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Short Story

SKEETS

Skeets is a bastard, a real son of a bitch. Which doesn’t make him a bad guy. Runs a sloppy, happy good-time joint on Staten Island just like the one he had in Brooklyn for a lot of years. Comedy shows, some good blues, a little rock and roll, whatever’s working best or fitting his fancy. Food’s okay, drinks are just fine. Skeets is good company, runs a fun joint, real comfortable. The parting with your money is painless, enjoyable even. He tells a great story, his waitresses are dolls and his barmen are pros. He’ll stand you some drinks if you need it or simply if he likes you, introduce you around if that’s what you want, or keep his mouth shut if that’s what’s required. Mans the mike at every show, introducing the talent, telling jokes and stories and insulting everybody in the room (his club’s trademark) and when the mood strikes him plays a mean blues piano, down and dirty with a voice to match. The real article.

Knows all the wiseguys but keeps them at arm’s length. Doesn’t like partners. Besides, he’d dabbled a little bit here and there in their swag business back in Brooklyn and found out the hard way who gets the lion’s share of the loot and who does the lion’s share of the work when you deal with the mob. It’s always the opposite of what logic tells you, so he sticks to his nightclub for his living where he knows his hired help at least keeps their stealing within the limits of decency. The wiseguys don’t push him ’cause Skeets looks tougher than any two of them and always seems to know somebody higher up the chain of command in the mob pecking order. If something on the order of difficulty of stealing candy from a baby presents itself, he’ll invest and turn a quick buck, but basically doesn’t like to break a sweat or his streak of continuous days not going to jail, so far his whole life, which, according to various estimates, has been anywhere from 45 to 60 years. He’s had his share of being questioned and released, but that doesn’t count. He possesses the poker face of a gambler, giving nothing away he’s not offering.

Friends of Skeets who have known him 20 years and more have no idea how many years he’s lived or what he’s gotten away with. The answer to both is plenty. He’s also had a bunch of wives, only one or two he’s actually legally married, the first one, and maybe number three or four, I forget which. Got a kid named Butch that lives in Jersey with his mother, ex number four for Skeets. Currently enjoys the company of the lovely Kate, an experienced thirtyish blonde who moved herself and her kid into his home. She don’t break his balls for a ring and he keeps his outside womanizing to a minimum, an acceptable unspoken arrangement for both of them. She’s a good looker and goes to work everyday in some office in the city, a welcome novelty for Skeets. He kind of likes her kid, and taking her back and forth to and from school gives him something to do in the daytime and he likes her company. Ginny’s her name, short for who-knows-what, he don’t ask.

His club is closed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Like I said, Skeets doesn’t like breaking a sweat. Those days he either holes up in his house on Staten Island watching video movies and reading books, or prowls Manhattan and Brooklyn watering holes in search of a good time. He always finds it since he brings it with him. Club owners have been known to stop whatever show was in progress so Skeets could take a turn at the piano, and he’d play for twenty minutes or two hours according to his mood, always leaving the audience cheering wildly and the other performers terrified to follow his off-the-wall, blues-shouting, story-telling, joke-telling, audience-insulting and stride-piano-finale act.

To spend such a night with Skeets (and I’ve spent too many) is to come away with the memory of a lifetime and a resume full enough of bar room stories to last for years. Just another day in the life of Skeets. Another thing, nobody knows his last name. (I do, but I’m not talking. The son of a bitch must be rubbing off on me after all these years.) Or his first name, for that matter (I know that too), Skeets hardly being a name any mother would bestow on her child. The one name has served him well, usually being enough to grant him admission into anywhere in the tri-state area, usually on the arm. Where it does not grant him immediate admission his gift of gab always does the trick, coupled with a photographic memory for names and the ability to drop them into the ears where they will have the optimum effect. Never been turned away from a joint while in Skeets’ company, whether it’s a sold out show, a busy restaurant or an illegal gambling establishment. We once wound up in Tahoe for three days for free in the best suite with the best girls and a thousand apiece in gratis chips, having been flown in and out on a private corporate jet by Japanese businessmen who spoke hardly any English at all. Everthing was “Mistah Skeet this” and “Mistah Skeet that” and I was “Mistah Skeet tall friend.” Lots of bowing and domo-arigato-ing. One of the most bizarre and enjoyable experiences of my life, and all because Skeets sang “St. James Infirmary Blues” one night at the piano bar in the Carlyle hotel, a place he had never been in before. Or since for that matter. Bobby Short is probably still steaming in the afterlife, but that’s another story for another time.

Now, as to why Skeets is a bastard. One afternoon we’re sitting in his club on a Tuesday. We’re alone since he’s closed on Tuesday. Well not exactly alone, but the joint was closed. The Mexican kid, Manuel, was there, giving the kitchen a good scouring from top to bottom. Skeets was tuning his ancient upright piano and I was overhauling one of my guitars and helping him drink. A few musician friends dropped over supposedly to jam a little but really to drink free and trade stories. The booze and lies flowed, Skeets cooked us up some spaghetti and meatballs, and finally we all sat down on the stage for some serious music making. Even young Manuel joined in and showed himself to be a talented percussionist and singer, a surprise to all of us. I didn’t even know he could speak English, much less sing it, since Skeets always spoke to him only in Spanish, and I very rarely said anything but hello and goodnight to the kid, getting back only an “Okay” or a ” Via con Dios” from him.

Johnny Lewis was blowing a particularly sweet sax solo when I happened to look up and notice a petite brunette sitting on a barstool taking it all in. She looked damned familiar, and damned fine. No youngster, but put together well. Skeets was banging on his piano and noticed nothing. Suddenly it hit me. Skeets’ first wife, Laura, twenty years later and out of the blue. Damn! Nobody’d heard from Laura in years and years. I heard she moved to Memphis, or Chicago or L.A. Who knows? She was a very unstable but sweet lady that I recalled Skeets had married during a wild nine-day weekend in Miami.

He was young then and at the height of his boozing, nightclubbing, womanizing ways and Laura put up with it for about three years and then split. She was quite a handful too as I recollect, disappearing for days at a time and reappearing with no memory of where she’d been or what she’d done. At least that’s what she said. Used to drive Skeets nuts. It would be several wives before Skeets came to realize that the kind of woman who could co-exist with him was not the kind he had been chasing. I too had a penchant for women I could not live with so I could relate to the tornado they called a marriage. Seemed to me like business as usual in the war between the sexes. I knew of course before they did that it would one day blow up in their faces and they’d divorce but I wisely kept my own counsel. I’d had a head start on Skeets in the marry and divorce merry-go-round and knew the signs. I also know there’s nothing to be done and it’s safer and smarter just to let these things run their course as long as no one’s firing pistols.

Never did say I told you so. Hell, we both did it again a few times each. Anyway, after the requisite giving of grief to each other, Laura and Skeets went their separate ways, seemingly none the worse for wear and with no children to bind them into a life of long-distance enmity. I knew Skeets still carried a soft spot for her, but also a wariness of her wild temper and amnesiac interludes. I always got along well with Laura. She was soft spoken, polite and completely nuts. I seem to gravitate toward the unbalanced among us. Interesting people. She had her own way of looking at the world and I thought, fair enough, you just paint what you see, young lady, maybe the world will catch up, like Picasso. Maybe not. That doesn’t really matter much anyway. What is, is.

There’s also her eyes. Is there a man alive who isn’t a sucker for a woman with green eyes? Not that I ever made a move on her. Skeets and I never chased each other’s women. Been friends way too long for that nonsense and that’s one of the ways we’ve stayed that way. Had my share of crazy green-eyed ladies who wreaked havoc in my life anyway. Looking back, I’m sure I’d do it all over again, and looking at Laura, I know Skeets would too. This was shaping up into a very interesting evening indeed.

Now twenty and a couple of years later here she is sitting placidly on a barstool in Skeet’s joint on a Tuesday night while we play some of the finest music Skeets and I have ever been able to wrangle out of this rag-tag outfit, a loose union of players from several different bands and musical disciplines. Must have been the Mexican. Anyway, I say nothing to anybody because the music’s too good to drop right now and Laura’s out of his line of vision, what with him sitting sideways at the piano. From what I could tell she’d made herself right at home, mixing herself drinks and swaying to the music. I looked from Skeets to her and she put that shushing finger over her lips so I said nothing and just kept playing. A song would end and I’d crank up another one before Skeets had a chance to look around. The other guys didn’t know Laura, maybe thought she was with me.

Well, after about another hour of this Skeets stood up and remarked that all this music was thirsty work indeed and why don’t we repair to the bar for a few libations when whammo, he sees Laura and stops dead in his tracks. She greeted me kindly and then walked right up to Skeets and planted a big wet one on him.

“Hello, Skeets.”

“Laura! Good God, woman, it’s been a lot of blue moons!”

He introduced her around and we all sat at the bar. Laura was a mite tipsy and climbing all over Skeets. He tried to discourage her but she said she’d traveled a long way to see him and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Now Skeets is no fool and knows he’s got a good thing going with Kate and told her so straight out.

“Hell, I even got a boy of my own. Fifteen and a pain in the ass, but a good kid.”

“I’m in town for one more night, Skeets. I leave in the morning to go back to my husband in Atlanta.”

So that’s where she ended up, I thought to myself. I heard a twang in her voice that wasn’t there twenty years ago and couldn’t place it.

“I suppose you’ll tell him you forgot where you were and what you did, honey?”

“Maybe.”

“Well, some things never change…”

“I’m kidding, Skeets. I’m in New York to see my sister. I just figured I’d look you up just one more time, Big Daddy.”

“I’m honored, sweetness, truly honored, but just a drop confused.”

“We’ll go to a motel. I don’t want anything else from you, Daddy.”

It was getting downright uncomfortable for me and the boys and we started to make see-you-later noises and shuffling around like we were leaving, but Skeets poured us all another round and said it would be a shame to cut short such a hot session so why don’t we play another hour. We weren’t the only ones feeling uncomfortable. I was starting to enjoy this. It’s not every decade you get to see Skeets at a loss for how to act in any given situation. Laura was really doing a number on the Great Man.

So, back to the bandstand we went and proceeded to blow the roof off that empty nightclub, one of the very few jam sessions where I regretted not having a tape recorder running. We were all in top form, and Skeets was spectacular, putting that upright to the test and singing like a man possessed. Laura was mesmerized. She applauded when we were finally spent two hours later and thanked each of us for our music. We all knew halfway through that Skeets was going with Laura to that motel. I knew right off the bat when Skeets opened with what I remembered was her favorite song, “Stormy Monday”.

It was well past Midnight when we finished, sweating and tired and very happy. We had a couple more drinks and slowly packed up our gear and drifted off one by one. Manuel and I were the last to leave. I was giving him a ride back to Brooklyn and I wanted to talk to him about playing with my band. The kid does have serious talent and can do better than kitchen helper in a gin mill. Besides, I needed some young fresh blood in the outfit, and the kid’s a handsome Dan, too. We said goodnight to Skeets and Laura. By this time she was sitting in his ample lap, drunk with booze and lust. Skeets looked at me, then rolled his eyes heavenward and said: “Wait a minute, let me lock up and we’ll all leave together.”

Laura went off to use the ladies room and Skeets took me off to the side.

“Well Ben, what do you think?”

“Pretty nuts if you ask me, but she does look as sweet as cotton candy.”

“Damned if she don’t. Always was a little hellcat.”

“You know you’re going anyway, so why ask me?”

“I don’t know, she made lots of trouble for me once… and if Kate finds out…”

“Kate won’t find out. If you’re out too late, just shoot over to my place, tell her that’s where you spent the night.”

“Yeah, I could do that… but who’d take Ginny to school?”

“Hell, Skeets, you want me to talk you out of it, don’t you?”

Hell no… well, yes… maybe… it’s just that… Nah, I’m gonna do it. I’d just be thinking about her the next six months if I don’t. What the hell…”

Just then Laura pops over and tells him: “Just follow me in your car, I know just the place.”

So out we go, Laura to her car, Skeets to his and me and Manuel to mine. Turns out we’re all going the same way, towards the highway, Laura leading the way in her rented Ford. Only thing is, Laura’s been drinking steadily for hours and now she’s weaving down the road and driving way too slow. Not a good sign. No sooner do we approach the entrance ramp than a cop car pulls her over. Skeets and I are stopped at a red light and watching the scene unfold. It wasn’t good. She’s drunker than we thought and stumbles out of the car and falls down. In no time at all the cop slaps the bracelets on her. As she’s getting arrested, Skeets never hesitated. When the light turned green, he just kept on driving and made the turnoff to head home, not even looking back once. As I passed her, hands cuffed behind her back, she gave Skeets’ disappearing car a real long look, as lost and sad and helpless a look as I’ve ever seen on anybody’s face. I expect that is how I’ll remember Laura from now on.

Like I said earlier, Skeets is a bastard, a real son of a bitch. Then again, I’m no better. I just drove back to Brooklyn with Manuel, trying real hard not to think of sad green eyes.

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