Main > Series > Chapters > Fame Book 2 > Chapter 1

Over on the far side of the lot, the word Kickers shone out in orange neon from over a set of basement steps. The building above was already dark, a low-rent office block with the windows of its lower two storeys boarded over; it seemed that nobody in this neighbourhood wanted to be walking home when the daylight had faded.

Doris Schwartz had been feeling uneasy from the moment that the three of them had ascended from the subway station and emerged into the street. The crud and graffiti down below had been nothing compared to the crud and graffiti that met their eyes above ground; there was grit in the air, and the grave-damp smell of plaster and stone that told a story of unseen demolition behind the sidewalk boards.

They'd better move fast, Doris thought. Otherwise the whole area's gonna collapse on its own and put them out of a job. She told herself that a district like this was no place for a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx; it would have been even better if she'd been able to say it out loud as a preliminary to turning around and heading for home, but then she had to remind herself that the whole thing had been her idea.

Having Bruno and Leroy along should have made her feel safer, but the streets were narrow and grim and only one streetlamp in three had survived a stoning. They were like cubs out in the jungle. An actress, a piano player, and a dancer, all of them still at high school. They'd have about as much chance in a real rumble as Charlie's Angels in a hairdryer duel.

'Is this it?' Leroy said, and Doris glanced at him to see how he was taking their surrondings. He seemed unfazed, but then with Leroy it was sometimes hard to tell.

'Yeah,' Doris said, 'just like in the Yellow Pages.' But the box ad in the Yellow Pages with its coiled lariats and bull's head motif had said nothing about the club being on a back alley that was straight out of a Batman comic book.

'So what are we waiting for?' Bruno said.

The Kickers parking lot was on what had previously been the site of the building next door. The ground had been bulldozed flat and the area from street to street enclosed in a seven-foot hurricane fence, but there was no gate across the gateway and in several places the wire had been cut and peeled back to make shortcuts possible. Even though it was early, more than a dozen vehicles had been parked nose-in around the club's entrance like animals feeding at a trough. Three of them were high-rider pick-up trucks with flamboyant decals airbrushed onto the paintwork and custom chrome fittings that shone like automotive jewellery. They looked as much out of place in the heart of New York as a skyscraper block in Benson, Arizona.

'It's a cowboy club,' Leroy said, with a touch of awed surprise. 'You brought us to a cowboy club!'

'You got it,' Doris said, leading the way down the spotlit basement steps as Leroy stared in disbelief at a set of steer horns that had been fixed over the radiator of a Chevrolet Blazer. The headlights make a couple of dull, unfriendly eyes, and the radiator was a wide smile that said We got you just where we want you now, boy.

That was it. Leroy wasn't about to go into any cowboy club, not under his own steam or anybody else's. One of the Brothers who hung out around the pool hall directly below Leroy's one-room apartment had once found himself spending a weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, to break a long Greyhound journey to visit his old man in a California jail. Some mean-spirited Joe in the rooming house had given him an address for a guaranteed good time, and it wasn't until he was at the desk and getting out his money that he realised where he was; the place was a rodeo club full of Midnight cowboys, with draft beer served in mason jars and a swing-and-dip mechanical bull which would flip you onto a heap of mattresses for a dollar. 'Mister,' the ticket girl had said, leaning across the counter and lowering her voice, 'Don't take this personal, but your face in that crowd is jus' gonna be asking for trouble.' The Brother's pride had been stung and he'd almost been ready to brazen it through, until he heard the song that the live band was playing; two hundred people joining in the chorus of She Ran Off With a Nigger! didn't sound like too much of an invitation. He'd gone back to the rooming house, but the Joe had locked himself in.

No, Leroy was less than happy. He scanned the parking lot as a preliminary to calling a fast goodbye to Doris and Bruno, but what he saw there was enough to change his mind. There was some commotion on the far side of the lot; six or seven wite kids of around his own age were running at the hurricane fence, jumping to scramble over or squeezing through were there was a gap against the ground. Leroy knew the pattern well enough; there would be a second gang in hot pursuit, and either the parking lot or somewhere close to it would become the site of a brief, ugly scene where chains would fly and knives would flash and anybody walking through the middle would get the worst from both sides.

Bruno and Doris were already out of sight, and Leroy followed them down the steps. He didn't have to go in, he could wait around in the foyer until it was safe to go out and slide away into the shadows. Leroy was no coward, but he was aware of one important fact; his body was his instument, and scars and the aches of old wounds would take away the edge of its performance.

Most of his worries evaporated as soon as he got inside the door. No redneck heaven would have a Puerto Rican cowgirl working the hat check booth. He was on comparatively safe ground; New York, he though, I love you.

The basement was a single large, low-ceilinged room with a mirror-backed bar along one side. The bar stools and the tables around the dance floor were all made out of different sizes of barrels, and out of wood that had been carefully finished to make it look unfinished. On the stage, a five-piece Country and Western band was coasting through a slow Waylon Jennings number.

To Bruno Martelli, it looked as if some shrewd but none-too-bright bar owner had seen the lines of people outside the cinemas showing Urban Cowboy, and had quickly gone and put in a bid for the Oklahoma stage sets of an ailing stock company. So this was what Doris had in mind as an end-of -term Alumni Day theme.

A hostess had seen them hesitating, and she came over. She was wearing a denim skirt and waistcoat over a checked shirt and hundred-dollar Justin boots, and on the waistcoat was a sheriff's-star name-tag that said Nancy. She smiled and said, 'Three?'

'Four, actually.' Bruno said quickly, before Doris could even open her mouth. 'My dad's parking the car out front. He'll be along in a couple of minutes. Wearing a tan stetson.'

The hostess considered this for a moment, and then accepted it. She turned, and led them across towards a table. Doris was looking baffled, so Bruno whispered, 'They hardly ever check for ID's if they think parents are a part of the package.'

There wasn't too much of a crowd yet, and one or two people turned to look at the three as they passed. Bruno was feeling out of place, but then he'd probably have felt more out of place if he'd adopted the look of rhinestone shirts and Wayne Newton belt buckles that seemed to be the Kickers standard. As they seated themselves on four upended barrels - mercifully, the ends were padded - the hostess said, 'Your waiter will be along in a minute.'

Before she could leave, Bruno said, 'Excuse me, but haven't I seen you somewhere before?'

Her smile was one hundred per cent professional. I don't think so,' she said. 'Have a nice evening.' And she left Bruno sitting there feeling like a crushed bug.

Doris could hardly believe it; one moment he'd been Mister Poise, and the next he was trying the oldest approach in the book on someone who probably fielded a dozen such approaches every night. She said, 'Martelli - you've been watching Midnight Theatre again, haven't you? That line was invented by the birth control people.'

'I was serious,' Bruno insisted. 'I did think I'd seen her somewhere,' but before he could go on to explain, the Waylon Jennings number ended and the house started to applaud the band.

They were a young-looking lineup, but their equipment was good and the arrangement had been polished, if a little unoriginal. A signwriter painted showcard at the back of the stage identified them as the Will Gunther Band; the front man of the outfit that carried his name was smiling amiably as he stood back from the mike and scanned the crowd.

Doris would have guessed that he was around twenty-five; not old enough to have become battle-scarred by the music business, but old enough to know who he was and to have a clear idea of where he was going. He was medium height, fair, and just a little tanned.

And he was looking straight at Doris.

She was applauding along with the others, but she wasn't exactly putting her heart into it as she'd missed hearing most of the number. He smiled, and winked at her.

Hardly knowing what to do, Doris winked back. It was something she'd never really been able to get the hang of; her father always said that she winked like a two year old, both eyes at once. The truth was that she had a weak muscle in her left eyelid; it drooped when she got tired, and unless she make a point of actually holding it open when she winked then everything would go dark for a moment.

The applause trailed away, and the bandleader moved back to the microphone. 'Okay,' he said, his voice made larger than life by the club's sound system, 'we're heading for a break now. We'll take some requests when we get back. Any first time people here?'

He was looking at their table. Bruno and Doris exchanged a glance, wondering if they could bluff it out, but then they slowly raised their hands. Leroy was looking off into space, as if he hadn't even heard.

'Okay,' the bandleader said, 'we'll be taking requests from first timers when we get back.' And then he turned aside to the others, and said in a mock stage whisper that the microphone was supposed to pick up, 'Get out the charts for Home on the Range. You know it's coming.' It got a laugh, the bass and the steel guitar carried a four-note playoff, and the lights over stage died whilst the lights over the dance floor came on.

Leroy slid his barrel back from the table. 'Order me a cola or something,' he said. 'I'm going to check out the juke-box. See if there's anything I ever heard of.'

Anything that Leroy ever heard of obviously didn't include Tammy Wynette or Willie Nelson; it was more a case of what he was prepared to acknowledge as music. Bruno watched him as he walked around the outer edge of the dance floor towards the juke-box. Out on the parquet, a middle-aged couple were Texas Two-Stepping and doing it pretty well. Leroy's attention was obvioulsy hooked; he was watching, absorbed in the step, and his progress towards the juke-box was getting slower and slower. He stopped, watched a while longer, and then his feet started to follow.

Bruno was shaken out of contemplation by a hard nudge on the arm from Doris. He looked up to see a middle-aged man standing by their table; he was wearing a wide tan stetson and a puzzled expression.

Bruno said, 'Can we help you?'

The man glanced back towards the entrance. 'Beats the hell out of me,' he said. 'The hostess told me to come over here. Said you were waiting for me.'

Doris realised first, but even so it took a minute to register. The man was wearing a tan stetson, and he'd just walked in out of the parking lot.

'Bruno,' she said, nudging again, 'it's Daddy.'

Bruno finally caught on. 'Dad!' he said, 'Right!' and he said it loudly, just in case the hostess was close enough to hear. Unfortunately, it did nothing for the man's comprehension; he stood there gaping as Bruno jumped up, took his arm, and steerd him towards the bar. The hostess was looking their way and Bruno gave her a grateful wave.

'Just a mixup,' he explained to the man as they went, 'but I wouldn't want her to get fired for a mistake. We'll be happy to buy you a drink if you'll . . . uh, if you'll go to the bar and do the asking.'

Doris smiled as she watched them go. Bruno was guiding the hapless man along with as much skill as any quiz show host.

A voice behind her said, 'How come you wink like that?'

She turned suddenly, and he was standing behind the seat that Leroy had vacated. Not for the first time, Doris perceived that anyone who steps off a stage carried a little magic away with them that's slow to fad. He was smiling down at her. He was just as appealing up close as he had been on the other side of the room.

She started to stammer out an explanation, but she realised with horror that she wasn't making a lot of sense. 'It's kind of double-barreled,' she ended lamely.

'Mind if I sit down?'

'Sure, if you want,' Doris said, knowing that it was essential not to sound over-eager and also knowing that she wasn't managing it.

He lowered himself onto one of the barrels. 'Got any requests?' he said.

Doris was almost desperate enough to ask for Home on the Range, but instead she said, 'I wouldn't know what to ask for. I don't know anything about this kind of music. Or these kind of people.'

He glanced around the room. Compared to the clientele, he was turned out pretty soberly; most of their ideas about Western wear seemed to have been derived from Roy Rogers and Bonanza. He said, 'I don't know about the people, either. These are all New Yorkers with delusions of manure.' Doris shared the laugh, and then he turned his attention to the dance floor. 'Looks to me like you and your buddies are picking up on things pretty quick, though.'

It was easy to see what he meant. Leroy was still out there, treating the dance floor like it was Lydia Grant's studio, two-stepping without a partner and saving himself from looking like a fool simply because he was doing it so well.

Doris explained, 'Well, see, that's why we came in here. We need to find out about the kind of thing you guys do because we've got this project we're working on in school, and we need to find out about . . . well, about that kind of stuff.'

Something indefinably hard had crept into the singer's look. 'What kind of school you go to? he said. 'Redneck tech?'

Doris read him at once; it was the wary defensiveness of someone who was beginning to think that he could see right through an offer of friendship, and was finding that he didn't even have to look very deeply.

'Hey,' she said quickly, 'we're not looking to make fun of anybody. We're just putting on a show. We came down to find out how to do it, that's all.'

He studied her for a moment longer, and then he made his decision. He put out his hand and said, 'My name's Will Gunther.'

'Doris Schwartz.' She took his hand and shook it, and they both held on for the fraction of a second longer than necessary that was enough to start sending messages both ways.

Will Gunther said, 'You know the Cotton Eyed Joe, Doris?'

'Like the back of my hand,' Doris said confidently, but then she admitted, 'And I know nothing about the back of my hand.'

'Well,' he said, 'You're about to learn. Come on.'

By the time another half-hour had passed, two Cokes were fizzing themselves flat on the table and Bruno had decided that he no longer had a duty to stay and watch them. After a crash course of instruction in the Cotton Eyed Joe, Doris had found herself a place close to the stage and was sitting there looking totally starstruck as the Will Gunther Band launched into the first number of their second set of the evening. The club had begun to fill up, and Leroy had found himself a partner; she looked to be in her late teens, and she was wearing a baby blue cowby hat and a pair of designer jeans that fitted snugger than a skin-graft.

Bruno took his Doctor Pepper, which by now was hardly more than a half-glass of crushed ice with a couple of straws, and moved towards the entrance. Leaving was the last thing on his mind.

The hostess with the Nancy name-tag was checking over her reservations book as Bruno came alongside. She glanced up, and he said, 'You're an actress.'

'You can say that to any hostess in this town and have a fifty per cent chance of being right.'

'No, I mean . . . is that where I've seen you?'

She smiled, and carried on working. For a moment Bruno thought that he'd been dismissed and that she wasn't going to acknowledge him again, but then without looking up she said, 'You've seen me in your bath.'

Bruno was lost for words, but it didn't last. He said, 'You have an incredible fantasy life.'

She closed the book. 'I'm the Valley Mist Beauty Bar girl. My picture's on every wrapper.' She seemed almost sheepish, as if it was something that she wasn't exactly proud of. She started to turn away, saying, 'Well, anyway, that's where you've seen me.'

'No,' Bruno said quickly, and she stopped. She was looking puzzled. He went on, 'I don't use that brand of soap. What I said . . . I was just trying to find a way to get a conversation going. I guess the term - I hate the term, actually - but I guess the term is, I was trying to pick you up. And the truth is I am terrible at picking girls up. Some guys pick up girls like lint . . . ' This was turning into a disaster. All of the time he'd spent in the lunchroom watching Danny Amatullo at work and trying to pick up pointers, all of it gone to waste. But at least she hadn't socked him and walked away yet, which was something . . . it couldn't be long before she did, though. 'I just get nervous and I start to ramble, and this kind of glazed look comes into girls' eyes, and . . . ' He took a closer look. She wasn't going glazed. This was really promising. 'My name's Bruno,' he ended, 'but that's not my fault.'

More customers were arriving, a couple of women creaking with hair lacquer on the arms of two Slim Pickens look-alikes who probably saw James Garner when they looked in a mirror. Nancy signalled to them that she was going to be with them in a moment, and said, 'Well, Bruno, looks like I'm going to get busy for a while, so . . . '

So get lost, Bruno thought, filling in the blank and getting ready to go, but he soon found that he was wrong. Nancy had taken a small pad out of the back pocket of her jeans, and she was scribbling something on the top page.

'So let's just assume that you asked for my phone number and I played coy, but you charmed me out of it and here it is. Okay?

She tore off the top page, and handed it over. 'I sure am some operator,' Bruno said to himself in bemusement as she went over to the newly arrived party. He was still standing there as she ushered them past a few moments later.

Nancy stopped by him. 'I'm thirty years old,' she said, 'and you're not. Is that going to be a problem?'

'Let's try and find out.'

Hey, what do you know? Bruno beamed at the world in general, but the world in general carried on much as it had been before. Doris and her Kansas City Star were exchanging a few words between numbers over by the stage, and Leroy and his new-found lady friend were in a conversation by the juke-box that was far too deep-looking to have much to do with a choice of records.

The middle-aged man in the tan stetson was walking by. ' 'Night, Dad,' Bruno said.

School of the Arts, batting three for three.
 

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