Hammersmith: Showtime (chapter thirty-three)
McKeefe’s was a rough house.
Minnie had played to bad crowds…most of them bad, before Cal Bruce had signed her as opening act. Still worst spot on the slate, the touts hauling rubes off the street, half the audience rummaging in their bags, and you with only a song to offer, when they were starved for novelty…
“I wanna see some hoofin!”
“Where’s the comedian?”
“SHUT YOUR FACE THE HELL UP! (Minnie’s mother.)
But, because she was pretty…
Well. A girl like Ruby, brought up religious, not even in a town…
Out in the fields someplace, if Minnie got her…
Might be coy, if coy was the word. Superstitious, maybe, afraid of all those sins the Catholics had to commit…
Ba-bump. To memory. Minnie figured, anyhow, if you had a face, you should know.
As her mother, Margaret Leybourne, or Major Leybourne, the wags had it, said: “You can get places if you got a face and no voice. You can get places if you got a voice and no face. If you got no face and no voice, you better learn to juggle.”
Or take dictation, Minnie supposed. There was a world outside showbiz—but why be a pessimist? She was pretty, and savvy, and she knew how a sentimental number could quiet down a bunch of hecklers.
Le Fontainebleau sat next to her on the piano bench. The perch was conspicuous, being the stage was only a platform, uncurtained, and the patron on the bar’s last stool could reach out to shake her crowd-warmer’s hand. As impresaria, Minnie was admitting no premature starts. Carey and Ruby she had stationed behind the piano, where they could take their deep breaths, the nearest thing to a dressing room this saloon was going to provide.
“Is there a business office?” she’d asked the bartender.
He had flushed, puzzling her, and mumbled, “Well, now, down the hill, along the creek. Where most folks go.”
The professor winked at her, drawing a pie tin from inside his coat. He stood, moved front and center, and started banging the tin against his head. The crowd, mostly workers from the factory—who, McKeefe had informed her, hated variety—glared at the intrusion, but after a minute or so showed interest.
Schwachsinn! The chant seemed to ripple among them.
Minnie admonished herself for an unprofessional lapse, and began banging out, “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”.
Le Fontainebleau spent a minute making fine adjustments to the tin, donning it upside-down as a hat, taking it off to use as a mirror. Replacing it, cocking it like a beret, sweeping it off in a hammy bow.
“Young fella,” he boomed. “Goes to his beloved’s Papa, asking her hand in marriage. Papa says, I can’t say right off, son…have you seen her mother? I have, sez the youngster, but I’m willin to take the risk!”
The bartender snorted. Someone whispered a translation.
“Ran into a gag-peddler the other day. Tells me, I got a terrific bit for your act. I guarantee, I never told you this one before! You say it’s terrific? That’s right, perfessor. Then I guarantee you ain’t told it.”
Commotions seemed intent on making their way in, one at the back door, imprudently locked—but this, supposing the place did not catch fire, would stop Minnie’s boy-and-girl act making a bolt for it. Le Fontainebleau pattered on, Minnie played on…
The back door rattled. It shivered on its hinges.
A thudding arrived lower down, as though a boot were being applied, while rude conversations grew to shouts, flinging from McKeefe’s front porch.
“Minnie!” Ruby’s head popped up, chin level with the piano’s dusty top. “It’s a riot breaking out! What will we do?”
“Nonsense. Get your number ready. I’ll shut them up.”
Something pretty…something heart-stringy…
Saying this to herself, Minnie shoved her comedian aside. The Professor lighted off the platform, full willing, and dissolved into the throng, which had ballooned. Someone was struggling to bore through with a pole, a red kerchief tacked to its end.
Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde and the band played on…
The decade’s popular number was the only song her rattled brain could conjure, one Minnie had given already to Carey and Ruby, an unforgiveable act of poaching. At about the point Casey’s brain exploded, Nico stepped through a double column of not-badly-drilled factory hands.
He came with defiance to Minnie’s feet, and stared up into her face…
He was tousled and haggard in that consumed way of his. Just when Minnie felt herself fall for him again, Nico ushered her off stage with an imperious little wave. A woman, with flame in eye and cheek, hiked her skirts and strode onto the platform.
Minnie caught sight of Carey, sheltering Ruby before him, making for the rear.
The screws of the bolt were well loosed from their moorings by now, and a metal bar pried industriously at the inch or so parting the door from its sash. But setting the struggle at a stalemate, two of Nico’s henchmen moved to lean their backs against this.
Nico stepped beside June, and they linked arms. June shot a glance at the piano.
“You’re joining us, Minnie. That’s brave of you. I don’t suppose you know the Internationale?”
Salute-worthy, this gambit… Nico no doubt would go far in the movement, under such generalship.
And smiling, only smiling, Minnie took herself off.
“My brothers and sisters! For this moment we gather, then we march. We have achieved a great victory over the capitalist scourge! This oppressor, this tyrant, come from the Stronghold of Pluto, from the great Citadel of Wealth, that gilded kingdom newly raised on ground consecrated by the blood of innocents, where he and his kind plot their enslavement of the refugee, where the impoverished worker is kept ignorant of his rights and the value of his labor…”
Abandoning this, Nico closed: “Such men as Mossbunker huddle over maps, in their secret meeting places, seeking to divide the spoils of conquest. My brothers and sisters, take heart! The tyrant is this night our prisoner!”
Silence. Whispers. Then huzzahs.
Nico seized the flag from his lieutenant, and banged its staff on the stage.
“They will find the spoils are collected beforehand and restored to the people!”
Minnie, while enjoying Nico’s eloquence, slid foot after foot, reaching to catch Ruby’s sleeve. She felt justified, at last, in using the back-elbow maneuver her mother had taught her for mashers, and found herself in the arms of Le Fontainebleau.
Who was probably a masher when the mood took him, but acted in altruism…
For, sailing over the crowd, aimed to skim poor Carey’s ear, came an Indian club. A second followed. Nico’s guards fell, one and two…their bodies obstructing the door’s sweep.
“Haul em back, boys,” Le Fontainebleau said. “Is that you, Curach? You got Shaw with you?”
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)