Author’s Note: This story is unfinished. As it stands now, this is a story that’s been several months in the writing, and I am still not sure quite how it will end (I’ve got a general idea, but still). Perhaps posting it here will give me some encouragement to dig deeper and find its true ending.
It was eight in the morning and Hank Hellzapoppin had a headache, like a melon bursting out of a bird’s nest. He hungered for a steak and egg breakfast, but it probably wasn’t to be. Boarders didn’t get those kinds of meals. It wasn’t that it was cost prohibitive (well, it was, actually), it was that when one boarded, one relied on the tastes and appetence of one whose sole desire was to glean the scrapings off the very shoes of his tenants with the mind of profitability. At least, as Hank remembered it, that was the predilection of every boardroom patriarch, with or without a family of his own to feed in addition to those relegated to the upper rooms.
Matrons generally were more sympathetic to forcible appetites, such as Hank had, though less financially able (usually) to provide in a manner that would satisfy; in his boarding experience he had only one meal that included meat not preprocessed and flattened into indistinguishable shapes and colours.
His arrival the night before had been punctuated by a late thunderstorm that dropped hail and foul rain. His coat, far from keeping him dry, seemed to absorb the nasty-smelling stuff and he had run to the porch of the dirty and gray building with a sign out front proclaiming, “Boarders Only, No Transients.”
The place was owned by one Gavin O’Leary, a man misshapen by a cleft lip and a gouged left eye. He ran the steerage house alone, his wife having died twelve years ago in a fire. He squinted as Hank entered the parlour, dripping and smelling of the wood processing plant from the next town over. The rain always brought the sickly sweet stench.
“What do yer fer?” he asked as he approached Hank’s rank frame. “Is that’ll be a room, then?” he added, without waiting for Hank’s reply. Hank nodded, removing his hat and setting his tattered briefcase on the peeled wooden floor. “Take yer coat’n?” Gavin asked, and held out his hand.
“Thank you sir, most kindly. I do say, is there a room available for the night?” Hank asked. He handed his coat to the man who turned around and jerked his way to a coat rack standing on the corner of the parlour and the stairwell. Gavin grunted, which Hank took to be an affirmative response, and he looked around him.
The room seemed misty, as if a fog had rolled in with Hank and decided to board there for the moment. The chair and ottoman next to the fireplace were upholstered from fabric reminiscent of the twenties, faded and torn where hands had rubbed it, and bodies had pulled and stretched it sitting down and standing up again. A matching couch with mahogany legs and backing sat opposite the chair, and between them, on the wall, a dingy fireplace, which appeared to have been used recently, even though it was June and growing quite warm.
It might have been Hank’s imagination, but it seemed as if a layer of dust had settled on everything; perhaps that was what made the room appear to shimmer in the dim light.
“Take yer to yer room’n, then. Name-a Gavin. This’n O’Leary House. Yer a long-timer?” he said, leading Hank up the stairs.
“Not quite. A couple of days at most, thank you. My name’s Hank, Hank Hellzapoppin.”
“Breakfas’ at eight-thirty, dinner at three, sup at eight. Kitchen off limit after ten, cat’n sleep der. Here yer are.” Gavin gave the door a mighty push and it banged open, hitting the back wall with a soft thud. Hank heard something like powdered plaster crumble and fall to the floor.
Hank stared into the black room, making out the dim shapes of the bed and dresser, the little washbasin and towel hook, the chair in the corner; lightning flashes periodically illuminated the space with an eerie, blue phosphorescence. He smelled ozone. The curtains danced in fitful gusts, and in the flash he saw rain soaking the window seat. The window was wide open.
Before he even thought about it, Hank dropped his briefcase and dashed to the window, brushing the curtains aside and dropping the sash with a bang onto the sill. He didn’t like wet window seats.
He stood in silence there then, in the darkness, but he had forgotten himself, and his host. He turned around to thank him, but Gavin was gone.
That had been last night. He had put himself to bed soon thereafter, sleeping in fitful gusts, punctuated by scratchings at his curtained window. He assumed it was a tree branch.
After he awoke, Hank lay in bed for twenty minutes, not thinking about anything in particular, then got up to perform his facial ministrations. He had a light face, airy even, with the sort of boyishness that put him outside the company of men and women both. He finished shaving and combed his hair back straight, allowing the night’s oils to fix it into a more-or-less stable configuration. His pocket watch read eight twenty-nine when he snapped his suspenders and tied his brown wingtips in the special knot.
Ella Fitzgerald wasn’t nearly as affable and pleasant as she appeared. She had pale brown skin and a slightly rounded face, a testament to her chocolate farm Hispanic heritage. With her curly, brown hair rising in waves and rings around her saddened and expressive eyes, and her pursed lips that sat pouting like rooks on the beach, she looked a little like Beatriz Michelena on a summer day. She wore a floral pattern dress, blue and white, that accented her finely sculpted form without being egregious. Her legs crossed one another, revealing slender ankles, almost white; the memory of deer shaped her feet.
Her white shoes, raised an inch and three quarters in the heel, sloped and sprang up and down as she tapped her foot in a desperate cadence. The scowl on her face played like a haughty singer’s might, but it was tempered with growing feelings of loneliness. When she realized she felt lonely, she grew angry at herself, angry at her weakness. It played upon her face, never expanding, never escaping, kept in check by the physical walls of her teeth and cheeks. Angry and anxious, Ella leaned back in her chair and listened to the laughter downstairs.
She shouldn’t have even been there; if it hadn’t been for the carelessness of her driver, she would be enjoying steak Diane, honeyed carrots, and potato wedges carefully sliced into delightful shapes, downing Bellinis, and listening to the Jean Kelson Orquestra live at Bellevue. Instead, she had consumed a portion of Shepherd’s pie, a light salad made mostly of iceberg lettuce (a travesty), and a glass of milk straight from, she was sure, one of the cows that she had seen wandering around. Disgusting.
In a moment of unparalleled stupidity, her driver had neglected to check the auto before they left. Thus it was that an hour later, and still an hour from her destination, they found themselves limping into the small town on a burst radiator, steam rising with ominous gestures from the crack in the hood.
It was a town seemingly devoid of all modern conveniences, including telephones and radios; the one lodging was a disreputable gray building of weathered slats and broken shutters. At least the sign denied entrance to transients and drifters.
At five thirty the sky was threatening rain, the shops had all closed, and with no way to contact her clients, Ella realized she would be forced to stay the night there. She commanded her driver to drop her off; when he asked where he was to stay for the night, she snapped, “In the mess you’ve created! And I want to be gone no later than seven thirty tomorrow morning.” He protested, “But the repair shop doesn’t open until eight. They won’t even finish until ten o’clock, if we’re lucky.” She slammed the door then and walked up the steps to the porch. Her driver looked mournful, sighing and putting the car into gear. It was going to be a long and lonely night.
For her part, Ella would have to make do in the ratty board house. She looked back at the sign and hoped the No Transients policy was still enforced.
The rest of the evening passed by with the drear dissolution of light into gloom. The wind picked up several slats from the fence outside and banged them into the side of the building, making clacking sounds that echoed in the dusty halls and well-worn rooms. She could hear everything, it seemed, as if the house were a giant sound conductor. When the storm began, the house shook with each blast of thunder. It was one of those strange early summer storms, when temperature and fierceness collided in a circus-like spectacle of nature.
Ella sat in her room, ignoring the sounds and visual presentations of the storm happening outside her window, and tried to think. The caretaker, a creaky Irishman, had taken her in without explanation or conversation, informed her of the mealtimes, and showed her the room. She was grateful at least that he was so reticent. Knowing her stay would be short, she had no desire to encumber her presence with useless conversation and petty meetings.
At seven, the storm emptied itself of fury, leaving a steady downpour of rain and the occasional lightning hidden in the upper heavens among the clouds. The night curtain descended and Ella, far from tired, grew hungry. At eight, she arrived in the dining room and sat down with the two other guests. Old Creaky brought the steaming casserole in and set it on the table next to the thick lump of what she presumed was bread. A milk bottle sat unopened in the center, surrounded by a quaint saltcellar and its cousin, the pepper grinder.
They were quiet, the other guests, and the meal proceeded slowly, without conversation or interruption. From time to time, Ella would glance at one or the other, wondering if they were just passing through, like herself, or longtime boarders. She guessed, with a certain haughty sniff, they were the sort of tattered men who wandered the country selling cheap wares to unfamiliar and naïve housewives. At least, that is how they were dressed.
About halfway through the meal, a third man arrived. He had bulging arms and shoulders that looked like sacks of half-dead cats balled up tightly and tied to his neck. He was slightly hunched and had a square head that was entirely free of any hair. Old Creaky scowled at him disapprovingly, but said nothing as the human tree trunk sat down with a thud and proceeded to serve himself a steaming mound of Shepherd’s Pie.
He noticed Ella looking at him, because he turned and smiled at her, and she saw he was missing at least three of his teeth. “How do, ma’am?” he said. She nodded and looked down at her food.
The one with the pince-nez and a dollop of gray hair that swirled from the top front of his scalp grinned, and a gold tooth glinted out. He had sharp ears, and his eyes moved back and forth quickly, as if he was watching tiny insects dangling across his vision. He finished up his plate and cleared his throat, a satisfying rumble, whereupon he pushed back his chair and addressed everyone at the table.
“Firstly, to the master of this fine house I say, ‘Bravo!’ and salute your fine culinary proficiency,” he patted his stomach with a dramatic flourish. He had the finely tuned accent of a Southern gentlemen; he lingered on the ends of his phrases, turning each sentence into a mysterious story, waiting for the next set of words to continue the tale and mystery. “Truly, ’tis been many a mile and a sight since I last ate so savory a meal. Despite my many travels, I admit that I lack understanding of human nuances in regard to matters of the heart, but in our common moments of gustation, I have found no other man-or woman” (here he looked at Ella) “who is a better judge of the character of a cook and his craft than myself.” He smiled and raised a glass. “To our excellent host, to the circumstances which have brought us together, and to our health!”
Everyone raised their glass and toasted. The gentleman continued. “I note that our esteemed Mr. Armstrong has finished his meal, despite arriving late to sup, while our mysterious beauty next to Mr. Skinner seems positively preoccupied. Why ma’am, you have scarcely touched your casserole.”
Ella was flustered. She was curious when the man had begun to speak, but once she attuned herself to his patterns of speech, sensed in him a kind of showmanship that she thought would obviate personal interaction with anyone sitting at the table. Thus she was surprised when he addressed her in such a smooth manner. She replied, “It is an excellent casserole. I am afraid my appetite is not what it should be.”
The showman’s eyes lit up like a man who had just won the lottery. “Perhaps you were intended for other fare more fitting your station this night. But no matter. While we still preside over our faculties, I propose that we retire to the sitting room. I declare this weather seems a fine invitation for a smoke, a drink, and a tale…if the lady is not averse?” he said, questioning with his raised eyebrows. Ella nodded, and the huge man opposite her gave a satisfied sigh, his shoulders sagging as he prepared to lift his body from the table.
The man the southerner had called Mr. Skinner was thin, waif-like and wispy. He wore a severe demeanor that seemed carved from the very dust of the Depression, and of the four of them (five if you counted Old Creaky), was the most taciturn. Nevertheless, he seemed acquainted with the Southern gentleman, for as they rose together Ella heard Skinner whisper something to the gentleman, whereupon he chuckled and said, “Oh, ‘t’will be quite an affair, I do promise you that.”
Ella felt quite out of place as they made their way into the sitting room. While Old Creaky lit the lamps, the other men stood and waited next to their respective chairs. They seemed to each have their place, a designated spot; their manner suggested this was a ritual often performed, and she guessed they had been residing there many years.
The Southern gentleman offered her a seat on the dusty divan and she accepted with a mumbled “thanks,” pausing to wipe a skein of dust from its cushion before sitting cautiously on its edge. The gentleman took his place at the fireplace and pulled out a pipe and matches from inside his vest. The lines around his eyes settled as he caught the first draft of the pipe’s innards, and he sniffed, as if searching for a smell that would remind him of a long-forgotten time. At last he gazed at each member of the conclave, and then began to speak.
“For the benefit of our friendly stranger here tonight, I will begin forthwith in introductions. Adjacent to your right, my dear, is Mr. Jack Armstrong, from Peyton. To his right, of course, is our inimitable host, Mr. Gavin O’Leary of the O’Leary’s-I guess you know where he’s from. And the gentleman across from you is Mr. Skinner, ah, Mr. Baby Blue Skinner, from…well, who hails from every town in these United States, especially the ones with a shortage of shoeshine and leather brushes, isn’t that right, Mr. Skinner?”
Mr. Skinner nodded slightly.
“I am called Jeffrey Wright-Anson Powers the Third (though for the duration of your stay you may call me Jeff, Jeffrey or Mr. Powers, if you like). You, my dear madam, are unknown to us, but it would please us mightily to make your acquaintance.”
Ella flushed and gave a shy smile. “My name is Ella Fitzgerald. Not the singer, of course.” Mr. Powers smiled and said, “Of course. Now as you may or may not have ascertained, I have been blessed with an abundance of matters about which I quite happily indulge in conversation. Owing that to my, ahem, indolent upbringing, where I was surrounded on all sides by my betters who likewise engaged in the gentle art of prevarication…relative relaters of rangy recitals, if you will.” He said this last with a smile.
“I have been known to spin a tale or two in the company of strangers and friends alike, and by happy coincidence, you have stumbled upon the very house where such things happen, oh, more than occasionally.”
“You may wonder about my loquaciousness in light of the Holy Book’s warning about the fool who utters many a word, with yet no wisdom proceeding thereof, but I am confident that my energies spent in telling you these things will return in kind, that by the end of this casual interlude, you will think me not a fool, but merely a man who entertains by all manner of talk, gesticulation, and anecdotal conversation.”
He gave two puffs on his pipe and continued. Ella listened as the gentleman known as Jeffrey Wright-Anson Powers the Third told a tale of such mendacity that she felt as if the room itself was unbearable, and her eyes constantly wandered to the stairwell. That he told it as if it was as true as the baby Jesus (as he had sworn it to be) made the hearing of it all the worse. Completely unaffected by the raconteur’s spell, she struggled to remain upright, and her shoulders sagged with the effort. Had she been braver, perhaps less lady-like, she might have made a run at it, foregoing all the evening’s “pleasantries” for a few hours of solitude.
Powers finished his tale, something about a cat, a ferryboat and ferryman, and a wandering fiddler with a golden fiddle, nearly an hour later. As she drew herself up, Mr. Skinner spoke in his quiet drawl.
“Mizz Fitzgerald, if you please, we have a goodly time before us. I would ask on behalf of our Mr. Powers that you refrain from such outrageous displays of boredom as you have thus far shown. My land, what sort of manners are you accustomed to displaying while in another’s home?”
She decided enough was enough. “Mr. Skinner, Mr. Powers, gentlemen,” she said, ignoring Mr. Skinner’s question. She looked around at each. “I have borne trivialities before, and I shall no doubt do so again in the future. However, I see no reason to endure them without need or cause. My apologies if I have offended you. With your indulgence, I shall beg your leave and retire for the evening.”
Mr. Powers smiled, manful and unperturbed. “By all means, Mizz Fitzgerald, by all means. Shall we have the lovely privilege of your presence at breakfast?”
She stood a moment, thinking, and then nodded. “You shall. Good evening.” With that she made her way up the dusty stairs. Had she been quick enough or cared, she might have seen the smiles passed around by the gentlemen. As Ella reached the last stair, she heard Mr. Powers speaking, and Mr. Armstrong laughed with an uproarious guffaw.
That is how she found herself back in her room, the chair pulled out from the corner and set against the wall next to the bed where she sat. Weary. Alone. A look out the window showed only blackness, though she could still hear the steady rain hitting the walls and window. Downstairs, Mr. Powers must have begun again, for she heard the occasional plosive amid a silent audience as he weaved another lie.
As quickly as she could, she dressed down to her night clothes and slipped under the covers, blowing out the flame of the candle that had been burning by the bedside.
It was many hours, and many muffled laughs from downstairs later that she finally fell asleep.
Hank stepped out into the hall and collided with a cream-coloured woman dressed in a rather striking olive green dress that bustled out from its hems and demanded acknowledgement. He stammered his apologies and she waved her hand and continued down the hall toward the stairs. He followed her, still attempting to rectify the accident.
“Madam, I am most sorry! Had I but known…” he said, but trailed out as she descended with calm disdain reserved for disobedient children. He took the stairs slowly, unwilling to follow directly behind her, in the hope of escaping her awful shadow. While she may have been rude, Hank was distraught with himself for his perceived slight.
He suspected she was on her way to the dining room, and he didn’t wish to enter there upon her coattails. He was conscious of his appearance; ragged suit worn three years too often, a tie of stripes and stains, his shoes with scuffs of a hundred, maybe a thousand roads. He paused before the doorway, the sound of chairs scraping the hardscrabble floor, a man chatting. He waited ten seconds and then reluctantly stepped through.