|All There Is (The Nightingale)
by Julie Baumgold
"Trust me, she's a magic performer. You'll forget everything," Charlie said to Tom as he sawed away at his veal chop and wiped the limp onions and black olive juice onto a damp piece of bread, his manners, as ever, exquisite.
It was a little room and they were near the kitchen. That was how the singer had to enter. One of the waiters swung the door open and they saw her in a spitting flash of kitchen light—neon, white tiles, hanging shiny pots, peels on the floor. She was a big woman and the whiteness had gathered in all around her—her hair, her dress, the fake white fur pricked with gold tinsel running down her dress, a caftan actually. She was perfectly still looking out into the darkened room, ready to enter. She breathed in and her chest rose and the ends of the white fur quivered like electrified hairs.
There was a lot of flesh wobbling under those robes.
Tom had never seen a person move that slowly. She was like a sloth that hangs upside down moving an inch every ten minutes so that people wonder if it has died ... and wait for the thud. Tom's childhood was full of zoos because someone was always trying to compensate.
Charlie and Tom had been early for the show and gone over to Tower records where Charlie showed Tom two rows of her music going back to when she was slender in belted silk dresses, already then a legend.
The room in the Hilton was almost filled with pairs of men and the regular cabaret crowd of old half-deaf men with their wives from places like Newport. No one looked like Tom, no one was quite that young. Everyone was lit from below by candles in frosty tulip glass holders which gave them demon faces.
The singer sat down in a big gold armchair like a throne and the pink spotlight found her, an idol placed in front of them. She was going to sing sitting down. She held the microphone one inch from a mouth full of pink gloss.
"Have I come in yet? Am I here?" she whispered.
Tom was nervous for her. Then everyone applauded. Her robe puddled at her feet as though someone had arranged the folds. She picked up the microphone with her beautiful well-tended hands.
"This is a Peggy Lee song," Charlie explained to Tom. She likes to do Peggy.
They were friends. She's stolen a lot from her."
"Who's Peggy Lee?" Tom whispered.
"Fever, I'm on fire. What a lovely way to burn."
The old boys were drumming their fingers and the wives were clapping sort of in time. Tom yawned. The singer looked right at him, saying "I could tell you, brother" with her used-up eyes.
That was the first time Charlie went to hear her.
|When she returned to the city two years later, Charlie had had his back operation and was in perpetual pain. He walked with a cane now and wobbled and held onto the backs of chairs and banquettes and clutched at things and sat down as soon as he came into rooms. Tom was no longer there and he went alone.
Charlie went everywhere alone these days, sitting in the seats for the impaired at the theater where he would see the same show night after night. He chose shows that made him laugh and, eventually, he knew every line.
The singer was back, with all her memories and his, in the Bemelmans bar at the Carlyle hotel and he had to take an Uber though it was only a few blocks. She made him feel younger and, in the room, he forgot his pain for an hour.
On their modest trust funds, he and Tom had gone all over the world with their dinner jackets in monogrammed garment bags and their rackets in covers with the tiny crest of the Everglades Club. He had brought Tom into all his clubs and in Palm Beach, early on, they were accepted as a couple, extra men for seating but invited as a couple.
All the songs were Tom's.
"Johnny Guitar," a song so old it was new. Tom in yellow linen pants, shirtless, holding the silver cocktail shaker. Behind him, the polished frames full of good looking people in evening clothes enjoying themselves too much. A Social Register was out on the table and Tom's favorite book, Here's How, a guide to many extinct cocktails. Oh, how Tom liked to drink! And oh how it never showed on him! And the cabana in the morning smelling of emptiness, chlorine, and alcohol. The chair cushions, printed with giant palm fronds still indented, the tubes and unguents lined up perfectly on the shelf under the hanging panama hats. They had structured their life by the dinners and lunches, the balls and club events of the Season. They used to separate for drinks so that they could cover as many parties as possible but, by eight, they would be together, the extra men at different tables at the same dinner.
Charlie would look over at Tom and think of his luck. Most of the time Tom was the best looking man in the room, he was always the best dressed. Charlie would leave by dessert to get his column in and Tom would arrive to add any news from his earlier parties to the column, peerless with clothes and ancestry when there was any. And then early Mass at St. Michael's. That gesture, he, from the oldest of Dutch Protestant families, did for Tom until later when he came to believe and converted.
Tom's sister was a nun, which meant Tom had no one to give his mother's tiny white mink coat to when she died and they drove it to the thrift shop in West Palm Beach where the dead summer furs lived and bought themselves yet another vase.
Bella Notte. Tommy in the morning bare chested again, red-eyed, unshaven in black linen shorts and his needlepoint slippers with mismatched palm trees on the toes.
Charlie went every night to the Carlyle and then the singer's engagement was over and he had to play her on DVD, on Spotify or Pandora. He decided he would never hear her live again, going out into the cold to sit all alone and then trying for a taxi or spending from his ever smaller trust on the Uber. This worked until his machine broke.
|The singer was back. He was still in pain, worse than ever. She smiled when she saw him, recognizing him and, why would she not, since he had been there and would be there every night.
This night she was in white again and her voice was silkier than ever. Charlie turned to the back of the room, willing Tom to appear though he remembered every minute at the lunch table in Cannes and Tom standing up suddenly, the glass falling, him falling onto the tiles, the loudness of it, the people turning with one hand to their mouths.
"Why don't you do right like some other men do…"
There was someone all in black in the back of the room, where Tom had stood once years ago before, weaving through the tables, smiling and light, to get to him and give him all the happiness in the world, as long as he lived, forever.
This man was looking at him and the pain grew worse as he did, despite the drugs and the alcohol which Charlie knew he should not be drinking. The pain shots and the drugs from Canada had not helped at all. He hated his doctors, all of them, especially those who thought they could help and promised some relief. Still he dressed well, always a tie, to go to their offices and wait for them.
Even across the dark room he could see how thin and drawn gray the man was, in his dark shirt, like a spectre. Perhaps he too was sick.
The singer had caught sight of the man in the back. She lost her way in the lyrics and her piano man started to sing along in a low voice to remind her. She was looking at the man in the back like he was bad luck or worse, walked in the door.
Of course Charlie knew who he was. He had met him many times before, a man who could stand and wait for them all.
Another Peggy Lee song. She sang like she knew his secrets and cared. She sang like she knew the pain and the answers, the sweetness and the sorrow, as the song would say it. She had followed men, men had followed her and she remembered it all nightly for her crowd.
"Is That All There is?" It was a long song and he had never heard it better sung. Between Fever and this, was his whole life – the ancient house upstate, the Lexington Avenue apartment, the horribly big society wedding and the trip on the Queen Mary that ended the marriage after two weeks, the perfect years with Tom, even the times when they spoke to each other in the cross tones of those who have lived together long, his priest at St. Michael's who could not help him enough and now being back here with the brown furniture, trying to sell off generations of his family's things.
"Do you see Palm Beach in the cards for you?" Tom would say to anyone new who showed up.
Charlie had returned to the place his patroon ancestors had founded. He had become the last of his line, the last portrait on the stair. Not even a portrait really, just a photograph in a thin silver frame of him lounging deep in the cabana, taken by Tom. On the table were their twin julep mugs sweating, under the table, a pair of navy espadrilles lined up.
He caressed the pug dog carved on the knob of his cane. What fine music the singer made with her little bird voice. When he turned around to look for the man, he had gone. Charlie was ready when he returned for the last song.
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