“You never cook, do you?”
Looking up from her newspaper, Peggy found one of the regular waitresses leaning over her booth, inquisitive expression on her narrow face. “I beg your pardon?” she said, rumpling the paper slightly as she pushed it aside.
“Well you’re in here almost every night. I figure you must never cook.”
Peggy looked the waitress up and down, taking in her starched uniform and her angular face. There was ketchup splattered on her teal apron, and she was putting all her weight on her left foot, her right lifted slightly out of her low pumps. Achy or blisters or both, Peggy couldn’t be sure.
She waited a moment to see if the woman would abandon any conversational pursuit, but when a full thirty seconds had passed, she grimaced a little and gave in. “I’m afraid my work doesn’t leave me the time or inclination for cooking.”
The waitress, “Angie” her nameplate read, apparently took this as an outright invitation, settling herself on the seat across from Peggy. She slumped down with an overwrought sigh, rolling her shoulders back against the cheap vinyl. Then she fixed Peggy with a cheery smile, a genuine air of friendliness about her. “You fresh off the boat?”
Peggy took a spoonful of potatoes to delay answering. They were beyond the war now, but she still hesitated with strangers. Too often she remembered the unassuming man in black glasses and the way Erskine had choked on his own blood. And every day the office buzzed with new rumors of Communists and secret associations, organizations raring to knock the United States and her allies down a peg.
“No. I’ve been back and forth to America since ’41. I made the move permanent after the war.”
“Chasing your soldier boy?”
Smiling blue eyes flashed in her mind. “We’ll ask the band to play something slow.”
“No,” she said, more clipped than the poor waitress deserved, but it was too late to change her tone. The waitress, Angie, studied her a moment longer, eyes considering and sharp. She stood abruptly and walked away, and Peggy assumed that would be that. A moment later, though, a plate of coconut cream pie clattered down in front of her.
“On the house, English,” Angie said with a wink. Then she was off, refilling another night owl’s coffee.
“Call me Peggy,” she said to the waitress’ bustling back. Angie gave a wave as she sashayed off.
“It’s not that I don’t like cooking,” Peggy said two nights later, the words bursting forth unexpectedly, like a dove from a magician’s hat. “I just, I work late hours, and I hardly know how to make more than toast.”
Angie looked startled, but pleasantly so, and paused halfway through polishing down a table. “I know whatcha mean. Whenever I have the night shift, all I want to do is collapse into bed when I get home. I barely have enough energy to change my clothes, let alone whip up some grub.”
She leaned conspiratorially close, eyes and face lighting with a mischievous smile. “There’s always left-over meatloaf. Me’n Hernando split it when we’ve got closing together.”
Peggy hid a smile behind her hand and took a sip of coffee. “You’re a world-class criminal, then,” she said, fighting to keep an outright grin from springing up.
“One of a kind,” Angie replied, striking a pose. “Angie Martinelli, actress, singer, waitress, and diamond thief extraordinaire.”
At this, Peggy snorted and smirked, eyes dropping to her newspaper.
“What? You don’t believe me?”
“I believe 75% of you,” Peggy said with a wry smirk. “You’ll have to show me your diamond collection to earn the other twenty-five.”
“Silly me.” Angie made a show of patting down her pockets. “Must have left them in my other uniform.”
“Order up!” came a sharply accented voice from the kitchen window. Angie waved her hand in brusque apology, topped off Peggy’s coffee, and then rushed off, but Peggy smiled softly through the rest of her meal.
“So what do you do anyway, that has you working so late every night?”
Peggy, who’d been zoning considering Howard Stark and his recent and disastrous appearances before Congress, paused on her forkful of green beans, looking sharply at Angie’s face. Then she shook herself off. “I work for the telephone company. As a secretary and switchboard operator.”
Angie’s eyebrow went up, skepticism written all over her face. “You, English? A classy dame like you can’t find better than the telephone company?”
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” Peggy said, waving her hand dismissively. “If it weren’t for the men in the office, it would be positively a dream.”
“I know how that goes,” Angie said, turning to eye a balding customer. “Sometimes it feels like Hernando’s the only one in the building who understands the word ‘gentleman’, and his English isn’t even that great.”
From her counter seat, Peggy could just see the dark man working the fryer. He was thick with muscle around his arms and waist, but his strong square face was strangely gentle as he turned to a different burner. “Where’s Hernando from?”
“Dominican Republic. I think. He’s teaching me Spanish after closing.”
After a contemplative beat, Peggy sliced off a bit of pie and ate it, quietly relishing cream and sugar. “It’s amazing,” she said after a moment, opening her eyes and glancing sidelong at Angie. The waitress looked slightly dazed, but after a moment she straightened on her barstool.
“How in the span of a year we can go from rationing and skimping to all this abundance. Do you remember what a luxury sugar was? Never mind bananas.”
“It wasn’t so bad for my family. My mother canned. But if you were doing something for the war…”
Peggy didn’t answer, instead scooping up another bite of pie. He would have liked this, she thought to herself, but she didn’t say it aloud. She could feel Angie’s eyes on her, just as sharp as they had been that first night she’d spoken up.
“You get all starry-eyed when you think about him, you know?”
“Who?” said Peggy, feigning as much ignorance as she could, though Angie’s expression said she was not fooled in the slightest.
“Your soldier boy. He must’a been something.”
“He certainly was.”
They sat in silence for a moment before Peggy spoke up. “Did you have a soldier boy of your own?” she asked, a hint of loneliness in her voice.
“No. I had a soldier brother, though. He didn’t come back, either.”
“Would you tell me about him?”
Angie smiled, something sweet and sad and understanding. “Another time, English. My break is up.” She gathered her plate, dabbing crust crumbs to her tongue with one finger, and stepped away. Peggy watched her go and then pushed away the last of her pie. She had quite lost her appetite.
“So,” Angie said, flopping down on the opposite side of the booth, “Franky was the biggest snot I ever met. And he was my older brother, so I knew him my whole life. Basically, he was a snot, even when he was three.”
Peggy smiled softly and set aside her paper, reaching for her coffee instead. “He can’t have been all bad.”
“He was the worst. You have no idea. I remember we were going for my Confirmation and my ma had scrounged and saved and been positively in a flurry to make sure I’d have a nice dress for it. It was this amazing white thing. She’d nabbed some lace off an old set of curtains, and turned a bunch a’ taffeta from one of her old dresses into a petty coat. I’d never felt so pretty. Our family never had it easy, ya know? Six kids. We younger ones never got anything new. Always hand-me-downs. So this dress was really special to me.
“Anyway, Franky, he takes one look at me and tells me I look like a ghost and that Father will exorcise me first chance he got. Course I think he thought ‘exorcise’ meant Father would make me run laps around the church yard or something. And I start cryin’ and Ma starts yellin’ and then Sherry, my younger sister, she starts bawlin’ her head off because we’re all yellin’ at each other, and then my dad comes in all ready to go to church and he starts yellin’ because we’re not ready and meanwhile my two other brothers are eggin’ Franky on and callin’ me ‘Spook’ and ‘Boo’. Then my oldest sister Anne comes down the stairs and asks us what’re we all doin’ ‘cause church starts in fifteen minutes.
“Long story short, we ended up runnin’ to church, and thing is, it’d been rainin’ the night before, so about ten steps outside the church gates, Franky shoves me from behind right into this giant oily mud puddle. That gorgeous white dress was completely ruined. I remember my ma said some words that made us all gasp and start cryin’ all over again. And then Father wouldn’t Confirm me because I was such a mess. He said it was an insult to God. I ended up getting Confirmed the next week in a dress we borrowed off my friend Lucy, and we all got paddled because a’ Franky.”
Angie told her entire tale with enthusiasm, grand hand gestures and lively expressions. She was quite captivating, though Peggy didn’t quite have it in her to say that out loud. Instead, she said, “Surely he had his good moments, too?”
“Course he did. When we were younger, that was just good old sibling rivalry. When we got older, he always looked out for Sherry ’n’ me. Walked us to and from our job at the clothing factory until it went under, and then he moved out so the bills wouldn’t be quite so hard on Ma and Dad.” Her eyes dropped then, mouth tugging down just slightly. “He died in Guadalcanal.”
They both took a moment of silence, and then Peggy raised her coffee cup, holding it towards Angie. “To Franky, a good brother, if a bit of a prat.”
Angie grinned and took up her coffee pot. “To…hey. I don’t know your soldier boy’s name.”
Peggy nearly gave a false name. A James. A Chris. A Jack. He could have been anyone. But what she said was “Steve. His name was Steve.”
“Well, then. To Steve, the soldier boy who made Peggy all starry-eyed.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“What would be better? All diamond-eyed?”
“Like your smuggling ring?”
“You bet. You’re in cahoots with me now. We’re gonna make a fortune.”
“I look forward to our exploits,” Peggy said with a rueful smirk.
“So how are you feelin’ about Miriam now you’ve been there a while?”
“Oh, she’s harmless enough I suppose,” said Peggy, “if a bit of a busybody.”
“Yeah, I don’t know how she thinks she’s protectin’ us from men. It’s not like we can’t just go to their places and be deflowered there instead.”
Peggy pursed her lips trying to hide a smile, but by Angie’s expression, it was obvious she’d failed. “As if deflowering were the worst fate in the word,” she said after a moment. “Heaven forbid we have sweethearts.”
“Or dreams beyond marriage and babies. When I told her I wanted to be an actress, she gave me such a talkin’ to. I thought she was gonna haul me to confession right then and there and make me repent until I was blue in the face.”
Angie refilled Peggy’s coffee and glanced around the automat. It was pouring rain outside, dank and drear and chill as Normandy. The late hour and the poor weather had driven every patron out and it was just Angie, Peggy, and Hernando. Once she’d finished surveying her domain, Angie settled on a counter stool and leaned in conspiratorially. “And it’s not like we can’t get up to mischief even without men.”
Peggy looked sharply at Angie, and wondered if Howard had been making a larger racket in her room than she’d realized. But Angie continued, “Last night, Cynthia was making a big fuss because the factory’s plannin’ on layin’ her off of the car assembly, and Lara went and said that Cynthia was better off doin’ women’s work. Well, Cynthia started crying, ‘cause you know she can barely read and she’s terrified they’ll fire her when she can’t do the secretarial work, and Lara just wouldn’t let it go. So Dottie and I left dinner early and snuck up into Lara’s room and short-sheeted her bed.”
Behind her coffee, relieved that Howard had apparently remained undiscovered, Peggy smiled. “Well, that is mischievous. What will be next? Frogs in her pockets?”
“Are there live frogs in New York? Do you know where we could find some?”
“Honestly it makes me feel like I’m in boarding school again.”
“You went to boarding school?”
“For a time. It was a finishing school of sorts, I suppose, but I didn’t do well there and my father pulled me out after a year.”
“How come you didn’t do well?”
Peggy remembered awkward puberty, her arms and legs too gangly and her teeth much too big for her face, and all the girls teasing her because she liked polo better than dancing. The dreaded etiquette lessons where she was told over and over again, “Too blunt. You must soften your words. You’ll never find a husband that way.”
“I was never…You must understand my father worked for the British government and there were certain expectations about what his daughter would do. He asked me to try for him, but after a year I was miserable, so he brought me home and began educating me himself along with my brother. And he brought in Mistress Granger to teach me the feminine arts.”
“What about your mom?”
“Passed with the Spanish influenza. It was just Father and Theodore and myself.”
“Well Mistress Granger certainly did a good job of bringin’ you up.”
“So many men look at womanhood and its trappings as a curse, as a weakness, Margaret. You must learn to use it as your weapon, your armor. The most underestimated person in the room is often also the strongest.”
“She was a character, though she despaired of my cooking lessons. I think she may have worked in government with my father during the Great War, but they never spoke of it. Miss Granger focused solely on my education, and my father made sure my education was very thorough.”
“What’d he teach you?”
“This is a Winchester rifle, and perhaps one of the finest guns the Americans ever created. Now, Margaret, what is the first rule of using tools and weapons?”
“Maintenance is key. A sharp shooter with a poor gun is nothing better than a target.”
“Excellent, Margaret. So first I’m going to show you how to clean it. Are you watching?”
“Oh, the usual. Mathematics, history, French. A little German.”
“I’d like to meet him one day.”
“I’m afraid he passed in ’41.”
“Oh, I’m sorry Peg. I keep puttin’ my foot in my mouth.”
“Far from it. They’re perfectly natural questions to ask.”
“You’ll have to come meet my parents sometime. They’re still in Long Island. It’s only a hop, skip, and a jump.”
“I’d like that.”
“Peg! I want you to meet a friend of mine. This here’s Coretta. She’s a singer down at one of my favorite clubs. We’re tryin’ to work out a duet and hopefully shoehorn me into her act.”
The young woman was darker than Gabe by a few shades, thin as a pencil and clearly not eating enough from paycheck to paycheck. And if she was any older than seventeen, Peggy would eat her hat. But she was also pretty as a peach, lips bright red and hair done up in a style clearly meant to emulate Billie Holiday. Her navy dress was too large on her, but flattering nonetheless. Peggy took in her nervous glances to the night-owl patrons and their return glares, and then stepped forward with her best smile.
“It’s a pleasure, Coretta. I’m Peggy.”
“Angie’s told me so much about you,” Coretta said, voice deep and rich like fine Swiss chocolate. “She says you’re quite the woman.”
“Does she now?” Peggy said, with a critical sidelong glance at Angie. “I assure you, whatever you’ve heard was greatly exaggerated.” She settled on Coretta’s left and leaned in. “I’m afraid my knowledge of jazz and blues is rather lacking. Tell me a little about your favorite artists.”
As Coretta expounded on the Duke’s musical philosophy and the brilliance of Mamie Smith’s vocals, Angie brought around two plates of cherry pie, piled high with whipped cream.
“And she wasn’t afraid to use vibrato. All the girls now a’days, they’re doing this hushed thing, and they keep their voices light and breathey like they’re cinched up too tight in their girdles, but I don’t like that. If I’m gonna sing about how a man loves me better’n any other girl, I’m gonna sing it from the tops of the mountains. I’m gonna make damn well sure they know he’s mine and I’m his.”
Peggy smiled into her coffee at Coretta’s enthusiasm. “This is all quite over my head. My father was rather insistent on classical music at all times. It was all those doughboys who first introduced me to swing, but I didn’t have much time for it during the war.”
“You’ll have to come down to the club sometime. Hear what it’s all about.”
“I’d like that very much.”
From her left ear, Peggy could easily make out two of the patrons’ conversation about how standards had fallen in such a fine eating establishment. She nearly turned, nearly said something, but Angie’s hand on hers stopped her.
“Coretta’s singing on Friday. Do you think you could make it? It’s in Greenwich, so it’s kind of far, but it’s worth it.” Angie’s smile was tight, but her offer was sincere and pleading, so Peggy let go of the gossip for the moment.
“I think I could make room in my schedule,” she said, eyes flashing to the two women as they stood and left. There was no tip on the table.
“Oh yeah. Your busy, busy schedule. I’m sure you’ll pencil us in right between work and work.” Angie said, shoulders loosening as the atmosphere eased.
“I do more than work. On Sunday, I read a book.”
“Oh, my mistake,” Angie said, holding her hand to her chest with dramatic flair. “You’re a positive social butterfly. I couldn’t ask you to take time out of your precious reading.”
Peggy guffawed into her coffee, but said, “I’ll happily go. What time is this show?”
“It’s at eight thirty. Can you get out of work in time?”
“I’ll have you meet you there, but it shouldn’t be a problem. Where is it?”
“Just meet us at the West 4th Street subway station at eight. We’ll paint the town red. You don’t mind if I have a few boys along? We need ‘em, you know. Public decency and all that.” Angie’s tone said that she hardly thought the boys she’d be bringing along were decent, but Peggy had spent three years with the biggest rabble-rousers in the US army. A couple of boisterous actor friends would hardly be anything at all in comparison.
“Of course. I look forward to it.”
Peggy was late getting to the station, and by the time she’d run up the stairs, all of Angie’s friends had already gathered and were toe-tapping impatiently. “I’m so sorry,” she huffed, leaning against a brick wall. “There was a mugger and I just…”
“Oh no, Peg! Are you alright?”
Peggy straightened and fidgeted with her dress. She felt like a sparrow among peacocks, what with all the other women dressed in bright blues and greens. She hadn’t pulled out the red number since her one lone visit to the Stork Club some months ago, and the gold one had seemed a bit too upscale for south Manhattan. “I’m quite alright. I’m not sure I can say the same for the mugger though.”
“Did some police step in?” asked another girl, stepping up and putting a gentle hand on Peggy’s shoulder.
“I…yes. I was quite lucky.” She shook herself off and hurriedly pulled out a handkerchief, dabbing at the blood on her knuckles. It wasn’t hers, but they needn’t know that. “I’m sorry to have kept you all waiting. Shall we?”
“Yeah,” said Angie, slipping an arm around Peggy’s elbow. “Let me introduce you to everybody.”
They took off at a brisk walk, heels clicking on the pavement and laughter in the air. “So,” said Angie, leaning in close, “this lovely lady is Selina.” She pointed to the woman who’d asked about the police. Selina was all curves, thick waist, thick legs, and soft shoulders. Her face was nearly plain, almost forgettable, but her upturned button nose and mischievous eyes lent an air of laughter that was altogether charming.
“Pleased to meetcha, English,” said Selina, tossing her shawl over her right shoulder. She spoke with a twanging accent Peggy was unfamiliar with, but the high, sharp tones were strangely comforting.
“And that wild-eyed broad right there is Samantha, and the woman on her other side is Annabelle.” The other two women, both bright as rainbows, curtsied and turned back to each other, deeply caught up in a conversation about the rumors concerning the newest Rodgers and Hammerstein production. “Don’t mind them,” said Angie. “They’re better mannered in private, I promise.”
She turned to the men then, pointing in turn. “And over here we have Marvin, Jesse, and Slim Jim. We’re meeting Shane and James at the door.”
Each of the men grinned and waved as Angie said their names. Marvin was short and thin, and for a moment, he reminded Peggy of Steve, even though this man was dark-haired and mustachioed. Slim Jim was tall and lanky, towering over the rest of them by a good foot or more. He wore all of his clothes too short for him, and the gangly flashes of wrist and ankle made him seem homely and approachable. Jesse was of middling height and middling weight, and he wore a hat pulled low over his brow. There was something there. Peggy studied Jesse’s gait for a moment, analyzing and trying find what was pinging in her mind, and then she saw it.
She turned to find Angie already watching her, eyes sharp and just a touch wary. “Maybe now’s the time for me to mention that we’re not going to what you would call…a club of good repute. It’s more like a, uh…”
Peggy raised an eyebrow and glanced back at Jesse, who looked both nervous and defiant. “A Bohemian haven?” Peggy supplied after a moment, tightening her arm around Angie’s to pull the other woman in closer.
“Yeah. Is that…is that ok? I shoulda, shoot Peg, I shoulda…”
“No. It’s…it’s…an experience,” she said finally, reaching for diplomacy and sounding rather colder than she’d intended. “I must warn you, though, I don’t know the protocol. I’ve not…My father never really approved of Bohemian sensibilities.”
“I know the feelin’,” chimed Selina, rolling her shoulders and lifting her chin. “But you know, he ain’t here right now.”
“No,” thoughtfully said Peggy. “I suppose he’s not.”
“Here it is,” said Angie, steering them all into a narrow bar just off 6th, the lettering “Tony Pastor’s” in neat small print on the sign next to the door. Just outside the window, two men were waiting and smoking, but they dropped their cigarettes and stamped them out when Angie’s group approached. “Boys,” said Angie, kissing their cheeks with a warm smile. “Thanks for evening the numbers out.” She waved her hand genially toward the door and they all lined up for entry.
The bouncer looked them all over, glanced over at the cop loitering a block down, and then nodded them in. The place was already crowded, and with just a glance, Peggy knew she was entirely out of her element. In her first sweep, she’d already caught two men kissing and three women dressed in stiff white shirts and men’s jackets and hats. In the back corner, a vaudeville player was preparing to perform, and the baggy rust-colored caftan left so much to the imagination that Peggy couldn’t begin to guess whether the person might be a man or a woman. She also knew with hardly a second look that the man at the bar was both well-trained and well-armed, though she also hazarded that his training would not be to protect the patrons but rather the cash drawer and liquor supply.
“What’ll you have, English?” Selina shouted over the din, and Peggy said after only a slight hesitation, “Stiff bourbon.”
“Peg, I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“I believe a little social lubrication is in order,” Peggy said ruefully, and did not miss the way Slim Jim and Marvin snickered. Crude boys with cruder senses of humor. This, Peggy knew how to handle. “You must admit,” she said, angling so that she faced them full on, “a bit of lubrication can improve almost any situation.”
At that, Jim laughed outright, though Marvin flushed with embarrassment. “I like her,” said the former, throwing an arm over Angie’s shoulders. “She’ll do just fine here.”
Just as Selina came back with the drinks, the music started up, a simple upright piano, slightly out of tune, and the singer came forward, slinking and stepping in time with the slow beat. After some watching, Peggy decided it must be a man, but his voice was high and fine as crystal. He sang “The Boy Next Door” to raucous applause and then made his way off.
“What do you think?” asked Angie in Peggy’s ear, smelling just slightly of her mint julep.
“It’s certainly an experience,” she replied, leaning in slightly to be heard as the revelers’ noise picked up again. “He has a lovely voice.”
“That’s Junie DeMille. On stage, she knows how to tug your heartstrings, that’s for sure.”
“She?” Peggy said quietly, glancing back to where Junie was speaking with some admiring gentlemen.
“Just take everything at face-value, Peg. This is a place where people can be who they want to be and not who everyone else tells them they’re supposed to be.”
“I…that’s something I can appreciate.”
Angie smiled, a sweet little satisfied thing, and then tugged Peggy to one of the tables that lined the narrow dance floor. Selina was seated with Jesse and they were leaning into each other, heads together and smiles bright. Peggy and Angie took their seats and sipped their drinks, Peggy looking around the room and hyper-aware of Angie’s gaze on her.
“So,” Selina says after a moment, “what part of England are you from?”
“Near Eaton, in London.”
“I went to London during the war. Was a nurse. Seemed like it’d be a nice place if it weren’t for the rationin’ and black-outs and all.”
“It is,” said Peggy, “though I don’t often feel homesick for it anymore. It stopped feeling like home a long time ago.”
“There’s nothing you miss about it?”
“The friends I had aren’t there anymore. Mostly what I miss is a good cup of tea, and even before I came here, that was always in short supply. They rationed it when the war started, and it was all we could do to make it last. What about you? Where are you originally from? That’s not a New York accent.”
“I’m from Georgia. Came up here when I realized there wasn’t really a place for women like me ‘round home. New York is tough, but at least here people spit on everyone ’n’ not jus’ the outcasts.”
“That’s right,” Jesse added, looking a little warmer and less wary. “New York is all about equal-opportunity disdain.”
“Oh, Coretta’s up!” Angie said, pointing to the back corner where the young woman had appeared. If there had been any doubt that she was taking her cues from Billy Holiday, it disappeared as she stepped out, silk orchids in her hair. Her dress was a vintage cut out of the roaring 20s, a slinky drape of white, glistening beads. Peggy immediately thought of Papa and his few ill-fated attempts at dating when she’d been a girl. He’d stepped out with women dressed like that while she and her brother stayed home with the nanny.
The applause as Coretta stepped up to the piano was lukewarm at best, but she pouted her dark red lips, hitched her hip up, and bowed her head. The pianist took up a boogie, the lowest notes rumbling tinny with disuse, and Coretta broke into “In the Mood”. For such a thin, small woman, her voice was full and round, filling the club and demanding attention. The pianist grinned up at her as his hands shook across the keys, black on white on black again. Two couples, one set of men and one set of women, took up what little dance floor there was and started swinging to the beat. Peggy admired the entire spectacle of it and smiled when she felt Angie’s hand settle on her elbow.
“She’s good, isn’t she?”
“Quite. I wouldn’t have expected such a big voice out of such a tiny woman.”
“I dunnow. Sometimes the smaller you are, the louder you have ta be ta be heard.”
“That’s certainly true,” said Peggy, thinking of Steve’s tendency to pick fights and put his foot in his mouth. She waited until Coretta’s first song finished, applauding loudly with the rest of the crowd. The young singer’s smile was bright in the dim room, and she gave a little curtsey before moving to her second song.
“Coretta’s got a three-set. She’s the warm-up act for Bobbie Minton.”
“Bobbie Minton being?”
“Main act of the night. She’s pretty amazing, too.”
Coretta’s second song was “Stardust” and where before she’d filled the club with her voice, now she pulled everyone in, demanding she be heard precisely because she was so quiet. Her voice quavered a little with her efforts not to sound “cinched up to tight” as she’d said, but the elegant tilt of her head and the distant look in her eyes were captivating.
“She sings like she lost someone.”
“She did. I think her name was Alice. Tuberculosis last winter.”
With the slower song, more couples had risen to join the dance, swaying close together, chest to chest, hip to hip. Peggy watched them turn in the dim, smokey light, like exotic beautiful birds come to rest on a foggy lake, melted just a little. Angie touched her arm, just a quick feathered brush. “Care to dance?”
Peggy tilted her head, lips parted in surprise, and then hesitantly nodded. “I think…I think I’d like that.”
“Well come on then,” Angie took her hand and hauled her up, strength in her wiry arms from day-in, day-out waitress’ heavy-lifting. Peggy went easily enough, took a deep breath, and then turned to Angie, automatically falling into standard waltz position. Angie looked her up and down and then guffawed. “You really are a proper English lady, aren’t you?”
Without waiting for an answer, she stepped in and pulled Peggy’s arm until it was draped over her shoulder, settling the other hand at her waist. There was still space between them, a few inches of warm humid air, but it might well have been a cliff face with the sudden vertigo that raced up Peggy’s spine. This was different, and she took a deep, steadying breath as she processed what she was feeling. Not warmth and fluttering fondness like with Steve, though the respect she’d had for him echoed just as easily with Angie. No, this was sharp and tart and fizzy, like a lemon soda. It was altogether exciting and a little bit frightening.
“How we doin’, English?”
“I believe,” said Peggy after a moment, “we are dancing.”
“That we are.”
As they turned in slow circles on the floor, the pianist smoothly transitioned to the last number without pause. The beat picked up until it was driving and fierce, rattling through the patrons and demanding that they shake along with it or be flattened to the floor. It was only when Coretta started in on the lyrics that Peggy realized it was “Puttin’ on the Ritz”. Coretta was taking it much faster than Ella Fitzgerald ever had, so fast her tongue was nearly stumbling over the lyrics, but the energy and drive of it transformed the room, sending even the seated patrons into a toe-tapping head-bobbing sea of movement. On the dance floor, surrounded by other revelers, Peggy found herself caught up in the beat. She and Angie grinned at each other and swayed with abandon, feet kicking out as much as they could in the cramped quarters.
Over the entire room, Coretta’s voice carried sharp and loud, harkening back to darker leaner times and the things they’d all done to lighten the yoke of poverty. Underneath her, the piano growled and shook like a bear woken from slumber, its lower notes echoing in Peggy’s molars. The song ended so abruptly that every dancer was left mid-swing, careening into each other and panting and laughing. The club took a collective breath and then burst into thunderous applause as Coretta and her accompanist bowed.
Both Peggy and Angie were breathless as they made there way back to the table, where Jim and Marvin had replaced Jesse and Selina. They slumped into their seats laughing as the men raised glasses in toast.
“That was quite the show,” said Jim, knocking back a tumbler of gin. “I’m glad you invited us, Angie.”
“Knew you’d like her. And Bobbie hasn’t even gone yet. You’ll like her even better.”
Marvin stood to get more drinks for everyone, and Angie stood, waving Coretta over from the corner of the room. In the press of bodies and admirers, it took a while for the tiny woman to make her way over, her pianist in tow, but she was beaming the whole way. The moment she was in hearing distance, Angie shouted, “That was amazing, sweetheart! You lit the place on fire!”
Coretta curtseyed slightly as she made her way closer and then said, “Thanks, Angie. Have you met Devain, yet? He’s been my accompanist for two years now, but this was the first time I could bring him with me to this side of town.”
Standing, Angie shook the man’s hand. “Your piano work is just amazing. I can’t believe you took ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ that fast. Your hands must be dying.”
“If Benny Goodman can do it, I most certainly can,” Devain replied, glancing down at Coretta with a wry grin.
“I thought Benny Goodman was a clarinetist,” said Jim, glancing between the two performers like he’d just found the best comedy on earth. And perhaps he had, given the way the two of them were saying so much with just their eyes alone.
“He is, but that’s beside the point. He’s still got a pianist in his band, ain’t he? But the tempo was all her idea. I told her she was crazy, but she wouldn’t listen to reason.”
“Crazy, but fun. A hell of a lotta fun, Devain.” Coretta turned to Peggy then, still grinning from ear to ear, and said, “What’d you think of the show, Peggy?”
She glanced sidelong at Angie as she smiled and answered, “I think it was fantastic. You know how to light up a room, Coretta.”
Angie was watching Peggy’s response with sharp eyes, and she looked like she wanted to add something, but just as she opened her mouth Selina sidled up to them, rosy with alcohol and dancing, and said, “Bobbie’s comin’ on.”
From the dressing room entrance, a round woman emerged, grinning and strutting like she’d just won the lottery. Her crisp white shirt, tails, and trousers contrasted her black skin and made her shine like a beacon in the dim club. Satin flashed at her lapels and on the stripes of her trousers as she sashayed out, cane swinging. She was wearing a white silk top hat, which she doffed as the crowd gave a roar.
Selina leaned into Peggy’s space, alcohol dissolving her personal barriers, and said, “She’s the best man I’ve ever seen!”
Angie leaned in on the other side and said, “Selina’s got a big crush on her, and Jesse indulges it, God knows why.”
“‘Cause Jesse’s got a crush, too. That’s why!”
Peggy smiled into her hand and leaned back to take in the next act. On her right, Angie leaned in until their shoulders were touching, and that same lemony fizzing came back, sharp and pleasant along her spine.
“Not bad for a first date, eh English?”
Eyebrows raised, Peggy turned a mock-severe look on Angie. “I believe one must establish it’s a date with one’s partner before the venture can be called a success.”
“Well then, here’s me establishing. Date?”
Peggy tapped her fingers against her lips, just the slightest hint of a teasing smile at the corners. “I’m not sure if I can be seen with a world class diamond thief. It would put my job in peril, to say the least.”
“Oh, but think of all the jewelry, Peg!”
They both grinned at that, and then Angie leaned forward as the music swelled louder. “In all seriousness, though. If you’re not comfortable with…all this, I understand. I just thought I’d try my luck.”
Peggy considered the scene again. She was not naive enough to believe that it was all innocent, certainly. The bouncer and the bartender, with their meaty arms and barely concealed weapons, screamed mob money. Since she’d settled in her seat, she’d seen money change hands at least six times for what could only be drugs or prostitution. But even with the seedier underbelly, watching all of these people free to celebrate themselves without the strictures of society was refreshing, especially after a day spent fetching lunches for Thompson and his cohorts.
“I’m not sure,” she said finally, looking at Angie with more serious eyes, “if the Bohemian scene is entirely for me.” Angie’s face fell a little, something disappointed in the shape of her eyes and mouth. She started to lean away, but stopped when Peggy caught up her hand. “That being said, I wouldn’t mind a real date sometime. One where we’re both aware of the circumstances.”
At that, Angie’s face lit up again, her eyes glimmering through the haze of cigarette smoke. After a moment, she pressed her free hand to her chest. “Why, Miss Peggy, are you askin’ me out on a date?”
“I just might be,” said Peggy, squeezing her hand tightly. “I just might.”