress. “Kinda hard to hoof it with a tablecloth around the ankles.”
“Ladies do not hoof it,” said Fitcher. “They proceed in a stately manner to their destination. At worst they might amble but they never hoof.”
Esther watched out the window until Fitcher’s Peerless turned the corner towards Madison Avneue, then off came the bluenose rags and on went the one dress she’d brought with her to this house of horrors. “Feels good to see the old getaway sticks again,” Esther said, admiring her calves in the mirror. “Now I got to figure out how to bust out of this place.”
She cased the joint from top to bottom. She checked the windows for any drainpipes she could shinny down, and all the doors for locks she could pick. But the Egg hadn’t left any tickets to freedom lying around. After three hours wandering around like a fart in a barrel Esther took the elevator down to the basement. The place gave her the willies. It smelled funny too, like damp wool and roasted peanuts. She poked around every corner of the empty nightclub, until the only place left was the Door She Shouldn’t Open. The dressing room. Where the magic happened. Well, what could be worse than where I already am? Esther thought. She pushed open the door.
It was worse. In the center of the “dressing room” was a boiling pot of something that looked like blood. The dancing dolls dangled from hooks on the walls. Away from the lights and the smoke of the club Esther could see they weren’t puppets at all but her very own friends lured away from the club by the same hocus pocus that brought Esther here. Gladys, Rita, Ruby, Ida and a dozen other girls Esther didn’t know but were somebody’s daughter were chopped to pieces and strung up like ham hocks in a butcher’s window, their blood boiling in the pot behind her.
“A chaloshes!” said Esther, stumbling over to one wall. There she nearly tripped over a pile of bones and old dresses, white with long trains, exact copies of the one the Egg had given her that morning before he left. The one he had instructed her to wear. These dresses were stained with blood from the floor, probably when the girls, like Esther, had peeped behind the forbidden door.
Esther hurried back up to the bedroom. When Fitcher got home she greeted him dressed like a lady. Inspecting her long white dress and finding it clean and Esther therefore obedient, Fitcher dropped to one knee. “For years I’ve searched for a girl with enough class to headline at Fitcher’s Famous Nightclub,” he said. “Baby, I’m going to make you a star!”
Esther thought her luck might be beginning to change.
“Thanks, sweetie!” she said. “I got a whole act in my head. Those scaly friends of yours will love it so make sure you invite ‘em all. I’m making a list of everything I need. I’m counting on you not to let me down.”
“Never, dear Esther,” Fitcher said, still on his knees.
Right away Fitcher set to work redecorating the club and shopping for the items on Esther’s list: sequins, rhinestones, cans of silver paint, a hundred feather boas and her old mermaid pool from the Club Araby, only this time filled with warm, gooey honey. “That’s for the big finish,” Esther explained, and kissed the Egg on his shiny farina forehead.
Esther insisted on full control of the casting and choreography, and declared rehearsals closed to everyone, including Fitcher. By the time the clientele hopped, slithered and hobbled on cloven hooves through the great double doors, the Egg was schvitzing with excitement.
Backstage, Esther wasn’t schvitzing at all. She was putting the finishing touches on a skeleton she’d pieced together from the horrible dressing room. She’d draped the bones in gauze, sequins and lace, placed a wreath of flowers around its skinless head, and was just now adorning it with every piece of jewelry the Egg had ever given her. She seated the skeleton in a little velvet throne at the back of the stage behind a scrim to show only her pretty silhouette.
Rushing backstage, Esther slipped out of her dressing gown and lowered herself into the tub of honey, which was sticky and warm and not unpleasant at all. When she was entirely coated with honey, she walked to the pile of feathers she had plucked from the hundred boas. “Here goes nothing!” said Esther. Then she dove into the pile and rolled.
Outside in Club Fitcher, the lights dimmed. The spotlight winked on, revealing the emcee in his tux, center stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, Fitcher’s is proud, so proud, to present its new star, Miss Esther Schiller.” A second spotlight, this one pink, focused on what looked like a young girl seated above the stage, her head wreathed in flowers and sparkling with jewels. The crowd made a rattling, growling sound, which is what demons do instead of gasping when they are impressed.
“Before Miss Schiller takes the stage, she presents to you a wondrous creature discovered in the Himalayas on an expedition by famed explorer Frederick Marchman Bailey. She was smuggled into the country under the greatest security, only to escape from a dock in New York Harbor. The great beast found shelter in a traveling circus. It was there she learned to perform her native dances on cue. You will now join the select group of people to witness this amazing act. I give you...Fitcher’s Bird!”
Esther ankled her way to center stage. The sticky honey and ticklish feathers made walking difficult, but this only added to the illusion as she was forced to create a loping, dipping step, like a cross between a stork and a pigeon, that disguised her further. Reaching the microphone she let out a hoarse cry to clear her throat.
Beneath the stage a band of imps struck up a little tune that Esther had composed for the occasion.
“I was just a little birdie, sitting in my nest, of all her little chickies mama loved me best," Esther sang. "Until a bold explorer saw me dancing by a tree, and snatched me in his net so now what will become of me?”
She stepped down the stairs to walk amongst the audience. Every one to a man was enraptured. Her squawking voice, her garish feathers, and the delicious scent of honey all combined to fulfill a demon’s every dream.
“Won’t you help a little birdie fly her way on outta here? Won’t you help a little birdie fly home?” Esther sang, while a greenish little monster played a mournful, muted trumpet.
A few demons pulled a feather or two off her backside for souvenirs. Esther moved slowly but surely toward the door.
“I’m just a Himalayan birdie from a mountain top, a castaway in the big city where my life’s a flop.”
She shook her tail feathers at Fitcher as she went by. His flat nickel eyes were shining with tears. But not as much as they would be if Esther’s plan worked.
The trombone urged her into the final notes. “So long, it’s sure been good to know ya; I didn’t mean to snow ya, but I really gotta go..."
She reached the doors of the club, turned, and raised her great wings. This was what they called the big finish.
“Before the curtain drops.”
She ended the number and took a bow, her longer feathers brushing the floor. With the roar of applause still in her ears, Esther took one more step back through the doors and shut them firmly behind her. Then she picked up the can of silver paint she had waiting behind a potted plant.
Inside the club the audience turned expectantly to the girl seated on the little throne, the girl they thought was Esther. The real Esther, meanwhile, was carefully painting across the doors of the club:
The cheers and applause inside the club changed abruptly to shrieks and howls of fear, then a bang and a hiss and the whole place was silent. A comforting stench of burnt chestnuts and sulphur filled the air.
Soon Esther heard another sound inside the club, the familiar tapping of girls in evening shoes walking over a dance floor. The knob turned with a click from the inside and Ruby O’Malley’s curly-haired head popped out, miraculously reattached to her shoulders again. “Esther!” said Ruby. “Are we glad to see you. Even in that crazy outfit.”
There were hugs and kisses all around, and a lot of jokes in bad taste. The girls divvied up all the jewelry and gold they found in the house, which was a lot, and Esther got first pick for being a good friend and a smart cookie besides.
Back at the Club Araby Gil created a whole new Fitcher’s Bird number with Esther headlining. That’s how Louis B. Mayer first saw her and offered her a contract with MGM.
Table #13 was moved behind the Club’s biggest column, then next to the men’s room, then retired completely and pushed into the storeroom.
The Egg never returned to the Club Araby-or any other nightclub—again.