I arrived. There was the matter of money. When you’re rich people don’t bother you for it but I had no proper money and so I strode from the taxi as if I did have. Rain poured from the sky. A bellhop sheltered me under his umbrella. The hotel lobby was carved oak, the carpet a worn elaboration on The Savoy’s. I pressed some Canadian bills into the hand of the doorman and he paid the cabby. The concierge spoke German, which surprised me.
“I’m not German,” I told him in perfectly good English.
“Excuse me, sir. I thought.”
“Welcome. Bienvenue. You will be happy here. The thunder boats have arrived.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“And the pirates.”
“The pirates are local men, sir, dressed as pirates.”
“They rattle sabers and scare children along the parade route.”
“Are they very noisy?”
“Very. Though the hotel remains quite serene, particularly on the upper floors.”
“I would like an upper floor please, facing the ocean.”
“’The Sound,’ sir. Facing the Sound. There is no ocean, properly speaking.”
The bellhop took my trunk. It was heavy with flatware and Florian’s suits. I smiled at him and he blushed as the elevator doors closed. There was gin in a decanter on the sideboard. Ice in a bucket was fresh. My rooms faced southwest and I could see the city, and beyond it water, and beyond the water darkness. Beacons sparkled in the night. Red and green light danced in ribbons on black water. A cold plate came on tarnished sterling. I had better in my suitcase and used flatware from there. The city was quiet so that I could hear sea birds and some more distant sounds.
On my first morning I ate spiltburen in the Spanish Room of the Olympic. The paper had news of a house fire in Leschi. So many beautiful names: Leschi, Ravenna, Madronna, Duwamish, Sealth. The coffee was abysmal. Arson was suspected. A child in West Seattle had won a national spelling prize. The conductor of the symphony was detained in France for bigamy.
My first American dollars came from Carl Dickle at the Borealis Lounge. I played a few songs and he gave me $20 for a quality suit, but I already had a suit and used the money to tip the concierge and the bell captain. Carl said to return at ten. I would play until 4:00 AM, unless the police came. Payment was in cash, plus tips. Mondays and Tuesdays I had free.
At 9:30 I took a taxi from the hotel, north on Aurora Avenue to 121st street. The sky was dark above us but light behind mountains to the West. We crossed Aurora Avenue Bridge where street lamps glowed. The night air smelled sweet with hemlock and lake water. Logs tied in booms lined the shore below us. The taxi driver spoke without listening.
The Borealis was empty except for Carl Dickle. Noise from the kitchen was prep work. A false constellation of stars speckled the ceiling. The piano was not terrible, a Steninger that had been recently tuned. Carl drank bourbon. The piano’s action was hard and I liked its fight. It stood near the back on a small platform that I shared with the singer, Laura Ness. She liked to sit—sprawl—on the piano, which I tolerated. Laura was a terrible singer and eventually I taught her how. We played Kurt Weill because anything else was too difficult for her, but that suited me.
“You’ll like Laura,” Carl Dickle said.
“Where did she study?” Carl ignored this obtuse question and I gave him a cigarette, one of Florian’s.
“Fancy.” He leaned toward me. It might have meant something. I smiled. “They’re fabulous. Are they French?”
“That concierge at The Garden is French. Do you know him?”
“I’ve never been. Is it an arboretum?”
“I thought you might know him. He’s French.”
“I don’t go out much.”
“It’s a dance club, great fun.”
“I’ve only ever been when I’m very drunk.”
“It must be fabulous there drunk.”
“It’s a hoot. You can’t believe these girls, I mean they’re not real girls. They’ll break your heart.”
“It’s a burlesque?”
“Yes, I think so. Jimmy is fabulous.”
“Oh, God yes. A voice like smoke and honey.”
“Has Laura been?”
“To The Garden?”
“I take it she’s very green. Exposure to a finer talent might help her.”
“Oh, save your money. Jimmy is hardly ‘finer.’ He’s a two-bit whore.”
“But his voice!”
The Garden entrance was down stairs through a side-door. It was The Garden of Allah. I had over-dressed and Laura surprised me by wearing a garish sarong. The doorman took our coats. I kept my scarf and hat, which had been Florian’s and still had holes where the mice had gnawed through it. Because we looked unusual the maitre d’ seated us by the stage. Smoke from my cigarette curled blue through spotlights. The bar had Cointreau and they served it on ice. Laura was poised, petrified really, but fear fixed her expression in a kind of simulacrum of bland disinterest that was very attractive. I smiled and ignored anyone looking. Laura could have been a man, her shoulders were broad enough. I think most of the clientele presumed she was. I smiled more, pretending indifference.
“They think you’re a man,” I told Laura. She squeezed her face into an ugly frown, her sign that she was listening. “Don’t frown that way.”
Now she blushed. “But I’m not a man.”
“Of course not. But people find you interesting.” She frowned again, a sadder frown. “That’s pathetic, Laura, stop it. People will think I’m mistreating you.” This made her pout. Chorus girls filled the stage. Their feet were enormous. Organ music obscured their exertions. It was, absurdly, Carmina Burana, or something like Carmina Burana. I waved some money at the waiter and then some more at the maitre d’.
If you have ever actually smelled money you will know that it stinks. To smell a dollar is to take in every hand that has ever passed it. The passing of money is a machine for the refinement of dirt. The softness of an old dollar is the apotheosis of dirt. It is flat and musty. History sticks to it. And money is forgettable. It is small and crumples or folds. Forgotten money lines every pocket in the world. Every house hides an inexhaustible reserve. It recedes and disappears, like a tide or fever, and then it bursts from its hiding place. Money tingles the skin as it leaves us, like a sharp cologne or tonic. It thrills and becomes useful, then evaporates into nothing. Coins taste like blood, bills like sweat. There is nothing so archaic as money.
I parted with my bills. In the shadow of the dancing girls money poured from me, suppurating, which drew some attention. The more I lost the richer I seemed. Laura smiled, drunk on my profligacy, and this made her truly beautiful. We danced between tables. Paper streamers laced her hair. Her sweat was acrid, or mine was, mingled with lavender in the heat of the room.
(excerpt from a novel-in-progress, Tender, by Matthew Stadler)