[This is chapter 1 of the forthcoming book, And Then Came Life, from American Book Publishers. Look for it at online bookstores this October.]
Chapter 1, The Chase
“Hi there, good-lookin’.”
Ruth laughed, tossing her long blonde hair over her bare shoulders. She was used to men making passes at her. After all, the Pussycat Club was well-known for its companionship opportunities. Right at the lower end of the footpath leading to Daytona Beach’s famed boardwalk, it was a volatile trysting place for sailors and their girls enjoying sparkling moonlight and pounding surf.
“Says you. At this club, band members can’t fraternize with employees. It’s the rule.” Always with new bands, someone had to explain the rules again and again.
“Yeah, but you know what they say about rules being made just to be broken. So how about bringing me a whiskey on the house?” Maybe because he was one of the best bass players in northeast Florida, Lee was more confident than other band members. Maybe the electric tingle of chasing yet another beauty propelled his advance. Maybe the trim black tuxedo and white ruffled shirt buoyed his self-assuredness.
“Another rule,” Ruth laughed again, “no house drinks for the band.” Her white teeth sparkled in the dim cigar and cigarette smoke.
“So why don’t you buy me one?”
“Me? I work here so other people can party. Let one of them buy you the whiskey.”
“But you’re the prettiest doll here. If you’ll buy now, I’ll buy dinner after the show. Deal?” Deal was Lee’s newest catch word. It made him sound like the music mogul he so desperately was expected to become.
* * *
Mogul or not, ‘deal’ worked for Ruth. When the club closed at two, she and Lee headed for Jimmie’s, the after-hours cabaret favored by the town’s most bodacious night prowlers.
“Who’s there?” the bouncer demanded at Lee’s knock on the steel door.
“Lee…Lee Goldberg and Ruth…from the Pussycat Club.”
“McAllister,” Ruth supplied.
“Well, all right. Come in fast.” The steel door opened just enough to allow the pair inside, and then clicked shut quietly, menacingly, its four bolts sliding back into place in seconds.
“Hey, Fuzzy!” Lee waved at a fellow band leader as he and Ruth were shown to their table. Other musicians whistled at Ruth while two of the Beach’s best-known pot dealers greeted Lee from their favorite corner table.
“You know a lot of people here,” Ruth exclaimed as they were seated.
“Just some of the boys. Daytona Beach is a pretty good-sized town, but music guys are pretty tight. Sometimes I’m playing their bands, other times I’m leading a band. Depends on the gig.”
“What’ll ya have?” the bouncer-turned-waiter insisted.
“Whiskey for me, Black. Ruth?”
“I’d like a gin and tonic, please. Twist, not a squeeze.”
“So tell me about yourself, Ruth.” Lee leaned forward. “How long have you been at the Pussycat? A while, I’d guess, since you know all the rules about fraternizing and house drinks not for the band.” Usually getting a girl to talk about herself helped her relax, helped lower her defenses.
Ruth’s silvery laugh turned heads at other tables, making patrons smile with her. “I’ve been there about two years. Good tips. Better than cashiering on the boardwalk, but I work there, too. Helps raise my son and keeps my mother in scotch. I’m just glad she doesn’t drink Black Label like you do.”
“Black is better, smoother. So how old is your son and where’s his father?”
“Don’t be pushy,” Ruth said, giggling. “We’ve got the rest of the night to get to know each other.” Attention from handsome men was to be savored and made to last as long as possible.
“Really?” Lee leaned back. If he played his cards right… “Well, okay, so let me begin again…how old is your son?”
“Ross Thomas McAllister is ten and way too smart for his own good.”
“That’s quite a name for a young man. Maybe he’ll grow up to be a general or a politician someday.”
“Ross for his father, Thomas for my brother. In Ross’ mind, he’s already grown up. Man of the house, I guess, with two women around, so he has a lot of responsibility.”
“If I’m not moving too fast now, what happened to Ross’ father?”
“He didn’t have what it takes to be a parent and not much of what it takes to be a husband, either. There was way too much alcohol and too many beatings for Ross and me. He couldn’t hold a job, either. One night we had another fight and he just left. That was seven or eight years ago and we haven’t seen or heard from him since. Good riddance. Anyway, Mama moved in with us to help with the bills. Between her dress shop and me slinging drinks at the Pussycat, we’ve managed.”
“Here ya go.” The bouncer-waiter plopped icy glasses onto the table. “On your tab, Lee?”
“Sure, and another round in ten…fifteen minutes? Here.” Lee shoved a fiver into the bouncer-waiter’s fist, getting a quick smile in return.
“Here’s mud in your eye.” Lee touched his glass to Ruth’s and took a long drink. “Ah, good stuff! That first gulp is always the best.”
Ruth sipped her gin and tonic. “My turn to ask the questions. How’d you end up here in Daytona?”
“Why not? It’s a good party town that needs good bands and the Pussycat looks good on any musician’s resume. If you play that club for a few weeks or months, you can likely break into the Miami scene.”
“Miami? Why there? It’s dirty, it’s hot and it’s crowded.”
“Yeah, maybe, but its hotel circuit pays better ‘n here. Better weed, too.”
“Okay, okay,” Ruth laughed. “Later on Miami. How’d you learn to play the bass so well?”
Lee smiled at the compliment. Tonight was going to turn out all right, after all. “Played some in school, joined the Army and played fulltime in their band. Got out a few years ago and been playing jazz clubs here and in Orlando.”
Later Ruth would wish she’d never met Lee, but tonight was for fun, for romance, for affection. A little flirting, a few more drinks, and soon it would be daylight and time to go home to sleep away the mistakes.
* * *
“Ruth, you’re seeing too much of that Lee guy.” Isabell was in one of her moods.
“Oh, Mother, we’re just having fun.”
“Serious fun, if you ask me. It’s not right for Ross that you work every night ‘til two in the morning, then party ‘til sunrise.”
“You want me to bring Lee to the house, make him part of the family?”
“No, don’t ever do that. He’s not the kind of influence your father and I tried to be to you kids.”
“Yeah, some influence. Maybe if you and Daddy had had more ‘influence,’ as you call it, I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant with Ross.”
“Shush, he’ll hear you. All I’m saying is you and this Lee are headed for the same trouble as before. Worse yet, he’s Jewish and you know what the Good Book says about that.”
“Mother! Lee is a fine, gifted musician. He could probably lead bands in New York or Hollywood if he wanted to, but he likes me and he wants to stay here in Daytona Beach or maybe go to Miami.”
“You’d better not move to Miami, girl. That’s a sinful city down there and no place for you and Ross. Besides, the doctors who know how to treat your legs are right here in town.”
“Some fine job they’ve done. I can’t even walk without braces, one kneecap is fused and the other’s totally gone. How many times did that one guy have to re-break my legs? Six? Seven? Ten? And you call him a doctor? Horse doctor, maybe. You don’t know half the pain I suffered, or any of my pain living with braces. I can’t dance. I can’t roller skate anymore. Now I have to wear slacks or long skirts just to hide my ugliness. I’m ugly, so ugly no man will ever want me again.”
Ruth sobbed so hard her shoulders shook, tears splashing onto her cotton skirt.
“Baby…Ruth…please don’t cry, honey. You know I love you, and your son loves you very much. He always asks ‘when is Mommy coming home?’”
* * *
The next afternoon Lee came to the house, reassuring Ross and Isabell he truly cared for their mother and daughter. Sure, they partied at Jimmie’s or other after-hours clubs when the Pussycat closed, but it was just good times they were seeking, a little letting off steam after the stress of playing in the band and serving up drinks for other folks.
Isabell found herself unexpectedly charmed. “Why don’t you and Ruth come to the house after closing instead of spending all your money at those clubs?” she said. “We’re not strangers to music and booze and it would be good for Ross to have Ruth here and safer for you, too. You wouldn’t have to risk driving home with all that alcohol on your breath.”
Within two weeks Lee was spending every night at Ruth and Isabell’s place.