Butterfly Man/Chapter XX
LIFE, according to Jean Pond, was a dizzy headache. You never get exactly what you want and when you do, you're always too drunk to know what to do with it.
"I useta think," said Jean to the glass of alkie, as she and Ken sat in an Atlantic City boardwalk café. "I don't any more. What the hell is there to think about except when to walk Zigzag, when to feed him and how to get through a show without using up too much energy?" She sniveled faintly. "You're a good egg, Kennie," she continued. "Joe says so. So does Frankie. So do I. You hold your liquor swell, you always crack wise polite sorta; and you've been born so that you'll never be a nuisance to a gal like me.
"That's what I like about you. No pretense. Say, it took me a long time to get hep to myself. I'm still drinking because of it. You, too. You drink as much as me." She sighed. "If we was bi-sex, what a life we'd live. If I could, wouldn't I go for you? And you for me?" She repeated the words: "You for me and me for you," then hummed: "Two for tea and tea for two …" Her voice trailed off … "All I got is a yen for Diana and my sweet little cute little Zigzag."
On this evening Ken's only companion was Jean. Diana had been claimed by her husband. Johnny Keeler did not drink. He read a great deal and was, Jean said, writing a play. "Johnny's not Diana's type. It's ridiculous." Jean was frankly jealous of Johnny. She made no secret of her plan. She was going to separate husband and wife. Ken listened with amusement to her bitter attack on that "lazy good-for-nothing ham actor, who thinks he can write."
"Di is horribly unhappy," she explained. "It's his fault. While he's around she's a rag. I'm going to smash that combination. I'm going to drive him away from her. It isn't her fault. She was brought up wrong. Her mother was too strict—an old country Catholic. Mine wasn't strict enough."
Later that night they visited a negro dance hall. Jean knew the tall straight-featured yellow youth who managed the affair. Soon Ken was watching white-teethed black boys dance in the ill-ventilated dusty ball-room. Bronze faces rouged, heavy lips penciled, in bright colored gowns, the dancers drank alkie until their tawny skins shone. They cuddled and cursed and brawled. The "Grand Carnival," as it was called, was held in an abandoned lodge hall near the negro streets. It was guarded by a dozen white policemen, several of whom forgot official duties and danced on the floor with nimble-footed partners. As the hours of the night slipped by, the number of whites increased. Slim sailors and square-shouldered marines from the Philadelphia Navy Yard scattered among the dancers. Two bands sustained a continuous throbbing rhythm.
At four o'clock, word was passed from mouth to mouth that a "pinch" was about to be made. One of the policemen arrested two brown skinned youths who were singing a "low-down." The boys were incongruously dressed as Oriental dancers and had been performing what they considered to be a mild version of the stomach dance. A few minutes later the doors of the hall were snapped closed. Tension grew. Voices rose. The dance became a Bacchanalian revel. Ken took no part in the riotous action. He was revolted by the stench of sweat, the animal odor of writhing bodies. When he saw a razor flash and heard a scream, he seized Jean's arm and led her through the rear door to the back stairs and safety.
"Sweeter than Sweet" played three weeks in Philadelphia* Ken, flanked by Frankie and Joe, occupied a suite in "The Madhouse," as the Great Western Hotel for the theatrical profession was popularly known. The Great Western, operated by a complacent manager, catered to chorus people, although it usually numbered among its guests the thirstier, gayer musical comedy principal players. The presence of a principal was sufficient excuse for the institution of what was locally termed "open house," an institution made possible by frequent bribes openly paid to a portly house detective, who made his rounds twice nightly, once to collect his fees, again for his share of the drinks.
Three violent weeks rushed by. Ken became the host of hosts in "The Madhouse." His door was always open. He slept rarely, leaving the hotel only to dance at the theatre. Word spread that Ken was "a good guy," a drink-buyer. Chorus people from two other musical shows playing in Philadelphia crowded the suite. Boys from the streets drifted in. Within a few days, Ken neither knew nor cared who his guests were. They slept in his bed, littered the floor with cigarette stubs and cigar ashes. Ken did not seem to mind.
Joe Durazzo resented the intrusion of strangers. Frankie and his allies from the show felt Ken was being subjected to the derision of those who were enjoying his hospitality. At first Ken was too "high" to care. But when, one morning, he heard a particularly shocking epithet flung at him, his face lost its amiable smile.
"Who's that big he-man over there?" he asked Jean.
"A lush—that's all," she said.
Through the open door of the kitchenette in which they stood, Ken saw a red-faced bald-headed man who had introduced himself as a local journalist. He was boldly pilfering a pint of rye. A quarrel began. Ken shoved the petty thief into the hall. He was still furious when Jean succeeded in inducing him to leave the suite for a moment.
"I'm goofy from the racket," she said. "Why don't you put them all out and go to bed?"
"No. I don't want to do that," he told her.
"Then let's take a walk."
It was six o'clock. The morning air was raw with a northeast wind. The streets were deserted. For several minutes they did not talk.
"I coulda killed that guy," Ken said. "I've never felt that way before. It scares me."
Jean stopped. "Let's turn back to the hotel," she suggested. "Do you want my advice?"
"Separate the sheep from the wolves or you'll be the goat."
They paced the gray streets. "You mean I should separate US from them?" he finally asked.
"I do," she said. "They insult you, and you infuriate them. They talk about you behind your back and you're too polite to get sore."
When they returned to the suite, Ken told Joe to oust quietly all who did not belong.
"Belong to what?"
"To the other world," Ken heard Frankie say.
"The what?" Ken asked.
"The other world," Frankie repeated. "They are different, aren't they?"
"Our world—the other world—" Ken repeated the words to himself. They were significantly simple. The world sharply divided, a line of cleavage between. The others, aliens, invaders, easily recognized. Just look into eyes. In our world, mild eyes, amused eyes, suggestive eyes, perhaps perverse eyes, yet always friendly eyes of those who love life. The others, steely eyes, fish eyes, cold eyes, resentful, suspicious, dangerous. Ken was, he knew now, a naturalized citizen of "our world." He had quit the old scheme of things, entered a new and happier region where life raced by so speedily that one never learned how to care. And here he knew he would remain forever.
"Below Decks" was a frame house on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. It lay high and dry on a lane many miles from the water. Its outer door, an impregnable barrier of reinforced concrete and steel, was operated by electricity. Fifteen reputed millionaires owned "Below Decks." To enter it was to forget that one was ashore. The interior was decorated as a palatial yacht. Port holes took the place of windows; through them one saw a moving panorama of ocean; one could almost hear the restless roar of the sea.
Ken, together with his friends of the company, were entertained by the Fifteen. As they entered, drab, ugly masculine clothes were exchanged for costumes provided by the hosts. One could appear as an elegant lady, a demure maid, a ship's captain, a simple seaworthy seaman.
Alcohol mixed with ginger ale was the only drink. Scattered about the "yacht" were cabins, occupants of which could avoid intrusion by pressing a button which caused a red light to appear outside their doors.
In the basement was a tiny dance floor, a bar and booths where those who did not care to drink might sit and watch their fellows. Here, behind barred doors and windows, the last shreds of pretense were flung away. For the first time Ken listened to a philosophical exposition of what his companion, an austere non-drinking man of forty, dressed in the comfortable robe of a monk, described as the inevitable spread of homosexuality.
"It's the logical result of modern tendencies," he said. "The feminization of men is due to the breakdown in the paternalistic world. A boy no longer can aspire to become an all-powerful head of his house. He envies his elegantly dressed toil-free mother, his gentle school teacher, his sheltered sisters, their colorful clothes and their lovely bodies. If he is rich, he enjoys the thrill of changing sex. If he is poor—ah, there I have a rare theory. The poor boy is driven by blind instinct toward race suicide. What has the modern world to offer so completely uninhibited as the freemasonry of our kind? Women hate each other. Men are natural enemies of each other. We of the third sex enjoy perfect love, fruitless love. We are not fecund. We create no evil. For us, life is all. No false conception of immortality. No sons to jibe at us. No soul to perish in eternal damnation. No jealous wives hovering over us, no laws barring our free association with each other."
The mild monk—he was, Ken learned, a university professor—did not join in the brutal derision which greeted every mention of "the others." He told Ken to be happy in his youth. "Go," he said, "drink. I do not, only because of my shrivelling kidneys."
And Ken drank. Soon he sparkled, became the center of all attention as he sang, danced and laughed his way through the night. When the raw liquor strangled the laugh in his throat, he suddenly realized that he had been indifferent to the attentions of two of the millionaires, one a narrow-faced, bald-headed ship's cook, with blue-veined nose and thin-lipped mouth; the other a dignified white-haired, round-cheeked admiral.
The ship's cook threw a silver ash tray at the admiral. He missed a direct hit. A giant ("He's surely a eunuch," whooped Frankie) locked the cook in the brig, "until," said the admiral, "he sobers up."
Ken liked the admiral. He decided to dance for him. He stripped off his costume and improvised until the room whirled madly.
When he awoke, in the admiral's cabin, he found a thousand dollar bill in his shoe.
Ken streaked through the cities of the east in the parabolic path of a meteor, his devoted court attending him. At the end of each performance new admirers appeared, waiting patiently until he emerged from the theatre. Men, always men. Women seemed to know. From men he received perfumed notes, invitations to dinners, parties, week-ends. Gifts, he realized, might result in an unwelcome obligation; he returned them to their senders. He was not always able to avoid the curiosity of those who wanted to meet him. Their soft voices called as he walked to his hotel; their fluttering hands protested that he was ignoring them. His dance, his grace, his personality attracted them with impelling magnetism. Pittsburgh blended gently into Cincinnati. Liquor soothed Ken's nerves, created a falsely tonic effect, provided him with a sense of elation. He now played his role in "Sweeter Than Sweet" with mechanical perfection, dancing, however, with almost imperceptible lack of that spontaneous élan which won applause. Pulse always quick, a laugh on his dry lips, a witty rejoinder ready for every new sally on the part of his companions, he saw Cincinnati become Cleveland. Time and space fused in a long round of drinks, jokes, love-making. His day began at dusk. Breakfast at five. Details attended to by Joe. The theatre. New faces. A flirtation. A rendezvous. Liquor, blazing liquor. Forgetfulness, blank annihilation. And always a bed for the day, a pay check on Saturday, and a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of energy. Sleep, he knew, was his enemy. He was afraid to go to bed in the dark. Dawn, he said, was early enough. The light drove bad dreams away. His pillow never soft, the sheets never cool nor soothing, he tossed into replenishing deep sleep; for, adrift on that searing sea of alcohol, he sank into unconsciousness.
Then, one week-end, he arrived in Chicago. Familiar streets. Reminiscent faces. Norah's chatter about the old days, three years ago, when they had broken in their act, then played their first musical show roles. Dimly Ken remembered a time when had been eagerly ambitious, ridiculously anxious to go to New York, to become a Broadway star.
Odd that now he was a Broadway star, returning to Chicago. As the taxi moved through trafic to his hotel, he turned to Joe.
"I'm going to taper off on the booze," he said.
"In Chicago?" Joe asked.
"Why not? Norah's been complaining. And I'm getting jittery."
"But we've got things to do in Chicago," Joe said.
Monday morning's orchestra rehearsal was over when Norah cornered Ken in the stage door alley.
"You were 'way off the tempo, Ken," she complained.
"I never noticed it. I'm sorry, Norrie."
"I wouldn't mind but—"
"I'll be all right tonight. I haven't had an eyeopener. I'm still tasting blue, black and brown blotting paper."
She took his hand. "Ken," she said. "Why are you changing so? You're somehow not the same as you used to be."
With the simple sincerity of a small boy who is being scolded, he asked: "In what way, Norrie?"
"I always smell liquor on your breath, Ken," she said. "Why do you drink?"
"I never drink in the theatre," he defensively explained. "I was only kidding about that eye-opener."
"But, Ken, you go with such funny people. I hear such queer stories about you. And you always say such brutal things now—as if your mind was changing, too. Why, you haven't said a sensible thing to me in weeks."
"This morning," she continued, "you are a little bit the way you used to be. Your eyes are quieter. You don't laugh all the time. You—" She turned away.
"I don't know," he said.
"But at night, you look sometimes the way you did in Tia Juana. You know, mother said then she thought you needed someone to mother you. She didn't have the nerve herself."
He placed an arm around Norah's shoulder. "Don't worry," he said. "I'll be all right."
That night, Johnny Keeler quit the show. The lanky blond youth handed a two-weeks' notice to the stage manager.
Ken heard the news from Jean, who was gloating. "Di doesn't care," she said. But Diana, it was apparent, still cared. Between acts, she met her husband in the corridor just outside Ken's dressing-room.
"You've disgraced me," Ken heard Keeler say. "You're living with her now, not with me. I'm mad enough to walk out on you. I don't care if I ever work in a show again. I'm taking a train back to New York."
Diana had hardened. Her skin was now gray beneath rouge; her eyes were frequently glazed and cold.
"You're always drunk now, going around with those jennies. It's a wonder the show stays open with Gracey and his mob in it."
Ken, listening, did not move. He sat in his dressing-room, the door ajar. He heard Keeler's voice rise. "Can't you get mad? Don't you feel anything any more? Has she dried up your heart, too?"
She replied in a low tone. Ken could not catch her words. Her voice rose. He heard her say: "I hate you!" Keeler's voice broke. "I don't hate you," he said. Then footsteps.
In the mirror Ken saw Diana's troubled face. "You heard?" she asked.
"It's too bad."
She sat down. Her lip trembled. "I'm not going to cry," Diana said. But a sob rose in her throat. She crushed it. "What's the matter with me?" she demanded.
"Want a drink?" Ken asked.
"No," she replied. "Ken," she suddenly said, "I didn't like you at first. Now I do. Jean made me understand. Listen, Ken. Tell me. Was I wrong?"
"You couldn't be wrong where Keeler's concerned," Ken replied.
"It isn't all Johnny," she explained. "You gotta understand me too. I don't blame him much. He's a one-idea boy. As for me, I was never nowhere when I was a kid. Never had a boy friend. My mother told me nothing. Only to be sweet and good. And I guess that don't go in show business."
"Show business …" Ken laughed bitterly. "Merry-go-round, you mean. Hipped up beautifully from night to morning and earning hundreds a week. You're a funny Clara to be in show business. Too serious."
She smiled faintly. "Don't I know it? I was brought up that way. My mother thought she was violating God's law and man's when she sent me to dancing school. That was the only kick I got outa being a kid. One day I went over to Broadway from Brooklyn and tried out at a chorus call.
"They took me. I rehearsed like mad and before I knew it, the show was opening in Wilmington and I was staring at a swell looking kid crossing the stage.
"Ken … I can tell you. I fell for Johnny. We got married, Ken, and, oh, instead of it being all peaches and cream and honey, it was hell. Every time it was pain, terrible awful torture. At first I thought maybe that's the usual thing … It'll get better … It'll be what they say it is … heaven and all that.
"But, Ken, it never was. It was always agony. He knew it. But he was selfish. He didn't care about me hurting so. … Oh Ken, I do still care for him but … I'm scared of him."
"And Jean?" asked Ken.
"That's different. Dreamy. Makes me not care. Oh, Ken, when I was a little girl, twelve years old, I had a dream, a dream about a girl just like Jean. Jean's good. She treated me the way Jean does now. Jean's kind. I'm not afraid of her. She can't hurt me …" And Diana began to cry, softly, very softly.
Diana's simplicity, her confidence in Ken and her choice of him as her confessor, touched him. Yet he saw quite clearly that his sympathy for Diana was born of his own distress. For the moment, he regained perspective. What had happened to him? Was he really happy?
"Chicago is a depressing city," he told Diana. "At least, that's the way it hits me. I came here a couple of years ago with not even a clean shirt. Today I got plenty of shirts, but …"
"What have you got to worry about?" she asked. She dried her eyes. "As Jean says, you got the women backed off the map. You can live on your looks for another twenty years. But me … what have I got to look forward to?"
"Plenty, baby," he patted her cheek, "and don't think … drink."
The show was about to close. Chicago had not responded to Howard Vee's trenchant wit; his sophisticated melodies were, it appeared, already passé. Business had been poor. Mike Vee himself came to Chicago. He ordered the posting of a closing notice. He had no intention, he said, of paying losses out of profits already banked.
The news affected Ken not at all. Chicago days were dizzily whirling by. His pace was too great for Frankie. The pink-cheeked chorus boy, a boy no longer, refused to bask in the glow of Ken's greater success. Frankie had grown into a paler and wiser young man. He had stopped drinking. During his stay in Chicago, a rich old man of the West Side was befriending him. Ken saw little of him. Ken's own days and nights were full. His entourage contained new faces. His mind, jangling with new and more curious ideas, was weary of chorus boys and chatter about show business. It was a relief to spend the evening with a college boy or a young dairy farmer from Wisconsin or an electrical engineer who lived in an expensive lake shore apartment hotel.
Chicago, rousing slumbering memories, offered varied possibilities for entertainment, its ever-shifting group of parasites who clung to him, hands open, borrowing, eating free meals, drinking his liquor, soon whetted his appetite for parties and for what he succinctly termed, "laughs."
Within him a new and rich vein was being bared. While he was drinking, his mind seemed to escape the limitations of his body. He was never Kenneth Gracey. He was the lady superintendent of a girl's seminary putting her charges to bed, or a redheaded woman acrobat cursing the stage hands in a small town vaudeville theatre for not fastening the braces of her tightrope. Or Aunt Emily Winterbottom giving lessons in etiquette. Or just the plain old-fashioned old lady who lived in a shoe, explaining in detail how the children got there.
He never knew how he came to Rocco's. Perhaps he was kidnapped. It was possible that someone had snatched him from the gin flat around the corner from the theatre, where a loose, baggy ex-chorus girl sold diluted alcohol in her parlor and her withering charms in her bedroom. Ken, lounging on a settee, chatting with a magician out of work, could not recall when he had left the shabby flat. Perhaps, he smiled to himself, the magician had been Rocco in disguise and had whisked him off to his den.
Rocco's den, by the way, was a richly furnished apartment. Ken, chattering on, exhibiting the full repertory of his characterizations, suddenly decided to ask the swarthy, square-shouldered, snappily dressed young man who he was.
"Rocco," he said. Pale cheeks. Blue beard. Heavy eyebrows.
Ken chortled: "Old Auntie Bella Rocco or I'm a loose nut. Auntie Rocco, the racketeer—or should I say—Roccoteer."
"You're right." Rocco spoke in a sharp throaty voice. His eyes were black coals. "Let's go downstairs. It's my birthday."
"A party. Come on. I want you to dance."
As Ken descended narrow stairs, guided by Rocco, he recalled Joe Durazzo's words. Joe knew all about Rocco. "Ex-Capone," Joe had said. "Was. Isn't now. Edging in. Has a piece of our theatre. That's why we've had no shakedowns. The doorman is a Rocco mugg."
"Mugg?" Ken had laughed. "Muggsy-wuggsy doorman. How cute!"
But Rocco, leading the way downstairs, was anything but cute. He was imposing. Two guns, probably. Maybe three. What fun, eh kid?
Downstairs was an elongated room, designed somewhat after an enlarged bowling-alley, thought the very drunk Ken. And muggs—exquisite muggs—beautiful hard-boiled muggs.
"Hello, Percy," he hailed a heavy-jowled mugg who scowled as he passed.
"Grin, Pietro," said Rocco; and Pietro grinned.
To another, short, wizened, bald, Ken delivered a determined chuck under the chin. The little mugg snapped out of his seat. Rocco spattered orders in Italian with the rapidity of machine-gun fire, and the gnome settled back uneasily into his seat.
At the piano a square-thumbed square-hair-cut barked: "What d'ye want? The Saint Louis Blues?"
Rocco was polite. "They wait for you. After you finish, you eat if you want."
"I don't want to eat," Ken said. "But who are these boys?"
"My gang," said Rocco, with a sombre note of pride in his voice. Ken forced his drooping eyes open. Around a circular table sat Rocco's gang, fifteen delectably human morsels, as Ken said to himself. Then he looked again. Eyes focussed upon him, he looked into eyes, amused, friendly.
"Boys," said Rocco, "I got him. You watch now." He turned to the piano player. "Give him that piece from 'Sweeter Than Sweet.'"
The piano player snapped into it. He played three choruses while Ken drank champagne. Then, long legs askew in a gesture of abandon, Ken danced.
As he danced, the pulse of his temples throbbed aloud; his heart pounded, his head cleared. Surging of irresistible energy flooded his body.
Rocco stood at the side of the dance floor, eyes glowing with admiration. "What a dancer!" he cried. The "boys" applauded. Ken responded to the noisy expression of approval. He repeated the dance. "I told you so—what a dance!"
The dance over, Ken wanted to rest. His breath came in short gasps. The liquor pounded against his heart. "You sit next to me," Rocco said. Ken sat. "I kill for you, maybe," said Rocco. "Please don't—until I tell you to," Ken meekly requested. A waiter asked him what he wanted.
"No food. A drink," said Ken.
"My good Scotch," suggested Rocco with keen solicitude, "House of Lords, direct from the other side," he said proudly, "right under Al's nose."
"Who's Al?" Ken asked.
"If you say so, I kill him."
He nodded, eyes flooded with the glowing light of self-esteem. Then he rose.
"Boys," he said, "you drink to me, I know. That you did before. Now … drink to il huomo volante … my butterfly man."