From Jackson’s vantage point on the piano bench, it appeared that Frankie, the “bartender” who’d hired him three months ago, knew everyone in Vegas. The big-shot gamblers, gangsters, movie stars, musicians, comedians, the “dolls.” For a barrel-shaped boulder with a 24/7 five o’clock shadow, all wrapped in a perfectly tailored tux and custom Italian loafers, he moved with an incongruous grace through the shoulder pats, two-handed handshakes, inside jokes, giggles, kisses on his cheeks or blown with a wink. It took him twenty minutes to work his way through the people cloud in the anteroom to the piano. He set his drink on one of the dozen or so coasters Jackson kept on top, hitched his slacks up, lowered himself onto the piano bench, interlaced his fingers between his thighs.
“You been good for me, know that?” Frankie looked around the anteroom between the lobby, restaurant, and the Stiletto at the plush ‘gay-cor’ upgrades made over the last three months by Johnny’s girl Lou and Savannah the hooker. “Damn good.” Frankie drained his rocks glass full of Coke. “Lookit,” he turned his head in a slow arc. “Who’da thought you an that smart-ass whore would be the ones brought me some romance back to a corner room in Lost Wages.” He snorted, flipped Jackson’s Paul Revere ponytail. “Hippie motherfucker. Sure you wanna go?”
“No.” Jackson killed time while he kept loose track of ‘All the Things You Are.’ “But I need to amount to something besides Vegas lounge lizard and hooker houseboy.”
“Some guys, that’s their dream.” He jiggled the ice in his dead Coke, tried for the last drop while he side-eyed Jackson. “Lounge Lizard’s icing.”
“When I was fourteen or fifteen, I used to tell my mother playing piano in a whorehouse was my big dream. She told me not to tell her if it came true.” Jackson’s turn to hit Coke in a tall Collins glass. “So I haven’t. What’d you tell yours?”
“She run off with a Portuguese door-to-door knife sharpener, I was seven. Followed him out the door laughin’, no suitcase, nothin’ in her hand but a bottle of vodka. Put my old man sour on women for a while. He threw all her shit down the trash chute except a big stack of records.” A waiter cut from male underwear model cloth glided up, replaced their Cokes and vanished.
“With two brothers, a sister, all workin’, at seven I got my houseboy job. I listened to that stack of her records while I cooked, cleaned, folded. Kept me sane. I was seventeen, figured if I had some money I could make a go of a restaurant. ‘Course everybody knew better. Laughin’, callin’ homo an shit on me. ‘Little men an queers run restaurants. Big boy like you should box.’ Since I was twelve, I hit a man he stayed down, where’s the kick in that for me? Fuck boxing, I wanted a restaurant.” He killed the new Coke.
“You should get a bigger glass.” Jackson let a passing chord hang forever before he dropped on the resolve.
“That shit there,” Frankie said, “you do that, everybody in the place is holdin’ their breath and they don’t even know it. You let it fall the whole room relaxes, wants to kiss somebody. Subliminal is what Savannah calls it. You do it on purpose. You ever get in a hurry?”
“Driving. Playing something plugs in the wall. Houseboy duty. What’d you do about the restaurant?”
“Somebody killed a friend of mine and his old man. Mindin’ their own business workin’ in their shop. For twelve lousy dollars. Had to do what had to be done. Things took off on their own after that, I never got my place. Why you been good for me. This is the place I wanted. The food’s lousy ‘less you like Savannah’s whore’s-derves, but nobody cares. I come in, everybody’s glad to see me, see each other. Even the asshole Jews complain about everything are happy. Friendly. Like outta some movie. Good, y’know? Everybody needs a place don’t feel like sandpaper to some part of their soul.”
“Next thing I know you’ll tell me you’ve been reading poetry.”
“You ain’t tellin’ nobody if I am. San Francisco, Philly, Kansas City. Tulsa even, you can find places like that. Quiet, friendly, good music. All the time I’m sayin’ Vegas is a cheesy, no class fuckin’ carnival. Except here. I wasn’t scared of catchin’ somethin’ I’d kiss that whore brought me your picture.”
“Can’t sell that one. You’d kiss her in a heartbeat just to say you’d let her suck your tongue down her throat and then ran off without paying her and got away with your balls.”
“Godammit…” Frank slapped his thigh, shook a little with a Santa Claus chuckle. “That’s what I’m gonna miss. You and Savannah don’t give a fuck I get pissed off at people bust my chops. So I don’t when it’s you two, and the doc says that’s good for me.” He reached up, fanned out the coasters. “These tell me you expect visitors. Who you recognize in this room?”
“When you’re gone?”
“I played piano in a blind corner of an old hotel lobby. Never knew anybody. Except I might keep the one about the roof party and the guy that looked a lot like a movie star who tipped me a thousand dollars to play Grand Canyon Suite while the sun set.”
“He got drunk with a doll half his age in his lap. He ain’t gonna complain to me maybe you faked it. You and the doll both fucked him, ‘cept you kept your pants on and made two, three times what she did. Lookit, I’m not here to do memory lane with a fuckin’ hippie. People might get the wrong idea, like I’m maybe gonna miss you.” He clicked a black lacquer pen he’d pulled from inside his tux, wrote a number on the back of a coaster, slid it over in front of Jackson. “Any trouble on the way to bein’ somebody I’d still like to know,” he stood, drained Jackson’s Collins glass of Coke, looked around for a waiter. “Pick up a phone.”
The only word he could find for the way Savannah smelled was ‘expensive.’ He’d tried to justify that around her profession, couldn’t. It wasn’t what she did, or looked like or wore, she simply smelled like what diamonds would smell like if they had a smell. Barely there, nothing tangible he could pick out. Amanda’s hair always smelled that far off exotic way, like where magic carpets came from, Alix like a spring garden floating in through a window. Deanna…Ivory soap and lavender and a touch of Chanel. Clean. Even when she sweat. She smelled like…Deanna –
“I asked you a question.” Savannah had narrowed her eyes, knitted her brows together, pulled herself closer to him on the piano bench. “Am I dead? Disgusting? Bothering you?”
“No, no. Not…I don’t need anything.”
“Take this anyway. Don’t lose it.” She pushed an upside-down coaster with a number written on it in front of him. “In case.”
“In case you get lonely in La La Land.”
“I couldn’t afford –”
“You let me worry about ‘afford.’ Call, tell them you’re mine, done.”
“I thought my deal with pros was no contact. Or minimal contact. Besides, me and professional sex?”
“You’re not a houseboy anymore. And don’t go all romantic or pious on me, it’s the oldest profession for a reason. The best girlfriend in the world is one who listens like she cares, fucks your brains out and leaves. What did Frank want?”
“He gave me a coaster. Kinda like yours.”
“Yeah?” She looked over her shoulder, the twist brought her left thigh full contact with his right. His foot slipped and the piano pedal banged. “You have a problem, Frank’s the one to know.”
“I thought Johnny–”
“Johnny’s a puppet. He doesn’t make the PTA and apple pie people look mobbed-up when they get their picture taken with him. Frank’s the man.” Her boobs brushed his arm. “God, can you imagine the Sisters of Hope selling prime geo at two-times market and trying to look angelic in their hard hats with Frank?” She stopped halfway back around, her lips an inch from his ear, breathed “What’s my name?”
“Savan-uhhhh….” He had to lean slightly to his left before her breath set his right ear on fire.
“Don’t forget it. It won’t take much of the L.A. Woman syndrome before you’ll want to use it and the number, trust me.” She tapped the coaster with a fingernail. “So when it gets that way, pick up a phone.”
“That’s what Frankie said.” He dropped his voice about two octaves. “Pick up a phone.”
“Yeah?” She turned all the way forward, put out a cigarette in the piano top ashtray with her right hand, let her left fall on his thigh. “Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t have that roll of quarters in your pocket when I sat down, babe, or I’d be worried about you two. Silly me,” She slid off the bench, leaned down, planted a bright red lipstick tattoo on his cheek. “For a minute there I thought you weren’t paying any attention.”