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Number Fourteen: Frank Sinatra
An iconic image from the early ‘50s has Frank in a short-brimmed fedora, flashing a crafty smile. He’s wearing a tux, open collar, dangling bowtie, and cradling an old-fashioned squarish microphone. Seams along either side indicate the use of a pre-fab mold. The green is shaped like a martini glass, the narrow stem creating a simple obstacle. The hole is the pimento in the olive.
David sleeps late – the prerogative of a big-time entertainer – and finds that his household is empty. He puts on his historian/detective hat and attempts to read the archaeology. From Pablo, the standard leftover pizza and two library books: Golf Course Design and The Figure in Sculpture. From Derek, a stack of Aberdeen Daily Worlds and a brand-new leather jacket, hints of a young man with his own money and a girl to impress. From Elena, one of those infomercial workout machines where you strap your butt to the seat and swivel around like a crazed monkey.The fridge contains every fruit and vegetable known to mankind; the freezer, an army of Weight Watcher dinners. Is this a new pledge to her husband, or a middle finger to the chubby chaser? He hopes she’s doing it for herself.
Pouring a cup of coffee, he glances outside to find a sunny morning and a coating of frost on the lawn. But it’s not frost. It’s snow. He wanders out to the porch to contemplate whether this carries a portent for the Billy Saddle Trio.
David arrives at the casino early and finds that the place is mobbed. He wonders about the ratios: holiday gamblers? Yoakamheads? Billy Saddle fans? Do they have fans, or are they more like lookie-loos at a traffic accident? He feels very appreciative for his role as a bit player – all of the benefits, none of the hassle – and immediately feels guilty, since he’s the one who talked Billy into it.
Rounding his way into the fireside lounge, he spots a small crowd in the lobby, and wanders over to inspect. The wall contains what looks like an empty fishtank; you can see the cocktail lounge on the other side. The corners of the tank contain tiny spotlights, focused on some central object. Jostling his way through the spectators, he discovers that the object is a baseball.
At the door to Room 57, he’s greeted by a large native man in a black windbreaker.
“He’s okay,” calls Billy. “That’s our bass player. David, this is Namraq, our personal security force.”
David’s not sure if it’s kosher to shake hands with a working bodyguard, so he gives Namraq a nod.
“Nice to meet you.”
Namraq gives a smaller nod in return, and a neutral intensity that’s probably standard equipment. David slides past and finds Isaiah and Billy at a table, chewing on chicken.
“Hey,” says Billy. “Would you believe we get this room every Friday?”
“Yep. They don’t want me leaving the joint late at night.”
“Awesome. So… the ball. I mean, that’s the ball, right?”
“The very one.”
“Wow. Where did you keep it?”
Billy smiles. “A rest stop outside of Boise. I placed it in a steel box and I buried it in a nearby wood.”
David gives him a blank look, and Billy busts out laughing.
“God! You’re so easy. Frankie Minor. A vault in his office. He brought it with him when he came out. Sit down! Have some chow.”
“Not sure if I should.”
“God! I’m working with tenderfoots. You mean to say you’ve got butterflies?”
“Like crazy. Not you?”
“Little bit. Isaiah here didn’t sleep a wink.”
Isaiah gives a bleary smile. “Feel like shit.”
“Here’s the thing,” says Billy. “You guys are great performers. Once you’re on stage, you’ll be fine. But the pre-concert anxiety will eat you up for a while. As you play more and more substantial gigs you will learn that all this painting of scenarios is worthless.”
He takes a bite from his drumstick and chews it down.
“Here’s the other thing. I have so much faith in you two, you are such deep-down solid musicians, that if you do commit little fuckups here and there, nobody will care. And if you happen to commit a big fuckup, do this: exaggerate it. Make it a joke. And then I’ll make a wisecrack, and the audience will love it. Now eat, damn you. You’re going to need the fuel. I had them make it as bland as possible.”
“Okay, boss.” David grabs a breast and forces himself to take a bite. Then he glances at Billy.
“Billy? What happened to your beard?”
Billy and Isaiah work their way into a good round of chortle and snort.
David and Isaiah assemble their tuxedos – duly supplied and tailored by their new bosses – and walk to the service elevator, which delivers them neatly backstage. Charley Nations is waiting next to the stage entrance.
“Boys! You look fabulous. We sold so many tickets I decided to hire a warm-up comedian. Local kid – really funny!”
David peers onstage to see Harv Ketcham, fat kid, pug nose too close to porcine to even be ironic. Harv graduated from North Beach five years before. David’s astonished to hear the tail-end of the Billy Saddle-Michael Jackson joke.
“…propensity for grabbing balls when you really wish they wouldn’t.”
Harv takes a deep bow, as if he has just delivered an aria.
“You gotta love it, right? Michael’s dead, I was like, five when Billy snagged that ball -–I still love it. And that word ‘propensity’ – kinda classes up the joint. Not that this joint needs classing up. You can smell the money in here. Don’t you love the whole idea of the American Indian casino? After two centuries, they finally found the white man’s weakness. I mean come on! If the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock and found slot machines… I’d be telling these jokes in Chinook.” (?)
Charley laughs and slaps David on the shoulder.
“So where’s the folk hero? He’s not freaking out on me, is he?”
“No,” says Isaiah. “That would be our job.”
“Ah! You’ll be fine.”
“Billy’s making some kind of grand entrance,” says David. “I suspect he might have a jetpack.”
Onstage, Harv is wrapping up. “So you guys have a great year, okay? Thanks for letting me talk to you.”
The applause is a little unsettling. It’s huge.
“How many people you got out there?”
Charley smiles. “Five, six hundred. Who keeps track?”
“Holy shit,” says Isaiah.
Harv trundles in off the stage and grins. “What a crowd! I haven’t had anything that easy since Doris Letorsky. Y’see how that works? The easy girl is always named Doris, and the last name is always Polish or Italian, because ‘Letorsky’ or ‘Giapanelli’ is so much funnier than ‘Windsor’ or ‘Vandenberg.’ Hey! Mr. Falter. What’s the deal with that D you gave me junior year?”
“You know very well you got an A, Harv.”
“Hey! You tryin’ to ruin my street cred?”
“Whew!” says Isaiah. “This boy is under the influence of some high-level adrenaline.”
“Nice to see ya, Harv. Now go sit down before I send you to the principal’s office!”
“Ah,” says Harv. “Just like old times. Break a leg, guys.”
They watch him as he goes for the snack table.
“Okay,” says Isaiah. “Any last words?”
“We need a ritual. Try this.” He gives him a knuckle-bump, followed by a voodoo finger-wave, a pistol-point and a New Jersey-ish “Ring-a-ding-ding.”
They repeat it together, with some success, and then they open the door. Charley slaps David on the butt.
“Kick some ass, boys!”
The crowd is perched upon a hair trigger; this is not just a night out, it’s a piece of history. When two tuxedoed figures appear, they burst into hoots and yells, and they don’t even seem to be disappointed that neither of them is Billy Saddle.
David walks to his waiting bass, working hard not to trip over his own feet. Isaiah settles into place behind a magnificent hunk of Steinway. He shakes out his fingers, lowers them to the keys and spins out a whirlwind intro to “It Was a Very Good Year.” David joins in on the verse, and they play all the way through before Isaiah chunks a chord and proceeds to a slow swing of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”
This would be the logical place for Billy to make his entrance, but nothing’s doing, so they continue into the chorus. That’s when the spotlights begin to sweep the room in crazy motions. This makes David all the more nervous, because now he can see the endless rows of patrons.
The spots came together on a door at the back of the hall, conjuring a booming emcee voice that sounds vaguely like Charley Nations.
“La-deeees and Gentlefolks! In celebration of the just-completed Salmon Hall, the Quinault Casino is proud to present the long-awaited return of Billy! Saddle!”
This time the applause is like cannon-fire. David inches closer to his monitor so he can hear what Isaiah’s playing. The back door bursts open, and out comes Billy, arms held to the sky. Seconds into his new career, he’s already breaching security, trotting the center aisle, giving out high fives and handshakes. As he boards the stage, David can finally make out what he’s wearing: a suit of dark red velvet, black Italian boots, white pleated shirt, red bowtie, and a scarlet fedora with a black satin band. And to think that Abbey’s parents thought Billy was gay.
The ruckus is such that Billy turns and twirls his finger, a signal to return to the beginning of the song. David imagines that Billy’s heart must be about to levitate right out of his chest, but his first line is that same controlled, perfect tone. He swings the second phrase with a smile, sending his voice through the best damn sound system that David has ever heard. They scoop up to a Broadway ending and the cannons go off again, followed by a chant of Bil-ly! Bil-ly! He waves them down and speaks. In the first three words, David detects the slightest of tremors.
“I want to introduce you to a phrase that I will be using a lot in the coming months: I’m sorry.” Laughter. “I’ll tell you what, though. If all these years of hiding out were the price for a moment like this, then maybe it was worth it.” Uproar. “I’d like to thank Charley Nations and the Quinault Casino for building this tremendous hall specifically for my use.” Laughter. “Okay. You’re too smart for me. I tell you what: I know I’m the guy who screwed up the playoffs lo those many years ago, but tonight I’m not gonna talk about that, because tonight is New Year’s Eve and I want to see this dance floor filled up! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Isaiah Silverstein on the Steinway!”
Isaiah cranks up a jaunty rendition of “They All Laughed.” David takes note of the lyrics, a lone man trying to confound popular opinion and win the girl. Or, get his life back. Halfway through his solo, Isaiah gives in to his nerves and loses his path, dropping a series of chords so clunky that he decides to take Billy’s advice and turn it into a joke. He balls his fists and hammers the keys like a zombie Liberace, then he lets the dissonance gather in the air, releases the pedal, counts “One-two!” and returns to the intro. Billy comes in for the reprise and, sure enough, he’s laughing, the crowds laughing, they’re all laughing. Isaiah ends it with the theme from Beethoven’s Fifth and jumps to his feet for an exaggerated bow.
Billy does that great Jack Benny trick of staring as the laughter dies down. Then he decides it’s time to revisit the evening’s running joke.
Billy gives a hopeful smile. “Perhaps now would be a good time to introduce the band.” Laughter. “We picked up our piano player from the Home for Wayward Basketball Players. We expect the meds to kick in any second now. Isaiah Silverstein!”
“We found our bass player at North Beach High, where he was busted for handing out Che Guevara T-shirts at freshman orientation. Mr. David Falter!” Applause.
“I’m Billy Saddle, and once again may I say I am awfully sorry.” Laughter. “And now I’d like to see what kind of singers we have in our audience.”
Billy perches behind his drums for the call-and-response of “Minnie the Moocher.” David spots Derek, Jenny and Abbey at the side of the stage. Derek lifts his camera.
(E)They break at ten-thirty, but it’s hard to stay off-stage; they’re like ballplayers on hitting streaks who want to get right back in the box. The audience is like a drug; David can understand how it drives people to madness. Billy’s about to lead them back onstage when Charley puts a hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, we’ve got some competitive swing-dancers here. They asked if you could play some of that new retro stuff so they could show off.”
“Sure. We’ve got just the thing.”
“You guys know everything.”
“We certainly do.”
They’re surprised to find the party going on just fine without them: couples slow-dancing to Michael Bublé, folks filtering in and out of the hall’s special slots room, and a droning chatter like the inside of a beehive. It takes a few seconds for the trio to get themselves noticed, but soon a warm applause rolls across the room. Billy heads for the drums.
“All right! If you’ve got something you wanted to get done this year, you have precisely one hour in which to do it!”
A big fat shout.
“I’d like to ask the dancers to clear the floor for just one song, because it turns out we’ve got some championship dancers in the place, and we’d like to give them a chance to strut their stuff.”
Billy starts on the toms and stirs up a jungle beat a la Gene Krupa on “Sing Sing Sing.” From there he spreads it around: the hat, the snare, the crash, the ride, then a rising roll on his cymbals. He opens the hi-hat, works it up loud and clamps it down. The sudden cut brings a volley of hoots from the audience. Billy flashes a sneaky smile, checks the floor to see four couples at the ready, and shouts out the count.
The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies’ “Zoot Suit Riot” is a recent addition, so the players have few chances to watch the dancers. Still, David gets the sense. These twentysomethings have the moves so down that it’s like waking up in the Cotton Club, circa 1943. A couple at the right is getting gymnastic, the guy throwing the girl around his shoulders like an old-school jitterbugger.
The amateurs return to the floor at song’s end, newly inspired, and the trio keeps to the retro thing: the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ klezmer-style “H-E-L-L,” followed by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three.” They return to the old stuff with “That’s All Right with Me,” but Isaiah goes high-speed on them, faster than Sinatra’s, faster than Connick’s, it’s like a swing tune as played by the Ramones. David is hanging on by his fingernails. So much more the surprise when Billy points him out for a solo.
David has never approached Isaiah’s musicality, has always felt like a drag on the group, but it turns out the NASCAR-level tempo is exactly what he needs. He enters a tunnel of relaxed focus where the chord changes, the scales within the chords, the finger positions and pick movements come together like genomes in a strand of DNA. His mind is operating in an altered state, just as sharp as conscious thought but perched within a strata just below, closer to his neurons. The melody appears as a series of images, this turn thre full stop full chord, long note, short note, triplet, arpeggio, bent note, slide, low on the G string, trill.
He races on for 32 measures, final fusillade of funkythump bitchbeat chocolate. Billy takes the baton with a slow-growth drum solo and Isaiah comps the chords, leaving space for the crowd to applaud David’s work. He smiles into the spotlight, sweat drenching his shirt. Hot damn, he thinks. I am an actual moo-sician.
The midnight ritual goes off as expected, with the bonus of a thousand white balloons, falling from the ceiling in a slo-no blizzard. At one o’clock, Billy leaves his drums and heads for the mic stand, looking ragged and happy.
“If you have enjoyed yourself tonight, I want to let you in on something. In their great wisdom, the folks at this casino have hired this very trio to play in this gorgeous hall every single Friday this year.”
“Before we play our final song, I want to thank my comrades-in-arms. On piano, Isaiah Silverstein!” Applause. “On bass guitar, The Professor, David Falter.” Applause. “And I… I am your humble servant, Billy Saddle, the man who could not resist the siren call of Mr. Spalding, and for that I am very, very sorry.” Applause. Laughter.
“I want the dance floor filled up with couples, because this is the most romantic song I know. A long time ago, I used to use it as my signoff, and I guess I’ve been waiting for the right time to bring it back. Happy New Year, you wonderful people. And that is all.”
“That’s All” is the song, and indeed it is romantic. Billy sings all of his songs with feeling, funneling it through his limbs like a method actor, but David can tell when it’s personal, when there’s no need to construct the emotion. He finishes, accepts a final ovation, and leads his troops offstage. They’re greeted by Charley Nations, who hands each of them a glass of champagne.
“To the best damn jazz band I ever heard, and the most brilliant damn promoter in Washington state.”
“To Sports Illustrated!” says Isaiah.
“Now,” says Charley. “Billy, we’ve got a little table next to the stage where you can greet your fans. Here’s a couple of pens. We’ve got Namraq there if anybody gets aggressive.”
Being the historian/detective, David can’t resist eavesdropping. These little chats seem to carry a common thread: the feelings of the speaker at the moment of the Grand Fool Double.
“Well I just felt so bad, I said well come on, who among us could resist a genuine major league baseball?”
“I gotta admit, at the time I had to kick my kids out of the room so I could indulge in a good long round of cussing. But then, when I heard about the death threats, I said Come on, people, it’s a game.”
“I just came here so I could tell people I met you. But damn! You guys are awesome. I’m comin’ back, and I’m bringin’ friends.”
“Okay, let me hear you say it again.”
“On behalf of America, I forgive you. Now wasn’t that easy?”
“I was tellin’ my friend, now, that’s just ridiculous, right? It’s that screwy-ass stadium. They got no business stickin’ a set of bleachers into the field like that. Billy? Mr. Saddle?”
Billy’s eyes are locked on the middle distance, and David is certain that he’s seen this expression before. It was Jimmy Stewart, spotting Donna Reed at the high school dance. Billy puts a hand on Namraq’s shoulder, ducks under the velvet rope and crosses the floor, drawn on a tether to a beautiful dark-haired woman who appears to be simultaneously smiling and crying.
She holds out her hands. Billy takes them, spins her once and pulls her into an embrace. She tucks her head over his shoulder, and when she opens her eyes, David can see that they are dark, almond-shaped, and just the slightest bit asymmetrical.
Photo: the author as Sinatra on a Carnival Cruise.