Sunday, December 21, 2008

Chapter Seven - Dancing the Hootchie Cootchie

My friend the courier called himself Will. Will Selden. He lived with his family on a farm, up the hill toward Middlefield. He had fourteen brothers and sisters, and said he was working on his third mother. Though his first mother died before he was born, and his second mother was his real mother, who died in childbirth with a younger brother, Luke. His third mother was his stepmother, whom he hated like a dog hates the wagon wheel that finds its tail in a rut in the road.

Will got in and out of the house as quickly as he could, and though he contributed some of his wages to its upkeep, his status as a full-time worker kept him from the farm chores that he hated so. When I went to supper at his home with him the first time, I sat at the table and was not noticed as a stranger by any who sat around me. So numerous were the faces, so darkened with the dust of the day and the crusted phlegm of uncountable nostrils, and so frequent the strange face of a hungry visitor that I was offered victual and scolding alike with little concern that I was not born a Selden.

The job Will found for me proved profitable, and difficult.

From six in the morning until six at night, I hefted the cowhides, sometimes still warm from the slaughterhouse, and dropped them in vats of boiling water. Still steaming, I dragged them out with a long set of iron tongs, then set about scraping away the thin layer of outer skin and hair with a rake-like bladed tool, and finally a hard-bristle brush.

In the first weeks of work, my fingers bled, and my skin was as red as if I had held them in a snow bank. Now my skin was hard, and scaling white where it was not brown. My arms looked like they'd been tanned in one of the vats in McKinley's tanning house.

After six months of working, I'd saved $6. Not enough to allow me to take Lizzie away from the asylum, but at that rate I figured I'd have $28 in a year and a half. At that point, I'd be able to buy a wagon, and by renting a horse, I'd be able to perform livery service around Middletown.

McKinley let me sleep in a loft above the vat room. It was small, but so was I. And it only got cold on Sunday when the fires from the tanning vats were extinguished. On the coldest Sundays I'd head to Middlefield with Will. I could always find a warm bed there, usually occupied by at least one other body, but never too crowded to accommodate one more.

Will and I became fast friends, and spent much time with one another when we were not working, though we worked most of the time. In our few hours off, we ventured down to the burlesque to listen to Mr. McDonough play the melodeon on the back steps of his theater. And he kindly introduced us to several of his actresses, as he calls them. I also met music men, traveling actors, endmen and minstrel singers. I learned to love the music of the banjo, and the words of Shakespeare. I knew the local dancing girls by name. Will always told me to imagine them without their fancy dresses on, but I'm afraid he had a more powerful imagination than I.

Mr. McDonough continued his habit of letting me have a go at the melodeon, and I must say I became quite proficient at the simple tunes. Good enough to have Mr. McDonough invite me to play on his stage before one of the regular shows. I always declined, mostly perhaps, due to Will's hissing in my ear about "the devil's playground" and "the devil's workshop." Though he seemed the one to suggest most frequently that we visit this notorious territory of the damned.

Then, one day Mr. McDonough said that Will could accompany me inside the theatre if I decided to perform. Now, Will began to cajole me to practice the squeezebox at every chance so I could get up on that stage, and so he could get a closer look at the dancing girls.

I continued to decline the invitation because I didn't have the confidence to play for anyone besides Will and Mr. McDonough. Once, one of the actresses, she called herself Merilee, though her real name was Aggie, came out during one of my performances. My back was to the door, and Will told me later, that Aggie skipped merrily on the top step as I played. She held her leg stiff and high, and kicked like a frisky pony. And when I was finished she called to me.

"Play another, boy. That was a fine jig. I haven't danced that way since I was a girl in Tralee."

But I threw the instrument at Mr. McDonough and flew down the alley.

Breathing hard under the marquee on Main St., I didn't know if it was the fear of performance or the fear of that tall, curly-haired, blue-eyed woman smiling at me. She was a mystery in taffeta. Her waist was narrow enough for me to put my arms around twice, and yet above and below that intersection of torso and thigh, her body swelled in a way that left me, as I was from running hard, breathless.

Will followed after me and, it being Sunday, and the Lord's day in a town that feared God just a bit more than it worshipped commerce, we walked the streets and alleys of Middletown searching for any trace of Vinny.

We stopped at the yeasty doorways of taverns and listened to the shouts and curses, and the snores. We checked the barns and lofts of livery stables. We scoured the docks and warehouses. We walked from the Tuttle brickyards down by the Little River, all the way to Russell's Suspender Manufactory on the other end of Main. We stopped and eyballed the goods in the windows of Steuks and Wrubels. We peered from the hedges near Chaffee's and spied the factory owners and their wives going for a fancy Sunday dinner. We steered clear of the Insane Asylum, and we took wide berth of the churches.

When we first started our search six months ago, our investigations were as religious as those Methodists, Baptists and Catholics we saw heading for Sunday service. We searched for hours until we, or the light was exhausted. We both learned about Middletown in a way that we never would've had we searched only the main streets and highways.

Will was fascinated as much by my description of Vinny's facial affliction as he was by the re-told stories of the high seas and foreign adventure that I shared with him. Half the time when Will spoke during our search, he spoke as if he were searching for treasure, the rest of the time, it was as if there were some dangerous monster at the end of our trail.

After six months, our search had become symbolic, like those Methodists, Baptists and Catholics heading for Sunday service.

After the first three weeks of looking we never really expected to find Vinny. We turned over ever rock we could lift in Middletown, and, after all, though it seemed huge in the eyes of two small boys, Middletown was not that big to begin with.

Besides, we asked every one we came in contact with, and once seeing Vinny, you could not forget him. But despite our description, no one could recollect him, and no one had heard that such a man had ever been seen in Middletown.

Still, each Sunday morning we rose and performed our own Sunday service.

We stopped at the Italian bakery on Oak Street, where, even on Sunday, old man Salini was working. He called himself godless, and he and the devil had to bake for those who were going to heaven. Then he laughed and for two pennies we were able to get four hot loaves of bread, with a crust that was as tough as the interior was tender. Sometimes he wouldn't even take our pennies. And if we were lucky, and we were often lucky, because we planned our luck as all lucky men do, we would cross paths with Sherer’s’ dairy wagon.

It was a large elaborate affair, with a fancy paint job that listed all his products in yellow lettering outlined in black over six inches high. Mysteriously, the word "BUTTERMILK" was set in letters twenty inches high and set off to the side of the other products listed.

We'd shout to Sherer, and he happily reined his old dobbin to a stop. Then he'd scuttle down from his perch and move around to the back of the wagon. At this time of year, at the beginning of winter, before the first ice had set, when he opened the thick door of his wagon, we caught glimpses of the last ice of a winter. Ice we hadn't seen for months. This ice was precious and rare. It had grown smaller, more coarse with the passing of the year, hidden from the cruel sun in a deep cool cellar hole. It was grainy ice, lined with the thatched tattoo of the straw in which it had been packed. But even on a grey November day, when the old ice was as rare as a daffodil, he'd pluck a piece out with every purchase and encourage us to suck on the icicle he'd hold out to us.

"Boys get hot running around," he'd say. A trace of German clung to Mr. Sherer's Yankee merchant voice like thistle to a parson's cassock.

"What can I get you boys?"

"Two pints of milk," we'd shout together.

"And a hunk of your stinkiest cheese."

"It's Sunday," he'd say. "Gott don't want a man should work on Sunday. Do you boys believe in Gott?"

We both said we did. I still said a prayer each night before bedtime.

"Good," Sherer said. "Gott don't want poor boys to be hungry on his favorite day."

And for another nickel, we had food for the day.

At the end of our wanderings, we always seem to find ourselves on the riverbank, skipping stones through the current, or launching ships, the jagged driftwood that the river coughed up, and watch our rough boats weave themselves to the river's center, and off toward the ocean with our dreams.

During this season, when the sun began to dip early, and the wooded riverbank grew long with shadow, Will would take his leave and head down the bank toward town and home, while I climbed the bank and headed up toward the asylum to visit Lizzie, when it was safe, in the afternoon's dark.

"Are you dressing warm when you go out in the cold?"

"You ask me that every time I see you," I protested. Look at me. I stood and turned so she could see my coat and trousers, my boots and woolen stockings. Dressed fully, though she always managed to find an untucked shirt tail, or a stray collar that she could put to right, smoothing the offending shirt and then patting it as if to say, "now you're perfect."

"And I've got my cap in my pocket. I eat, at least every other day."

She asked to see my hands and arms, as she did ever week, with a "tsk" for every scratch and bruise, whether it was earned at the tannery, or in rough-housing with Will.

Deely served us Sunday leftovers, and Lizzie protested, but Deely would hear nothing of it. It was hocks and gravy, with potatoes and late carrots, and a big chunk of apple betty.

As always, when I left, Deely came to give me a hug and filled my pockets with bread and cheese and an apple or two if they were handy. But apples were always plentiful. The fields around Middletown were checkered with orchards.

At this time of year I walked home to the tannery in the purple dark of winter twilight. Even on a Sunday night, Middletown was a port town, the saloons and hotel lobbies threw bolts of light onto the street and the street corners contained all the energy that had been pent up inside the hold of some dark ship for weeks or months.

Blue laws or no, the whiskey flowed, and the men swayed as they held the arms of gussied up women.

On the way past McDonough's I heard music and laughter, and I stopped for a moment to wonder just what might be creating the delighted response. I was awakened from my thought by a thunder roll of applause, and the doors bursting open with the gents racing for one more illegal swallow before the saloons locked up for the night.

As I climbed the hill past the college my breath came out in shiny fair-weather clouds. The sky was burning with stars. And it made me a little sad that Vinny wasn't here to tell me which was the big dipper, and which was the archer.

Monday found me still rubbing the sleep from my eyes as a load of new skins arrived from the slaughterhouse. I saw my week piled in front of me, some still steaming with the forgotten life of the cow.

Funny, even though I knew these were nothing more than the skins of dead cows, I never associated them with the pretty black and whites that grazed in the pastures on the outskirts of town.

Steaming with near-life though they were, they were inanimate and cold as the boots they would eventually be fashioned into.

I was unloading skins and forming a pile inside the warehouse door, close as I could get to the steaming vats, when Ben Deverte passed me with a pile of scraps, for the heap outside.

"Where you going with those hides, Ben," I shouted as he stepped toward the scrap heap to toss the hides on.

"Boss says toss em'," he shrugged.

I walked over to him and examined the tanned hides. They were scraps from larger hides, but larger scraps that would certainly be used to form a ladies shoe, or clutch, or a man's wallet. At the very least the scraps would form a belt. They were free of defects, hook holes, or bruises.

"I work hard to tan these hides. Has McKinley lost his senses. This is good leather."

Ben looked at me bemused.

"Boss says throw them out. I throw them out. Can't take 'em home. Can't eat them. What good are they?"

"That's a mail pouch there. And that's a cane handle. Hell, I'm no boss but I can think of a hundred uses for them."

"Jack, boy, don't you know what day it is?"

He stopped me. He did. But it was too early for Christmas. And Founder's Day had come and gone. We were working, anyway, so it couldn't be any important holiday.

"It's Wednesday, Ben."

"Not just any Wednesday Jack. Old man leather's due today."

He spoke as if he were making perfect sense, just as Deely had. I had no notion of why the arrival of a raggedy old tramp could make a difference in anybody's day.

"Old man leather. Well, of course Ben, that explains it all."

Taking my sarcasm as satisfaction, Ben turned and began stacking the good scraps on the pile with the bits and pieces that would be burned at the end of the week in the waste fire.

"Ben. It doesn't make any sense to me at all. It doesn't even make horse sense."

"It makes all the sense in the world when the boss says to."

"Well why does the boss want you to throw away good leather."

"I told you, that old man leather will be by today."

"And I'll brew the tea."

"Oh no, Jack. He don't eat here. We ain't that lucky."

"You mean you ain't lucky enough to have some poor beggar at your door take the hard earned food from your mouth."

"No, if we was that lucky, Mr. McKinley might have a tannery twice this size."

"Ben you're hopeless. I won't ever pull any sense out of your mouth."

"Boy, don't you see. When the leather man visits, it's good luck. If he let's you touch his coat, it's better luck. And if he takes something from you. You, my son, are a blessed man."

"So, Mr McKinley puts out good leather so this old tramp will take it."

"Just like I said."

"Well why don' t he just put it in a box and put a ribbon on it, wouldn't old man leather like it that much better?"

"Old man leather don't want no gifts. Don't want no charity. Just wants to take from the world what's his, and give back a little luck. That's all."

"Well, I think I'll rub his old coat when he gets here today. I could use some help finding Vinny."

"You'll need some luck just to rub his coat."

"What do you mean?"

"He don't let just anyone touch him. Touch him straightforward that is. You can kind of sidle up to him, and brush against him. But he is a shy creature. And it's durn hard to get close."

"So what if he's shy. I won't hurt him. I need all the luck I can get."

Ben depleted his pile and began to walk back inside the tannery. I stood and scanned the horizon for sign of the tramp.

"What 'cha waiting for?" Ben asked.

"Old man leather," I said, examining a dot on a distant hill that turned out to be a cow.

"May as well wait for old man winter. Old man leather will be here at 3:00. Sure as the train will pull into the station ten minutes after he's gone."

Ben pulled off his cap and scuffed it against his knee. A cloud of dust rose in a shaft of sunlight breaking through the loose slats of the tannery building.

"He's a tramp, Ben. Never heard of a tramp with a schedule."

"Well, now you did," he said, and turned into the cool darkness of the building.

I looked once more out over the horizon. Looked up at the empty window of Mr. McKinley's office. I'd be back at three for my share of the luck.

But my luck was to be of a different kind this day. After scrubbing most of three loads of cowhide, Mr. McKinley came in the scrub room and inspected my work.

"Doing a fine job, Jack. Keep at it and we'll make a tanner of you yet."

"Thank you sir."

"But for now Jack, break off. I need you to run into town. I've got an errand for you, boy."

"What time is it, Sir."

Without hesitation, Mr. McKinley reached for a chain that draped slightly out of his right pocket. With a sharp tug his hand was holding a gold watch that seemed to fill his big palm. It was worn smooth except around the winding stem, where a delicate leaf carving made it seem as if the watch had been plucked from some plant that sprouted hours and minutes.

"It's one-thirty, Jack."

"If I run to town and back, I can get here before old man leather does."

"You won't be running jack. You've got to take the wagon. The pulley wheel on the strainer broke, and the smith is going to patch it until we can get a new one from the forge. If you hurry you'll be back in time to clean another load of skins before the Leatherman gets here. But don't you ride Isaiah into a sweat."

I was running toward the carriage shed before he even stopped talking. I shuffled backwards and told him I take care of horse and wagon.

"I'll be back."

I needed the luck.

I drove the old brown, Isaiah, down Sumner and Cherry, and onto Washington. It was just a bit longer, and less direct, but the road had less ruts, and I could travel faster. The big iron pulley wheel sang and rattled as it tipped from side to side in the wagon.

"I can fix that crack while you wait," the smithy said. He spat a great river of tobacco. A small stream ran between the seedling stubble on his chin. But he wiped this away with a rush of his great forearm.

"I ain't got the time," I answered.

"Well, McKinley'll have to wait until Wednesday if he don't take it now. I'm shoeing a unit of the governor's footguard when they come by this afternoon."

I knew the word'd get back to McKinley if I failed to take the smithy up on his offer. So I told him to fix the wheel, but to hurry. He said it'd take him a half an hour, and it was two ten now. With luck I could still beat old man leather to the tannery.

I wasn't far from McDonough's Palace, close enough to take the walk there in hopes that the man himself would be sitting on the stage door steps with his melodeon and his vest open.

When I turned the corner to the alley I saw that the stairs were empty, but the door was open a crack. I climbed the stairs and stood close to the door. I didn't hear melodeon, but I did hear a woman crying, then a man shouting. Then McDonough's voice.

I poked my head through the door to make out what the shouting was about.

"I didn't raise her to be no whore," the man's voice shouted.

"I ain't no whore Papa. I'm a dancer," the woman's voice sobbed.

"The hootchie-cootchie. You may as well sell it to every man between here and Saybrook. It's the same thing. Showing what's yours so every sailor can talk about you at every port on the Eastern coast."

"Mr. Tracy, be reaonable. I run a legitimate theatre here. No one touches these girls, without...." it was McDonough's voice.

"Without your permission. Without your accounting for how much they gets paid, no doubt. Your a panderer, McDonough. And she, to my shame, has become a whore. I'm taking her home."

"Papa, I told you I ain't no whore. I'm a dancer. Let me show you."

It was quiet like for a few moments. I could just make out the scuffling of feet on the floor.

"It ain't the hootchie-cootchie girl, but it ain't decent. Get your things, let's go. I won't have any more of it."

"I won't go, Papa."

"Certainly Tracy, she's a grown woman. She can make up her own mind," McDonough said.

"Grown woman? Why she's barely seventeen. Is that growed to you Mr. McDonough. Maybe the good people of Middletown should know more about what you think is moral, and not."

"I assure you, Tracy. I haven't touched her."

"I'm growed enough to work for you, Papa. I'm growed enough to work for myself."

"You'll be coming home with me girl. Get your things."

"I won't be going home."

That's when I heard the scuffling begin. I stepped inside the door. My eyes were still blinded by the sunlight, but I could tell that the argument was not taking place in the corridor.

I skidded through the dark room. The ceiling was high, and filled with ropes and pulleys, higher than the main barn at Will's house. Higher than the inside of South Church. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I spent minutes examining the curtains and chandeliers, and the great pieces of flat wood with farm scenes, and snow scenes painted on them. The one with the snow scene had a great black bear stalking a lone Indian.

"If she doesn't want to go Tracy," it was McDonough again.

"I don't," the girl.

"Well, all right then. Have it your way. Stubborn as my mule. Stubborn as your mother."

I followed the voice with my eyes to a lit platform on the stage. On it stood McDonough and the girl. Aggie, the same girl who said I played a fine Irish jig. She sobbed into McDonough's shoulder. A door in the back of the room swung open and shut, open and shut. The old man must have just left.

"There, there Merilee. He'd only've beaten you once more."

She pulled her head from his shoulder and looked into his eyes. Then they both looked toward the back of the room. I looked too.

The old man was back. With a pistol.

"You'll come now girl," he said, running to the stage.

"I won't Papa. Go away. Go home."

"Let's be reasonable," McDonough said again.

"I'm through being reasonable," the old man said.

He raised the gun and pulled off two shots. McDonough fell to the floor first. Then the girl fell on top of him.

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