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Katherine Brush
1902-1952

   

Night Club

by Katherine Brush



   
 

     Promptly at quarter of ten P.M. Mrs. Brady descended the steps of the Elevated. She purchased from the news-dealer in the cubbyhole beneath them a next month's magazine and a to-morrow morning's paper and, with these tucked under one plump arm, she walked. She walked two blocks north on Sixth Avenue; turned and went west. But not far west. Westward half a block only, to the place where the gay green awning marked Club Français paints a stripe of shade across the glimmering sidewalk. Under this awning Mrs. Brady halted briefly, to remark to the six-foot doorman that it looked like rain and to await his performance of his professional duty. When the small green door yawned open she sighed deeply and plodded in.
     The foyer was a blackness, an airless velvet blackness like the inside of a jeweler's box. Four drum-shaped lamps of golden silk suspended from the ceiling gave it light (a very little) and formed the jewels: gold signets, those, or cuff-links for a giant. At the far end of the foyer there were black stairs, faintly dusty, rippling upward toward an amber radiance. Mrs. Brady approached and ponderously mounted the stairs, clinging with one fist to the mangy velvet rope that railed their edge.
     From the top, Miss Lena Levin observed the ascent. Miss Levin was the checkroom girl. She had dark-at-the-roots blonde hair and slender hips upon which, in moments of leisure she wore her hands, like buckles of ivory loosely attached. This was a moment of leisure. Miss Levin waited behind her counter. Row upon row of hooks, empty as yet, and seeming to beckon—wee curved fingers of iron—waited behind her.
     "Late," said Miss Levin, "again."
     "Go wan!" said Mrs. Brady. "It's only ten to ten. Whew! Them stairs! "
     She leaned heavily, sideways, against Miss Levin's counter and, applying one palm to the region of her heart, appeared at once to listen and to count. "Feel!" she cried then in a pleased voice.
     Miss Levin obediently felt.
     "Them stairs," continued Mrs. Brady darkly, "with my bad heart, will be the death of me. Whew! Well, dearie! What's the news?"
     "You got a paper," Miss Levin languidly reminded her.
     "Yeah!" agreed Mrs. Brady with sudden vehemence. "I got a paper!" She slapped it upon the counter. "An' a lot of time I'll get to read my paper, won't I now? On a Saturday night!" She moaned. "Other nights is bad enough, dear knows—but Saturday nights! How I dread 'em! Every Saturday night I say to my daughter, I say, 'Geraldine, I can't,' I say, 'I can't go through it again, an' that's all there is to it," I say. 'I'll quit,' I say. An' I will, too!" added Mrs. Brady firmly, if indefinitely.
     Miss Levin, in defense of Saturday nights, mumbled some vague something about tips.
     "Tips!" Mrs. Brady hissed it. She almost spat it. Plainly money was nothing, nothing at all, to this lady. "I just wish," said Mrs. Brady and glared at Miss Levin, "I just wish you had to spend one Saturday night, just one, in that dressing room! Bein' pushed an' stepped on and near knocked down by that gang of hussies, an' them orderin' an' bossin' you 'round like you was black, an' usin' your things an' then sayin' they're sorry, they got no change, they'll be back. Yah! They never come back!"
     "There's Mr. Costello," whispered Miss Levin through lips that, like a ventriloquist's, scarcely stirred.
     "An' as I was sayin'," Mrs. Brady said at once brightly, "I got to leave you. Ten to ten, time I was on the job."
     She smirked at Miss Levin, nodded, and right-about-faced. There, indeed, Mr. Costello was. Mr. Billy Costello, manager, proprietor, monarch of all he surveyed. From the doorway of the big room, where the little tables herded in a ring around the waxen floor, he surveyed Mrs. Brady, and in such a way that Mrs. Brady, momentarily forgetting her bad heart, walked fast, scurried faster, almost ran.
     The door of her domain was set politely in an alcove, beyond silken curtains looped up at the sides. Mrs. Brady reached it breathless, shouldered it open, and groped for the electric switch. Lights sprang up, a bright white blaze, intolerable for an instant to the eyes, like sun on snow. Blinking, Mrs. Brady shut the door.
     The room was a spotless, white-tiled place, half beauty shop, half dressing room. Along one wall stood washstands, sturdy triplets in a row, with pale-green liquid soap in glass balloons afloat above them. Against the opposite wall there was a couch. A third wall backed an elongated glass-topped dressing table; and over the dressing table and over the washstands long rectangular sheets of mirror reflected lights, doors, glossy tiles, lights multiplied. ...
     Mrs. Brady moved across this glitter like a thick dark cloud in a hurry. At the dressing table she came to a halt, and upon it she laid her newspaper, her magazine, and her purse—a black purse worn gray with much clutching. She divested herself of a rusty black coat and a hat of the mushroom persuasion, and hung both up in a corner cupboard which she opened by means of one of a quite preposterous bunch of keys. From a nook in the cupboard she took down a lace-edged handkerchief with long streamers. She untied the streamers and tied them again around her chunky black alpaca waist. The handkerchief became an apron's baby cousin.
     Mrs. Brady relocked the cupboard door, fumbled her key-ring over, and unlocked a capacious drawer of the dressing table. She spread a fresh towel on the plate-glass top, in the geometrical center, and upon the towel she arranged with care a procession of things fished from the drawer. Things for the hair. Things for the complexion. Things for the eyes, the lashes, the brows, the lips, and the finger nails. Things in boxes and things in jars and things in tubes and tins. Also an ash tray, matches, pins, a tiny sewing kit, a pair of scissors. Last of all, a hand-printed sign, a nudging sort of sign:

                               NOTICE!

          These articles, placed here for your convenience,
                  are the property of the maid.

And directly beneath the sign, propping it up against the looking-glass, a china saucer, in which Mrs. Brady now slyly laid decoy money: two quarters and two dimes, in four-leaf-clover formation.
     Another drawer of the dressing table yielded a bottle of bromo seltzer, a bottle of aromatic spirits of ammonia, a tin of sodium bicarbonate, and a teaspoon. These were lined up on a shelf above the couch.
     Mrs. Brady was now ready for anything. And (from the grim, thin pucker of her mouth) expecting it.
     Music came to her ears. Rather, the beat of music, muffled, rhythmic, remote. Umpa-um, umpa-um, umpa-um-mm —Mr. "Fiddle" Baer and his band, hard at work on the first foxtrot of the night. It was teasing, foot-tapping music; but the large solemn feet of Mrs. Brady were still. She sat on the couch and opened her newspaper; and for some moments she read uninterruptedly, with special attention to the murders, the divorces, the breaches of promise, the funnies.
     Then the door swung inward, admitting a blast of Mr. "Fiddle" Baer's best, a whiff of perfume, and a girl.
     Mrs. Brady put her paper away.
     The girl was petite and darkly beautiful; wrapped in fur and mounted on tall jeweled heels. She entered humming the ragtime song the orchestra was playing, and while she stood near the dressing table, stripping off her gloves, she continued to hum it softly to herself:

               "Oh, I know my baby loves me,
                I can tell my baby loves me."

     Here the dark little girl got the left glove off, and Mrs. Brady glimpsed a platinum wedding ring.

               "'Cause there ain't no maybe
                 In my baby's
                 Eyes."

     The right glove came off. The dark little girl sat down in one of the chairs that faced the dressing table. She doffed her wrap, casting it carelessly over the chair-back. It had a cloth-of-gold lining, and "Paris" was embroidered in curlicues on the label. Mrs. Brady hovered solicitously near.
     The dark little girl, still humming, looked over the articles "placed here for your convenience," and picked up the scissors. Having cut off a very small hangnail with the air of one performing a perilous major operation, she seized and used the manicure buffer, and after that the eyebrow pencil. Mrs. Brady's mind, hopefully calculating the tip, jumped and jumped again like a taximeter.

               "Oh, I know my baby loves me—"

     The dark little girl applied powder and lipstick belonging to herself. She examined the result searchingly in the mirror and sat back, satisfied. She cast some silver Klink! Klink! into Mrs. Brady's saucer, and half rose. Then, remembering something, she settled down again.
     The ensuing thirty seconds were spent by her in pulling off her platinum wedding ring, tying it in a corner of a lace handkerchief, and tucking the handkerchief down the bodice of her tight white-velvet gown.
     "There!" she said.
     She swooped up her wrap and trotted toward the door, jeweled heels merrily twinkling.

               "'Cause there ain't no maybe—"

     The door fell shut.
     Almost instantly it opened again, and another girl came in. A blonde, this. She was pretty in a round-eyed babyish way; but Mrs. Brady, regarding her, mentally grabbed the spirits of ammonia bottle. For she looked terribly ill. The round eyes were dull, the pretty, silly little face was drawn. The thin hands, picking at the fastenings of a spacious bag, trembled and twitched.
     Mrs. Brady cleared her throat. "Can I do something for you, Miss?"
     Evidently the blonde girl had believed herself alone in the dressing room. She started violently, and glanced up, panic in her eyes. Panic, and something else. Something very like murderous hate—but for an instant only, so that Mrs. Brady, whose perceptions were never quick, missed it altogether.
     "A glass of water?" suggested Mrs. Brady.
     "No," said the girl, "no." She had one hand in the beaded bag now. Mrs. Brady could see it moving, causing the bag to squirm like a live thing, and the fringe to shiver. "Yes!" she cried abruptly. "A glass of water—please—you get it for me."
     She dropped onto the couch. Mrs. Brady scurried to the water cooler in the corner, pressed the spigot with a determined thumb. Water trickled out thinly. Mrs. Brady pressed harder, and scowled, and thought, "Something's wrong with this thing. I mustn't forget, next time I see Mr. Costello—"
     When again she faced her patient, the patient was sitting erect. She was thrusting her clenched hand back into the beaded bag again.
     She took only a sip of the water, but it seemed to help her quite miraculously. Almost at once color came to her cheeks, life to her eyes. She grew young again—as young as she was. She smiled up at Mrs. Brady.
     "Well!" she exclaimed. "What do you know about that!" She shook her honey-colored head. "I can't imagine what came over me."
     "Are you better now?" inquired Mrs. Brady.
     "Yes. Oh, yes. I'm better now. You see," said the blonde girl confidentially, "we were at the theater, my boy friend and I, and it was hot and stuffy—I guess that must have been the trouble." She paused, and the ghost of her recent distress crossed her face. "God! I thought that last act never would end!" she said.
     While she attended to her hair and complexion she chattered gayly to Mrs. Brady, chattered on with scarcely a stop for breath, and laughed much. She said, among other things, that she and her "boy friend" had not known one another very long, but that she was "ga-ga" about him. "He is about me, too," she confessed. "He thinks I'm grand."
     She fell silent then, and in the looking-glass her eyes were shadowed, haunted. But Mrs. Brady, from where she stood, could not see the looking-glass; and half a minute later the blonde girl laughed and began again. When she went out she seemed to dance out on little winged feet; and Mrs. Brady, sighing, thought it must be nice to be young ... and happy like that.
     The next arrivals were two. A tall, extremely smart young woman in black chiffon entered first, and held the door open for her companion; and the instant the door was shut, she said, as though it had been on the tip of her tongue for hours, "Amy, what under the sun happened? "
     Amy, who was brown-eyed, brown-bobbed-haired, and patiently annoyed with something, crossed to the dressing table and flopped into a chair before she made reply.
     "Nothing," she said wearily then.
     "That's nonsense!" snorted the other. "Tell me. Was it something she said? She's a tactless ass, of course. Always was."
     "No, not anything she said. It was—" Amy bit her lip. "All right! I'll tell you. Before we left your apartment I just happened to notice that Tom had disappeared. So I went to look for him—I wanted to ask him if he'd remembered to tell the maid where we were going—Skippy's subject to croup, you know, and we always leave word. Well, so I went into kitchen, thinking Tom might be there mixing cocktails—and there he was—and there she was!"
     The full red mouth of the other young woman pursed itself slightly. Her arched brows lifted. "Well?"
     Her matter-of-factness appeared to infuriate Amy. "He was kissing her!" she flung out.
     "Well?" said the other again. She chuckled softly and patted Amy's shoulder, as if it were the shoulder of a child. "You're surely not going to let that spoil your whole evening? Amy dear! Kissing may once have been serious and significant—but it isn't nowadays. Nowadays, it's like shaking hands. It means nothing."
     But Amy was not consoled. "I hate her!" she cried desperately. "Red-headed thing! Calling me 'darling' and 'honey,' and s-sending me handkerchiefs for C-Christmas—and then sneaking off behind closed doors and k-kissing my h-h-husband ..."
     At this point Amy quite broke down, but she recovered herself sufficiently to add with venom, "I'd like to slap her!"
     "Oh, oh, oh," smiled the tall young woman, "I wouldn't do that!"
     Amy wiped her eyes with what might well have been one of the Christmas handkerchiefs, and confronted her friend. "Well, what would you do, Claire? If you were I?"
     "I'd forget it," said Claire, "and have a good time. I'd kiss somebody myself. You've no idea how much better you'd feel!"
     "I don't do—" Amy began indignantly; but as the door behind her opened and a third young woman—red-headed, earringed, exquisite—lilted in, she changed her tone. "Oh, hello!" she called sweetly, beaming at the newcomer via the mirror. "We were wondering what had become of you!"
     The red-headed girl, smiling easily back, dropped her cigarette on the floor and crushed it out with a silver-shod toe. "Tom and I were talking to 'Fiddle' Baer," she explained. "He's going to play 'Clap Yo' Hands' next, because it's my favorite. Lend me a comb, will you, somebody?"
     "There's a comb there," said Claire, indicating Mrs. Brady's business comb.
     "But imagine using it!" murmured the red-headed girl. "Amy darling, haven't you one?"
     Amy produced a tiny comb from her rhinestone purse. "Don't forget to bring it when you come," she said, and stood up. "I'm going on out; I want to tell Tom something."
     She went.
     The red-headed young woman and the tall black-chiffon one were alone, except for Mrs. Brady. The red-headed one beaded her incredible lashes. The tall one, the one called Claire, sat watching her. Presently she said, "Sylvia, look here." And Sylvia looked. Anybody, addressed in that tone, would have.
     "There is one thing," Claire went on quietly, holding the other's eyes, "that I want understood. And that is, ' Hands off! ' Do you hear me?"
     "I don't know what you mean."
     "You do know what I mean!"
     The red-headed girl shrugged her shoulders. "Amy told you she saw us, I suppose."
     "Precisely. And," went on Claire, gathering up her possessions and rising, "as I said before, you're to keep away." Her eyes blazed sudden white-hot rage. "Because, as you very well know, he belongs to me, " she said and departed, slamming the door.

     Between eleven o'clock and one Mrs. Brady was very busy indeed. Never for more than a moment during those two hours was the dressing room empty. Often it was jammed, full to overflowing with curled cropped heads, with ivory arms and shoulders, with silk and lace and chiffon, with legs. The door flapped in and back, in and back. The mirrors caught and held—and lost—a hundred different faces. Powder veiled the dressing table with a thin white dust; cigarette stubs, scarlet at the tips, choked the ash-receiver. Dimes and quarters clattered into Mrs. Brady's saucer—and were transferred to Mrs. Brady's purse. The original seventy cents remained. That much, and no more, would Mrs. Brady gamble on the integrity of womankind.
     She earned her money. She threaded needles and took stitches. She powdered the backs of necks. She supplied towels for soapy, dripping hands. She removed a speck from a teary blue eye and pounded the heel on a slipper. She curled the straggling ends of a black bob and a gray bob, pinned a velvet flower on a lithe round waist, mixed three doses of bicarbonate of soda, took charge of a shed pink-satin girdle, collected, on hands and knees, several dozen fake pearls that had wept from a broken string.
     She served chorus girls and school girls, gay young matrons and gayer young mistresses, a lady who had divorced four husbands, and a lady who had poisoned one, the secret (more or less) sweetheart of a Most Distinguished Name, and the Brains of a bootleg gang. ... She saw things. She saw a yellow check, with the ink hardly dry. She saw four tiny bruises, such as fingers might make, on an arm. She saw a girl strike another girl, not playfully. She saw a bundle of letters some man wished he had not written, safe and deep in a brocaded handbag.

     About midnight the door flew open and at once was pushed shut, and a gray-eyed, lovely child stood backed against it, her palms flattened on the panels at her sides, the draperies of her white chiffon gown settling lightly to rest around her.
     There were already five damsels of varying ages in the dressing room. The latest arrival marked their presence with a flick of her eyes and, standing just where she was, she called peremptorily, "Maid!"
     Mrs. Brady, standing just where she was, said, "Yes, Miss?"
     "Please come here," said the girl.
     Mrs. Brady, as slowly as she dared, did so.
     The girl lowered her voice to a tense half-whisper. "Listen! Is there any way I can get out of here except through this door I came in?"
     Mrs. Brady stared at her stupidly.
     "Any window?" persisted the girl. "Or anything?"
     Here they were interrupted by the exodus of two of the damsels-of-varying ages. Mrs. Brady opened the door for them—and in so doing caught a glimpse of a man who waited in the hall outside, a debonair, old-young man with a girl's furry wrap hung over his arm, and his hat in his hand.
     The door clicked. The gray-eyed girl moved out from the wall, against which she had flattened herself—for all the world like one eluding pursuit in a cinema.
     "What about that window?" she demanded, pointing.
     "That's all the farther it opens," said Mrs. Brady.
     "Oh! And it's the only one—isn't it?"
     "It is."
     "Damn," said the girl. "Then there's no way out?"
     "No way but the door," said Mrs. Brady testily.
     The girl looked at the door. She seemed to look through the door, and to despise and to fear what she saw. Then she looked at Mrs. Brady. "Well," she said, "then I s'pose the only thing to do is to stay in here."
     She stayed. Minutes ticked by. Jazz crooned distantly, stopped, struck up again. Other girls came and went. Still the gray-eyed girl sat on the couch, with her back to the wall and her shapely legs crossed, smoking cigarettes, one from the stub of another.
     After a long while she said, "Maid!"
     "Yes, Miss?"
     "Peek out that door, will you, and see if there's anyone standing there."
     Mrs. Brady peeked, and reported that there was. There was a gentleman with a little bit of a black mustache standing there. The same gentleman, in fact, who was standing there "just after you come in."
     "Oh, Lord," sighed the gray-eyed girl. "Well ... I can't stay here all night, that's one sure thing."
     She slid off the couch, and went listlessly to the dressing table. There she occupied herself for a minute or two. Suddenly, without a word, she darted out.
     Thirty seconds later Mrs. Brady was elated to find two crumpled one-dollar bills lying in her saucer. Her joy, however, died a premature death. For she made an almost simultaneous second discovery. A saddening one. Above all, a puzzling one.
     "Now what for," marveled Mrs. Brady, "did she want to walk off with them scissors? "
     This at twelve-twenty-five.
     At twelve-thirty a quartette of excited young things burst in, babbling madly. All of them had their evening wraps with them; all talked at once. One of them, a Dresden-china girl with a heart-shaped face, was the center of attention. Around her the rest fluttered like monstrous butterflies; to her they addressed their shrill exclamatory cries. "Babe," they called her.
     Mrs. Brady heard snatches: "Not in this state unless ..." "Well, you can in Maryland, Jimmy says." "Oh, there must be some place nearer than ..." "Isn't this marvelous? " "When did it happen, Baby? When did you decide?"
     "Just now," the girl with the heart-shaped face sang softly, "when we were dancing."
     The babble resumed. "But listen, Babe, what'll your mother and father? ..." "Oh, never mind, let's hurry."
     "Shall we be warm enough with just these thin wraps, do you think? Babe, will you be warm enough? Sure?"
     Powder flew and little pocket combs marched through bright marcels. Flushed cheeks were painted pinker still.
     "My pearls," said Babe, "are old. And my dress and my slippers are new. Now let's see—what can I borrow? "
     A lace handkerchief, a diamond bar-pin, a pair of earrings were proffered. She chose the bar-pin, and its owner unpinned it proudly, gladly.
     "I've got blue garters!" exclaimed another girl.
     "Give me one, then," directed Babe. "I'll trade with you. ... There! That fixes that."
     More babbling, "Hurry! Hurry up!" ... "Listen, are you sure we'll be warm enough? Because we can stop at my house, there's nobody home." "Give me that puff, Babe, I'll powder your back." "And just to think a week ago you'd never even met each other!" "Oh, hurry up, let's get started! " "I'm ready." "So'm I." "Ready, Babe? You look adorable." "Come on, everybody."
     They were gone again, and the dressing room seemed twice as still and vacant as before.
     A minute of grace, during which Mrs. Brady wiped the spilled powder away with a damp gray rag. Then the door jumped open again. Two evening gowns appeared and made for the dressing table in a bee line. Slim tubular gowns they were, one silver, one palest yellow. Yellow hair went with the silver gown, brown hair with the yellow. The silver-gowned, yellow-haired girl wore orchids on her shoulder, three of them, and a flashing bracelet on each fragile wrist. The other girl looked less prosperous; still, you would rather have looked at her.
     Both ignored Mrs. Brady's cosmetic display as utterly as they ignored Mrs. Brady, producing full field equipment of their own.
     "Well," said the girl with the orchids, rouging energetically, "how do you like him?"
     "Oh-h—all right."
     "Meaning, 'Not any,' hmm? I suspected as much!" The girl with the orchids turned in her chair and scanned her companion's profile with disapproval. "See here, Marilee," she drawled, "are you going to be a damn fool all your life?"
     "He's fat," said Marilee dreamily. "Fat, and—greasy, sort of. I mean, greasy in his mind. Don't you know what I mean?"
     "I know one thing," declared the girl with orchids. "I know Who He Is! And if I were you, that's all I'd need to know. Under the circumstances. "
     The last three words, stressed meaningly, affected the girl called Marilee curiously. She grew grave. Her lips and lashes drooped. For some seconds she sat frowning a little, breaking a black-sheathed lipstick in two and fitting it together again.
     "She's worse," she said finally, low.
     "Worse?"
     Marilee nodded.
     "Well," said the girl with orchids, "there you are. It's the climate. She'll never be anything but worse, if she doesn't get away. Out West, or somewhere."
     "I know," murmured Marilee.
     The other girl opened a tin of eye shadow. "Of course," she said dryly, "suit yourself. She's not my sister."
     Marilee said nothing. Quiet she sat, breaking the lipstick, mending it, breaking it.
     "Oh, well," she breathed finally, wearily, and straightened up. She propped her elbows on the plate-glass dressing-table top and leaned toward the mirror, and with the lipstick she began to make her coral-pink mouth very red and gay and reckless and alluring.
     Nightly at one o'clock Vane and Moreno dance for the Club Français. They dance a tango, they dance a waltz; then, by way of encore, they do a Black Bottom, and a trick of their own called the Wheel. They dance for twenty, thirty minutes. And while they dance you do not leave your table—for this is what you came to see. Vane and Moreno. The new New York thrill. The sole justification for the five-dollar couvert extorted by Billy Costello.
     From one until half past, then, was Mrs. Brady's recess. She had been looking forward to it all the evening long. When it began—when the opening chords of the tango music sounded stirringly from the room outside—Mrs. Brady brightened. With a right good will she sped the parting guests.
     Alone, she unlocked her cupboard and took out her magazine—the magazine she had bought three hours before. Heaving a great breath of relief and satisfaction, she plumped herself on the couch and fingered the pages. Immediately she was absorbed, her eyes drinking up printed lines, her lips moving soundlessly.
     The magazine was Mrs. Brady's favorite. Its stories were true stories, taken from life (so the Editor said); and to Mrs. Brady they were live, vivid threads in the dull, drab pattern of her night.

 
           

For
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Last updated:
May 20, 2006
   
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