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Flirting with a Firebird
The problem with the West is its essential interminability. The eastern half of Colorado is at least colorful – golden grasslands, great mountains in the rear-view. And Kansas starts out all right, blacktop running the long hills like a self-serve rollercoaster, patches of green prefiguring the onset of the Midwest. And then flat. A cornfield! And then flat.
On the map, Kansas looks innocent, a homey rectangle. On the road, however, it’s a lo-o-ong rectangle. And Skye lives in a new world now. He envisions the tops of skyscrapers, lit up from the gargoyles, sailing the clouds like the tallest of tall ships. At the next rest area, he digs into the stash of maps behind his seat and discovers a plug-in GPS. He uses it to locate the Kansas City Airport (three miles off of I-70) and leaves his pimped-out Toyota in long-term parking. He strolls the concourse, window-shopping the ticket counters, and ends up at United.
“Hi. Looking for the next flight to New York.”
The plane tracks a gentle semicircle over the metropolis, affording a view of the night’s treasurebox, half the lights in the civilized world. He grabs his carry-on, catches the shuttle to Pennsylvania Station, and finds himself hailing a cab across the street from Madison Square Garden. It seems like five minutes ago he was peeing in the middle of a Nevada highway. He jumps into a cab and greets an extremely thin driver, Puerto Rican or something like it, a silver lightning bolt dangling from his right ear.
“Where ya headed?” He smacks his chewing gum, loud enough for percussion.
“You know a good after-hours jazz joint?”
He smacks his gum a few more times. “Matthew’s! Greenwich Village.”
“Let’s do it.”
He alights at Bleecker and 6th Avenue, before a big black door and blue neon letters in Helvetica font: MATTHEW’S. Inside, it’s a little too nice to seem genuine, but then he’s heard all the real hipsters have fled to the East Village. The tables are stained white wood with inlays of black onyx, over a black tiled floor. Skye ducks to the back, sliding onto an upholstered bench and stashing his suitcase under the table. He orders a Manhattan and receives a visit from a pale, dapper man with moussed blond hair.
“Excuse me,” he says. “Are you by any chance a member of the homosexual class?”
Skye blinks twice. “I’m sorry, no.”
The man gives him an embarrassed smile. “Sorry. It’s late and my gaydar is all effed up.”
The band creeps into an intriguingly slow version of “Cotton Tail.” A large grizzled black man steers the piano, accompanied by a tall, thin black man on bass and a curiously small Italian-looking dude on a cocktail drum kit. They pick it up into a slow swing. Skye is just settling into the groove when a stunning woman sits across from him and slides a checkered case under the chair.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Not at all.”
She turns sideways to watch the band, listening carefully. She’s wearing a red cocktail dress with white arrowhead spangles. The hem settles at her knee but it’s clear that her legs are extremely long. She has thick red hair, falling in waves past her shoulders. Her face is cat-like: sharp brown eyes, a small nose, thin, pliable lips. The band chatters to an unresolved ending, and she unleashes a Broadway smile.
She claps loudly and shouts “Yesss!” The piano player searches the room and gives her a wave. The bassist hits a walkline that morphs into “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.” The pianist throws a chiming chord, then another. The redhead drinks it in, then turns to Skye.
“So, Mister Guggenheim. How many minutes have you been in town?”
“Twenty-seven. Is it obvious?”
“Suitcase under the table?”
“Well you’ve got a case.”
“My case is different.”
She speaks precisely, taking care to strike all the consonants. Skye lapses into a long thought that takes a brief time: if this is going to be something, he’s going to be painfully honest. He folds his hands, a dutiful witness, and testifies.
“I’m a journalist from San Francisco. I came into a lot of money, so I took off on a road trip. Kansas was boring the hell out of me, so I hopped a flight to New York and asked the cabbie to take me to a good late-night jazz joint.”
She gives him a studied look, reading his intentions, and then smiles. “I think you and I could have an interesting time. What’s your name?”
“No, really, what’s your name?”
Skye chuckles. “Yeah, I get that a lot. What’s your name?”
“Delilah Coswell. Of the Tampa Bay Coswells. Are you able to cede control, Skye? To let someone else drive?”
Skye thinks about it, rolling his knuckles along the tabletop. “I think that might be nice. I’m assuming you would be the driver?”
The conversation is turning otherworldly, two lawyers haggling a prenup. Delilah combs her fingers down either side of her hair, stopping at the ends to give a subtle tug.
“I would be… the stage director.” She looks toward the trio, which has slowed into the haunting intro of “Stardust,” and raises a finger. “’Scuse me. And don’t you dare leave.”
She rises and takes a precise walk to the stage, settling on a chair next to the bass player. Her case contains a silver trombone. The band repeats the intro, the pianist tossing out speckled variations, as Delilah assembles the slide and makes a few quiet blows into the mouthpiece. They reach the end of the intro and leave it dangling, the drummer feathering the snare with his brush. Delilah climbs three notes to the melody and is joined by the rhythm section as the pianist plays little bits of birdsong. Delilah plays it straight, a warm brown tone, and gives the lines a beautiful shape, clipping here, extending there.
One time through is all she requires. She receives the traditional soloist applause and holds her trombone across her lap as the pianist takes one more go-round, wrapping the progressions in rollercoaster scales. He climbs to a high trill and fades it off like an oceanbound seagull. Two dozen late-nighters give a bleary applause.
“The lovely Delilah,” says the pianist. “Our favorite dropper-inner.”
Skye is still applauding as she approaches the table. She gives a deep Shakespearean bow, holding her trombone like a bouquet, then sits down to sort the pieces back into her case.
“A leftover from high school,” she explains. “It’s sweet of them to let me play.”
The drummer mixes up a samba, striking the clave beats on the rim of his snare as the bassist plays “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Delilah slips onto the bench next to Skye, opens his palm and traces the lines. Satisfied with her reading, she folds her fingers into his and watches the trio. He has known her, so far, for twelve minutes.
A short cab drive later, they’re in Tribeca, at a warehouse-looking club with a brick façade and a line stretching around the corner.
“Oh man, that doesn’t look promising.”
“There are no problems when you’re with Delilah.”
They head for the back of the building, where a man in jeans and a black T-shirt is muscling beer kegs into a service elevator.
He nudges the keg into place and looks up. “Hey there, Delilah.”
“Sorry. Going down?”
Ziggy slides the accordion gate, and the elevator’s gears grind into action. They descend for a very long time.
“Club at the Center of the Earth?” Skye asks.
“Just about,” says Delilah.
Finally, they klunk to a stop. Delilah takes Skye into a dead-end hallway and gives him a kiss that goes on for a while. She releases him with a smile. “Sorry. Just had to know how that felt.”
She flattens a hand against his chest. “Here’s the agenda. I will take our cases to a nice hidey-hole. Your assignment is to go through that door, get a drink and keep yourself amused. You can even do a little flirting if you like. I am not the jealous type. You will be seeing me in about a half hour.”
She slaps his ass and walks away. Skye watches attentively, amazed at the grace of her locomotion. The mystery door reveals a short black hallway and a young-looking bouncer who eyes him warily.
“Hi. I came in with Delilah.”
The bouncer gives a knowing smile and waves him through. What greets him first is the music: Indian, tribal, with a techno background. The bass shakes the floor; the drums are surprisingly crisp. The basement is three stories tall, painted black. A web of luminous pipes and wires covers the walls like foliage, breaking here and there into shapes: fern, tree trunk, green panther, blue snake, an oversized flower bursting with red wires. A bar runs the leftward wall, sheltered by palm trees dotted with low-level white lights.
The front wall offers a stage, and the stage sports a volcano of a dozen different greens, twenty feet tall, magma flowing down its sides in streams of orange, red and yellow. At its left stands a circle of percussionists, augmenting the music with conga, bongo, djembe, doumbek, tabla and hand chimes, plus a sinewy black dancer in African garb with bells and goat’s hooves tied to his ankles, waist and wrists.
At the foot of the volcano stand two DJs in green camo jumpsuits, massaging a trio of turntables and associated electronics. Directly before them is a wide dance floor, covered with what looks like a jungle of trees in a high wind. Despite all the illuminated objects, the dancers remain in darkness, caught here and there by a strobe or squares of roaming colored light.
The final touch is a quartet of birdcages dangling from the ceiling, occupied by dancers in bird-like body paints. Skye likes the idea that they’ve divided it evenly (near as he can tell) between men and women. He manages to shout out an order for a beer as the nearest cage is pulled up through a hole in the ceiling.
The beer is ten bucks, which would have killed him a month ago. He finds a railing spot next to the dance floor and studies the hoi polloi.
“Kind of intimidating, isn’t it?!”
He turns to find a cute Jewess with a thick head of black, wavy hair.
“Pardon?!” he half-yells.
She smiles and pulls up to his ear. “I’d love to dance but I might not make it out alive!”
Skye would like to say something devilishly clever but all he’s got it, “Yeah, me too!” Brilliant.
She’s got eyes that are jet-black and luminescent at the same time, and a Girl Scout smile that’s just killing him. Clearly, she had to work up some courage to try this.
“What if I acted as your bodyguard?!”
The smile widens. “Sure!”
He takes her hand and leads her into the mob, which sucks them in like quicksand. Skye has never been a clubber, but he can see how it serves to knock down inhibitions. The ratio of bodies-per-square-foot guarantees a certain number of tactile accidents, and the only way to keep track of your partner is to grab hold. His Jewish friend is wearing a black sequin halter top over buoyant breasts, and is forced by the crowd to press them into his chest. He tries to brace her by settling his hands at her waist and is pleased to find taut muscle. The music shifts to Brazilian, a little slower and tastier. The fourth birdcage has reappeared, descending slowly from the ceiling.
Skye leans to his partner’s ear. “Had enough?”
She laughs. “Oh God yes!”
They squirm their way off the dance floor and discover the miracle of an empty table. Skye leaves to get some drinks. As the bartender grinds up his mai-tais, he checks out the occupant of the fourth birdcage: a tall woman painted in swirls of red and orange, circles of yellow around her eyes and a plume of black feathers descending from her head to her waist. Watching her movements, he catches the strategy of dancing in a confined, non-anchored space: plant your feet and let your torso do the work.
Great, now he’s flirting with a firebird. He picks up his mai-tais and runs the gauntlet back to date number two.
“Thanks!” says Jewish girl. She takes a sip. “I love mai-tais! My name’s Rachel!”
“I’m Skye! Hey, what’s the name of this place?!”
Skye laughs. “That’s a little on the nose!”
“A little what?!”
He puts a finger on his nose. “A little obvious! It’s a writing term!”
“Did you come by yourself?!” She slides a hand onto his knee.
“No! Came with a friend!”
“Oh! Is he off dancing?!”
Skye considers his recent vow of forthrightness and decides that it is all-encompassing.
“It’s a she!” This small bolt of confession acts like a border collie, herding random bits of information into a useful realization. “That’s her in the cage! The firebird!”
The slump in Rachel’s shoulders is both flattering and guilt-making. He gives her credit, though. She bulls on through in order to remain pleasant.
“She’s good! How long have you known her?!”
Truth. Shit. “Two hours!”
Another slump. A simmering annoyance. “I have no idea how they do that! I would be scared out of my mind! So are you traveling?!”
Skye takes the offramp with pleasure and gives her a sexless account of his adventures. This gives Rachel the chance to finish her mai-tai and make a graceful exit to reconvene with her friends. In the real world, Rachel would be a much more reasonable woman for him to go out with. When he returns his gaze to the birdcage, the real world can go to hell.
They cab it to Chelsea, to an all-night diner covered with French images: mimes, Gerard Depardieu, the Tour de France. The salt and pepper shakers are Eiffel towers. The menus are in English, but still confusing.
“Am I not getting something?” asks Skye.
“We have petit, moyenne and le mangnifique. But of what?”
“Oh!” says Delilah. “Excuse-moi. This place serves pommes frites, and nothing else.”
“Non! Pommes frites! And twenty-seven different toppings.”
Their waitress arrives, dressed as someone from Les Miz. Delilah orders four-cheese Alfredo; Skye, Thai peanut sauce.
“I hate to admit it,” says he, “but this is tres bien.”
She smiles in the Cheshire fashion. “Something about the Jungle makes me crave carbs.”
He swipes a spot of red paint from her neck. “You were fairly amazing up there.”
“Not bad for someone with a fear of heights.”
“A friend of mine took me to that club and said, ‘Oh! You could never do that.’ What she didn’t know was, I am completely unable to resist a dare.”
“Has it lessened your fear?”
“Not much. But now I’m better equipped to control it. Once in a while, I still get this inner voice saying, Delilah! What the fuck are you doing up here?”
Skye lets out a laugh that turns into a yawn.
He stretches his arms. “Woke up in Colorado.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll get you to bed as soon as Mama loses her adrenaline.”
He rubs his eyes and finds that he can’t re-open them more than half-way. “So is this a thing? Are you a Renaissance woman?”
“I am the world’s biggest dilettante.”
She bats her eyelashes. “Do you know the etymology of ‘dilettante’?”
“In Italian, it is the present participle of the word ‘dilettare,’ which means ‘to delight.’”
“Well you certainly do that.”
She smiles more brilliantly than a person should at four in the morning. Skye takes a moment to rest in her brown eyes.
“Does this pattern continue? Are you also a drum major? Tightrope walker?”
Delilah holds up a trio of freshly Alfredo’d frites. “We’ll just have to see, won’t we?” And chews them up.