(something written for my writers’ group’s next meeting, still being edited but here it is as it stands right now)
The girl shimmied across the floor, dress straight and loose, waistline dropped to the hips, calves on view sheaved in silk stocking. Her head turned, shingle bob slow-waving on bare neckline, eyes kohl-rimmed large, bee-stung lips broke open in a smile self-confident and provocative.
Music whispered in the background as if called to cue by her twisting shoulders. My history-flooded mind caught a bar or two and clicked the needle of recognition – ‘Hard To Get Gertie’ by The Dixie Stompers. The girl moved closer, slipping into a Black Bottom routine, arms and legs spinning hazes of freedom.
I leaned back against a window sill, dragging tight a once white net curtain now coated in dust. Except for the dancing girl, the high-ceilinged room was empty. The floorboards lay bare and stripped raw. Along the far wall ripped plaster suggested a waist-high counter once ran and gaping holes above had held racks of hanging spirit bottles, evidence of a past full of alcohol and entertainment. The broad windows against my back rose high, allowing light to flood the unpolished floor where the dancer moved with unabashed fervour.
The music faded, a muted trumpet left with the last forlorn notes. The girl stopped, hands placed on hips, lips open as she dragged in breaths. Her flat chest heaved beneath fringe-covered material, the yellow dancing in the sunlight like the girl had moments before. She looked up, eyelashes curled and fluttered.
‘So, Father Time, you gonna dance with me? Maybe a little Grizzly Bear to get us close?’
‘Not sure I know the moves to that. I thought this building was empty and up for sale?’
‘Oh, you don’t wanna worry about that.’
The girl twitched her head to one side, bobbed hair hanging like a curtain down to a shoulder, eyes staring straight into me.
‘Say, you a forty-niner? I ain’t looking for marriage, I’m a girl who can pay her own way. I ain’t no tomato, that’s for sure.’
I held my hands up and smiled.
‘You’re good, real good, and you dance like a pro.’
‘Come join me then, or you a corn-shredder, stamping over young girls’ feet all night long?
‘Huh, I can dance right, though maybe not the ways you just put out. You live here? I was told it was vacant possession.’
The girl stepped forward in shiny black shoes. My eyes caught the small size of those amazing dancing feet.
‘You staring at my Mary Janes? Only bought them a few days since.’
She stood close, just half a yard away. I made a guess at the perfume floating in the air between us – Guerlain’s Shalimar. A finger hung in front of my face, the nail long, the middle painted deep red, the crescent tip unpolished.
‘You like my moon manicure, honey? We gonna go find us a whangdoodle, dance to some jazz, or you gonna offer me a grubstake, I eat cheap, gotta keep my flat figure, ain’t I?
I chuckled, the girl was killing me, she was beautiful and cute, and her lingo cut me up.
‘I came here to buy the property, or at least to decide if it’s worth putting in an offer on. But if you or others are living here, that’s going to be a problem.’
‘Me? Little me a problem? I ain’t been ever called that before. Say, you’re a bit fluky, ain’t you? You ain’t no finale hopper, are you? I hate those guys, they never buy a girl a drink, never keep their promise to pay the bill. Or you an Airedale, then, a homely guy?’
I moved away from the still dangling finger, tempted though I was to grasp it gentle and join in the flirting banter.
‘So, Miss…? You work as a dancer from here? Or as an actress?’
‘I earn my sugar any way I can, honey, but I ain’t no boob-tickler, so don’t you go getting ideas about you and me being in this room alone. I don’t please my pa’s customers just so he can seal a deal.’
I stood in silence, not sure whether to continue this talk or give up the building as a potential troublesome purchase. Music wafted up faint around the walls again. The girl’s eyes lit up. She moved away, back into the centre of the room.
‘A Charleston! Hot dawg, I love the Charleston, and this song, ‘Hitch Up The Horses’, it’s always playing down the Green Mill here in the Windy City. Perhaps if you won’t dance with me, you’ll buy me an urban set, a gal can’t wear the same dress every week, can she?’
Mascara eyes and drawn in eyebrows held my look, daring me to say no. Then she moved off, a whirling dervish of arms and legs.
I wondered where the backing track was coming from, had the girl left a device on play or was a friend switching it on and off, enjoying my embarrassment of the unexpected confrontation. I wondered if they were squatters, trying to frighten me off the purchase.
I should have left, but the girl and her dancing held me entranced. She really was very good, very authentic. There was a place for her on stage or on TV. I waited until the music melted away and the girl stood, hands on knees, blissful exertion etched on a blushed face.
‘I gotta go now, Miss…? I didn’t catch your name.’
‘Well, brooksy, you ain’t told me yours neither.’
‘I’m Kyle, Kyle Sanders.’
‘Don’t turn into a wurp, Mr Sanders, no-one likes being edisoned. You can call me Rose, if you give me a drive home, my stilts and dogs are aching and I ain’t paying for a dimbox.’
‘Sure, let’s walk, Rose.’
I led the girl down a winding set of stairs with cracked banisters and into the fresh air of a deserted street. She stopped, rubbed her calf, throwing a tired look back at the building.
‘Shucks, ain’t they ever gonna fix the lemon squeezer?
I unlocked my Dodge Durango. Rose climbed in, eyes flicking around the automobile.
‘Well di mi, ain’t this the cat’s pajamas, it’s a regular cake basket. Folks see you driving me around in this, they’re gonna think you a cuddle cootie.’
‘Where’d you live, Rose?’
‘I’m getting to like you, Mr Sanders. Perhaps you’ll buy me a handcuff one day. Maybe?
‘Your home address, Rose?’
‘Oh, you can let me out at Millard Avenue and Ridgeway. You sure are the duck’s quack.’
‘Just before we leave, there’s one thing I’d like to…’
Fifteen minutes later I watched Rose disappear down the sidewalk. She looked back before stepping left into a side alley. I wondered about going after her, asking for a phone number, but the moment was gone. If I pursued the building’s purchase I guessed our tracks might cross again.
‘So, you’re interested, Mr Sanders?’
Real estate agent William Diederich clicked his mouse and rubbed a chin less smooth than it had been when I came by early morn.
‘Sure, I might be. But it seemed not to be vacant. A girl, maybe others, were there.’
‘Damn squatters. I’ll get on to the precinct first thing tomorrow, Mr Sanders. Don’t worry, it’ll be empty within twenty-four hours.’
‘I was wondering, do you know anything about the building’s history, say way back in the 1920s or so?’
‘Hell, you need to talk to my pa, his father knew it well when it was a dance hall in the early days, they often talked together about the place in my grandpa’s last couple of years, even went down there a few times.’
Two hours later I was sipping warm Budweisers with eighty-something Walter Diederich. After several long stories reminiscing about the building in its heyday he stopped to take a sip of beer. I brought out my phone.
‘You ever seen this face before?
I thumbed up the photo I’d taken of Rose before we’d driven off. Her heavily made up face, outlined by the black bob, stared out. Was there a glint of mischief there I’d missed before?
Walter’s eyes bulged.
‘Say, are you nuts? Where’d you get that from?’
‘It’s just a girl I met today, at the building we’re talking about, the one you knew back in the day.’
‘Wait there, sonny, just wait there.’
With surprising speed old man Diederich went into a study area off the kitchen. A short while later he returned, flapping a photograph in front of him.
‘You see this, youngster, you just see this.’
He dropped the photograph next to my phone.
Two young women stared out from sepia-tinged paper. A finger stabbed at the girl on the right of the pair.
‘That’s Clara Pohlmeyer, the first serious love of my pa. He told me a hundred stories about him and her, how they’d met at a dance, how they’d planned to marry, set up their own dance hall with a jazz band, but the parents were against any business like that, definitely against any idea of a marriage. Clara was sent off to New York to stay with an aunt. Never came back. Pa never saw her again.’
My finger drifted down to the young woman standing next to Clara.
‘That’s what made me go get the photograph! That’s Clara’s sister, couple of years younger, killed in the crossfire of a Chicago Mob shootout in ’26. How in the darn world did you get her picture on your phone?’
‘Do you remember the girl’s name, Mr Diederich, her name?’
‘Oh yeah, my pa said you didn’t forget that one once you’d met her. Hell of a dancer by all accounts, had a special dress made of gold tassels, paid for by Capone himself.’
‘Her name, Mr Diederich?’
‘That’s Rose, sir, that’s Rose Pohlmeyer.’
It was the same face staring out from my phone and the photograph.
Back in the car I closed the door. I sat dumbfounded. Had I imagined the meeting in the building this morning? I glanced sideways at where I thought a girl named Rose had sat just hours earlier after having entertained me with her dancing and dialogue.
Three yellow tassels shimmied on the seat in the early evening sunlight.
(and here’s a vocabulary list of the ‘Flapper’s’ words)
Father Time – any man over 30 years of age
Grizzly Bear – a popular 20s dance
Forty-Niner – man who is prospecting for a rich wife
Tomato – a young woman shy of brains
Corn-Shredder – young man who dances on a girl’s feet
Mary Janes – closed, low-cut shoe with one or more straps across the instep, popular in 20s
Whangdoodle – jazz-band music
Grubstake – invitation to dinner
Fluky – funny, odd, peculiar; different
Finale Hopper – young man who arrives after everything is paid for
Airedale – a homely man
Sugar – money
Boob-Tickler – girl who entertains father’s out-of-town customers
Urban Set – a new gown
Brooksey – classy dresser
Wurp – Killjoy or drawback
Edisoned – being asked a lot of questions
Stilts – legs
Dogs – feet
Dimbox – a taxicab
Lemon Squeezer – an elevator
Di mi – goodness
Cat’s Pajamas – anything that’s good
Cake Basket – a limousine
Cuddle Cootie – young man who takes a girl for a ride on a bus, gas wagon or automobile
Handcuff – engagement ring
Hot dawg – great!
Duck’s Quack – the best thing ever