The wind blowing off Lake Michigan gives me jitters. It’s rattling the trolley wires, and the street lights hanging off them are swinging slowly, shuffling different parts of the street in and out of shadows. I look at the piece of paper in my hand. East 74th. It’s the right street. On a building across the road there’s a sign saying “ANDRE’S WHOLESALERS” above the door. This is the place. I put my hand inside the pocket of my trench coat and tap the small leather pouch. My salvation! I cross the road.
Andre’s smells like mold. I try to keep inconspicuous but I can feel people’s eyes on me. To my right a bunch of musicians are lounging about, instruments still in their cases. On the left are a couple of well-dressed Italian guys playing pool. Just near the bar is a ginger cat slurping milk from a bowl. The cat stops mid-slurp and looks up at me with sharp yellow eyes. That’s one smart looking cat.
I take a seat at a table as far away from other people as I can and hang my coat over the back of the chair. On the table is a copy of the Chicago Tribune someone has left. I see the date: November 5, 1927. Two weeks old – hardly surprising for a dump like this. I pretend to read and try to slow my pulse and concentrate on keeping my hands from shaking.
I hear the scraping of a chair and look up. A colored woman has taken a seat at the piano. She starts to play and when she sings it is the most haunting and beautiful ballad that I have ever heard. It is so moving I feel as though I am about to cry. The notes are cascading over themselves like spray coming off a waterfall. It makes me pine for Cassie, who right now will be at the boarding house packing up their meagre belongings and wrapping little Tanya up against the cold.
I pat the leather pouch in my pocket, the contents of which are my last shot at starting over. Just as soon as I’m finished here, me Cassie and Tanya are going to Dearborn to catch the overnight express. We’ll be in New York and a new life by tomorrow morning. I can’t wait to use my hands for honest work for a change.
Mid-way through a song a gust of chill air blows in through the door accompanied by a tall well-built man with a disagreeable look on his face. He sniffs the air like a wolf and surveys the room before resting his eyes on me. His eyes are pale, the color of Lake Michigan in mid-winter.
The man sits opposite me and orders drinks. I almost have a heart attack when the ginger cat, which must have been under the table, bounds out after the barman.
“So Joey,” says pale eyes, not smiling, “I’ve got what you want, so if you’ve got what I want then it’s time for a transaction.”
Of all the two-bit blind pigs on the South Side it would have to be Andre’s. All class is O’Sullivan for putting me up to this. I tell the cab driver that he’s lucky I’m feeling charitable and slam the door. He speeds off with a screech of tyres and sprays me with water from a pot-hole. Asshole. Christ, here comes the rain. Blowing sideways too, a real dirty night. At least the buttons won’t be venturing out of their clubhouse tonight.
I cross Coles Avenue onto East 74th. There’s a stink coming from Lake Michigan that assaults my nostrils. It smells like Johnny Rizzo when he shitted himself last time I collected the rent from him. “Rudi” he says, “Tell O’Sullivan I’ll pay it all next Friday.” “But you said that last week, ” I told him. “And how did that turn out? You got yourself a bill from the dentist as well.”
For a few minutes I case the joint. There’s a couple of lookouts on either side of the alley sticking out like sore thumbs. A few people shuffle in. A jaded hooker comes over and asks me If I want a good time. I decline, saying that I don’t have adequate health insurance and tell her to get her sorry ass out of here.
I give it a few minutes and saunter across.
Inside, Andre’s is typical of your lower class establishment. Dirty, with the stench of old vomit, but quiet. It’s just the kind of shit-hole that won’t draw the attention of the buttons. To my right are some of O’Sullivan’s boys. Why are they here? On the left, a couple of dago office clerks are shooting pool. At the piano some dusky broad is screeching out the most god-damn awful wailing you ever heard.
The punk is sitting at a table near the bar reading the Tribune. He looks over the top of the paper, catches my eye and nods. I walk over and pull up a chair.
I look at his hands but they give nothing away. Of course, you can’t tell what’s in a can-opener’s head by looking at his fingers. But his baby blue eyes look shifty and there’s a trickle of sweat running down his scrawny neck.
“Andre,” I call to the apron. “Get me some hooch on the rocks, and your best home made bourbon for my pal here.”
Andre brings over two glasses. I take a sip of the hooch. It tastes like piss. A ginger cat emerges from under the table and follows Andre. It looks to be carrying something in it’s mouth. Places like this are full of rats, and not just the four-legged kind.
“So Joey,” I says, addressing the punk. “I’ve got what you want, so if you’ve got what I want then it’s time for a transaction.”
The punk puts down the newspaper. He’s clean-shaven. Not more than twenty-three I’d say. Innocent looking. A real Daisy. His eyes flit about and he says, “Five hundred and it’s yours.”
“Five hundred. That’s what O’Sullivan agreed to.”
“Well three hundred is what I agree to,” I say, and make the point a little clearer by cracking each one of my knuckles. The punk stammers something about no honor between thieves but I politely tell him to go fuck himself.
He mumbles and reaches into his trench coat hanging over the chair and fishes around the pockets.
His face blanches. “Um, it ain’t here.”
“You goddamn sonofabitch, what do you mean it ain’t here? I’ve got a gat in my pocket that tells me it’s here. Don’t make me fill you full of daylight.”
“I’m telling you mister. It’s gone.” The punk’s face starts to twitch. He begins mumbling shit like New York…wife…baby…ticket outta here… Whatever he’s up to I don’t like it.
I stand up and pull out my Colt .45 and take aim at the safe-cracker’s head. The lowlife sinks down on to the floor whimpering like a baby. That’s when I hear it.
I know that sound all too well – it’s the safety-catch of a Chicago typewriter being made unsafe.
O’Sullivan, you double-crossing bastard.
I swing around to take a shot.
On the South Side of Chicago, down among the illegal liquor houses known as speakeasies or blind pigs, was a particularly filthy and uninviting establishment called Andre’s. One windy night in late fall, a young negro jazz singer and pianist called Juliette Johnson was about to make her debut performance there.
I can’t blow this opportunity. Damn, why are my fingers shaking so? Please don’t betray me. I don’t want to be washing dishes all my life. Just place them on the damn piano and you’ll be right. I form a C minor chord and press down quietly. It’s slightly out of tune and the keys are sticky but they are familiar and I feel at home. Across the room there’s a young clean shaven man reading a newspaper who looks as nervous as me. I’ll play for him. My fingers start to glide across the keys and when I sing my voice comes out much clearer than I expect.
Mid-way through my third song, the door opens and a thick-set man enters the premises. The man’s gray eyes are unnaturally piercing. He’s big with broad shoulders and everything about him is unsettling. Damn, I hit an F sharp instead of an E natural so I improvise to try and cover it up. Hopefully nobody has noticed. I see the man with the gray eyes has taken a seat at the same table as the young man.
Andre’s ginger cat runs out from under their table then I hear raised voices. “Go fuck yourself,” someone says. I look up and see the man with gray eyes stand up and point a gun at the young man’s head. The young man slides off his chair and cowers on the floor. There’s a a click from another part of the room. Shit, this is scary. I duck down behind the piano.
Suddenly a burst from a tommy-gun rents the air. From across the room where the men are playing pool another one replies. The barking tommy-guns fill the room with hot lead. There are screams and yells and the noise is deafening.
It’s all over in less than a minute. I lay there shaking on the floor. I hear the sound of someone staggering out the door and someone being dragged. Outside I can hear sirens. The cops will be here soon. Slowly, I poke my head up from behind the piano.
There is blood everywhere. Four bodies at least. Something moves in the far corner of the room. The young man has got to his feet, all color drained from his face. He walks over to the blood-soaked body of the man with the gray eyes and pulls out a wad of cash from his pocket.
The young man half-smiles at me, whispers “thank you” then comes over, peels off a few of the notes and places them on top of the piano. He hurries out the back and stops suddenly when Andre stands up from behind the bar. Andre nods at him and the young man touches his hat in acknowledgement and dashes out the back door.
* * * * *
Later that night, much later, after the cops have gone and Andre has cleaned up most of the mess, I sit down at the small table in Andre’s apartments above the bar. Andre has been kind enough to let me stay over tonight. I’m too damn frightened to go home.
It’s not what you’d call a grand apartment. A single naked light bulb dangles from the ceiling. It stinks of old cigars and body odor. There’s just enough room for a bed, a table, and the couch where I’m going to sleep. Not that I can really sleep after what I’ve seen. We are both sitting here, silent like, listening to the wind rattling the window panes and sipping bourbon. From time to time I see a snowflake gently land on the glass.
Andre’s sitting there supporting his head with one arm, his other hand cradling the glass. His eyes are red. He raises the glass and speaks for the first time in a while: “You played good tonight, Juliette. Pity it got cut short. Don’t worry. No more kitchen for you. When we re-open I’ll hire you again.”
I barely know what to say. I feel tears welling up. I’m going to practice and practice on that old piano and never wash dishes again.
The ginger cat jumps onto the table, startling us both. It rubs it’s body against Andre’s arm and he tickles it under the chin.
“What have you got there Boots, not a mouse is it?” he says, teasing at something in the cat’s mouth. He shows it to me with raised eyebrows – a small leather pouch. Boots sits down watching intently. Andre unties the strap and tips out the contents. The objects glitter and gleam and sends the light from the bulb spinning and bouncing around the walls. I exhale slowly and stare disbelievingly at the objects on the table.