By Catherine Day
She’d bought me for $8.00 last Saturday, and this was the first time she’d worn me out: hair curled and slicked back like a cap, lips painted into a succulent red pout. Mwah.
The street bustled outside the window of the dinner bar; from her spot in the booth, I could see the parade of fashions outside. Ladies strutted by in furs and pearls, gold and silver, everyone off to a secret rendezvous at their favorite speakeasy. There were silks and satins, brocades and organzas. A lot of them were a good deal finer than me, but I knew that she valued me just the same. I was the only dinner dress she had hanging in the armoire of the one room apartment she shared with three other women, her two other dresses drab cotton.
She tapped her scarlet shellacked fingernails on the table in time with the restaurant’s three-man band. Her date was late, I knew. I’d heard the conversation from where she called him in the hallway on the tenement’s only phone, the trill in her laugh when she told him she couldn’t wait for dinner and dancing. But now he was a no show, and she’d have no way to pay. While she might have been able to buy me, a twenty dollar dinner was more than she made in a week.
The bell on the door tinkled, and she looked up, smoothing my slim, deep purple skirt around her legs. I felt her sit up straighter when she saw who it was: a man in an expensive wool coat and black felt fedora. His eyes glittered like jet bead underneath the brim of his hat, and there was an air of thuggishness about the way he moved, as if he had violence stored in those well sculpted forearms, shown off by the coat’s exquisite tailoring.
He was mob, for certain. But did she know that?
“Raymond, baby,” she said, waving at him. She shifted slightly, trying to herself off better. I did my best to help her, though she didn’t need much.
“Hey, dollface,” he said, sliding into the booth across from her. “Sorry about the hour. You still hungry?”
“I am if you still promise to take me to dancing,” she said, lips pulled back in a coquettish grin. Raymond smiled back at her, a grin too white and wide.
He signaled to a waiter with a leather gloved hand, and they ordered: Oysters Rockefeller for her, roast duck and potatoes for him. Once the man had gone, he pulled a silver flask from his coat and took a long sip, then offered her some.
She took it trepidatiously, then swung it up to her mouth all at once, spilling a bit over the edge and onto me. That stain wouldn’t come out easily. But then, she probably thought he would buy her a hundred dresses if tonight went well.
The restaurant was playing jazz, obviously, a slow, sultry tempo that was slowly lulling her further into a daze of liquor and his company. It made me nervous, I will say. Men like Raymond weren’t kind to dresses like me when it came time to collect what they saw as theirs. I hoped she knew this.
Their dinner arrived, and she was very careful not to spill any of it onto me, trying to appear every inch the woman he would want, right down to the crystal beading on my low neckline that shone when she tilted her head just so. She was doing a good job, I will admit. Though this was my first time, I was in a dress made for a night like this: a dinner in low lighting, dancing while the music wraps around you like a feather boa, juice slopped in unseemly places before I was finally flung off into a puddle on the floor.
I was her armor tonight, but would I be strong enough to protect her?
By the time dinner was over, her heels were tapping against the floor in time with the music, her legs aching to fling themselves up into the Charleston, the foxtrot.
Raymond smiled languidly at her from across the table, long and lazy. He’d already had too many sips from that flask, but I don’t think she could tell–she was drunk as well, intoxicated by the night and it’s many possibilities.
“C’mon, kiddo,” she said, pushing herself up from the table. “Let’s dance.”
He drove us to the joint in his car; it was no Phantom, but it was his, and that was enough to impress her. As we sped through the city, I wondered how they’d fallen in together. Had she been his bank clerk? Did she sell him the gold cufflinks glittering at his wrists? I knew she worked a service job, but not what she did. I wasn’t the thing she wore when she had to rake in the chips.
The car ride left me no worse for wear, but her kiss curls were lucky to survive. Parking the car on a side street, he led her by the hand into an old rug shop, Persians lining the walls, their decadent patterns barely visible through the low lighting. It did wonders for my beading.
“Hey, kid,” Raymond said to the shrimp behind the counter. The boy looked up, eyes too hard and shrewd for one so young. “We’ll take the Mehraban.” I was fairly certain that didn’t mean Raymond wanted to purchase a rug.
“Head on back, mister,” the kid said, returning to his comic. He knocked a fist on the wood panel behind him, and it popped open with a hiss. A low babble of conversation, underlaid with jazz, floated out of the hidden door, and I felt her flex her toes in excitement.
She grabbed him by the hand, and pulled him behind her into the belly of the beast.
The first thing that washed over me was the jazz–louder than I’d ever heard it, so enveloping in its brassiness that I felt it in my seams. Stepping into it felt the same as someone shoving you aside on a rack, your fabric trembling with the sudden pull and push.
She was set to make her big entrance, but before she could step foot on the dance floor, Raymond grabbed her by the arm.
“What’s the big idea, baby?” she said.
His face was hard, as set as the wood paneling lining the walls of the speakeasy. “Before you get going doll, there’s a few ground rules.” She tried to pry her arm free, but he just gripped her tighter. “Don’t drink nothing I don’t give you. Don’t show off out there on the floor. You don’t want some other sheik peering at you. And last,” he leaned in closer, enough that the alcohol on his breath was mighty apparent. “Don’t go petting with some other cat. Tonight, you belong to me.”
His wide white smile was now a leer, shiny enough to reflect off my beading if you shined a light on it. She was tense in his grip, but then he let her go, and she stepped back, shaking me out.
“Yeah, yeah, baby,” she said. “I understand.”
“Good.” He gave her a once over, black eyes raking her over, then made his way to the bar. More than a few girls glanced his way as he parted the crowd, as did some of the boys. There was no mystery to it–Raymond was mighty attractive with those eyes and teeth and hair, but the insides didn’t exactly match the outs.
She shook herself, remembering the night she set out to have when she accepted his invitation, when she bought me, when she spent all that time drawing her cupid’s bow just right.
Dress. Booze. Jazz. That was the plan. Dress. Booze. Jazz.
This was going to be fun.
How long she danced on the floor, I lost track. I kept thinking that after this next number, she would tire out, that her feet would finally start hurting in those silvery t-straps, but this was where she belonged. Her partners just grew wilder, her movements more frenzied, her determination to enjoy herself stronger than any lapse in endurance.
This was what she’d come for, I realized. Not the man at the bar, his lips pulled back in a sneer as he ordered yet another drink of whiskey, his eyes stroking up the fawn-like legs of the broad beside him. She couldn’t care less what he thought of her, what any of them did, as long as she had a good time. She was here for the jazz.
I saw him at a distance at first, a glass tumbler clutched in his big hand, reaching up to deliver another sip to his mouth even as he accosted her. They all had their vices, I saw suddenly. Were any of the young people in this joint truly here for each other?
“Doris, doll.” His voice was low, but full of venom. “What was the last thing I said to you?”
“Well, gee, baby,” she said. She looked up at him with her big doe eyes, the ones she’d spent all that time lining with kohl. “It’s hard to recall. We’ve hardly stopped talking all night. Was it something about enjoying myself?”
His face curled, and I knew she’d gone where no other woman had dared to. They’d all been wowed by the big coat and the big bucks, the connections and car. But she had the courage in her–not booze, but the self-assurance of the jazz. He didn’t quite know how to handle it, so he settled with violence.
The slap hit her like a hangover, sending her stumbling back into another dame and her man. They stopped their dancing to stare with wide eyes as she picked herself up, dusting off the grime of hundreds of others shoes. I was especially thankful when she ran her hands over me to make sure I was still in dancing condition, that she cared for her dress so. When she was satisfied, she looked up, and I was sure that the look on her face was a sight to see.
Raymond was standing over her, but he wasn’t in any kind of stance, sure that he’d won. When he saw her expression, he faltered.
“Well, kiddo, I guess that settles that,” she said. Despite her mussed-up hair and the mark I was sure was blooming on her cheek at this very second, she was still determined to make the best of it. “Thank you for dinner, baby,” she said, and sauntered off, members of the crowd staring at her just as they had looked at him only hours before.
Behind her, Raymond stood, bewildered as his date took her first ever leave. He was not a man this happened to, I knew that much. But then again, she wasn’t the type of girl he usually went out with. He was lost, so he took another sip of whisky.
As she took a spot at the bar, making sure I was positioned just so, and ordered a drink for herself, I was sure of one thing: I was looking forward to my nights out with Doris.
Going with the Rhythm by Evelyn Vale