February 17, 2002

I speak now more to the dead than to the living.  It’s inevitable, if you live long enough.  The dead haunt you and the living never come around.  Very well.

One of these days I will get around to haunting you, too.

JC

Part One

Chapter One

Pittsburgh, February 1946

Night expires, leaving the staff of Pennhollow to clean the debris. The last, straggling guests exited into the brown-black snow, their sexed birdsong billowing into the air as they sought the final, trailing trolley out of Oakland.  James locked the door after them.  The restaurant staff scuttled about, wiping down tables, mopping the floor behind the bar, praying to get home before four in the morning. Suttle coiled mic cables with workman precision, imploring his bandmates to set down their drinks and stop pissing about.  James tallied the register and checked it against the books: a light night for a Friday―the band will be less than satisfied with its door take.  And Lexis.  Lexis sat at the bar cajoling Rich to pour her another drink, tall and straight and pure gin, just like the last four.

After the initial relief of closing, the staff fell into routine.  There was more to be done than any of them would care to admit.  Lexis shambled up to James and casually tossed her arm around his shoulder, spilling gin on his shirt.  “Ready, champ?”  She held a crumpled twenty-dollar bill in her hand as if to hand it to James, but pulled it away when he reached for it.

“Sure.  Just a moment while I put the drawer in the safe and give the band their cut.”  He picked up the drawer and began to walk toward the back office.

“But Jim.”  She dipped a long finger into her glass and struggled to touch the remnants of the pour.  “I am ready to go—now—and I am told you’re my escort for the night.”  She pursed her lips into a mock pout, but shooed James on to his remaining tasks with the flick of a gin-soaked finger.  Our night is just getting started, Jim!”

“James.”

“Right-O, Jim.  Now, on with it!”

Lexis was wearing a flower print v-neck dress, all light pinks and pastel greens, with shoulder pads and elegant fabric gatherings that made her look like an exotic bird of prey.  She eased around the room at once graceful and sudden, apparating from place to place, her raven hair a touch askew and her step silent.

“Jim!  Where are you?”

James was locking up her father’s money in her father’s safe, and as he fumbled to get the books in the right slot could only muster, “Lexis, I’ll be right there,” while already exasperated and doubting whether this would be worth the time and effort.

“Earn your keep, Jim!”

As though she owns me.

With a sigh, James closed the safe, secured it, took his topcoat off the latch in the office and walked back to Lexis—who somehow had another full gin in her hand.  There were some perks to frequenting daddy’s club.  Chairs were now resting on tables and Rich lumbered about, sweeping the floor sloppily.  On a normal night, James would have had a word.  Not tonight.  He’ll worry about making sure the club is presentable tomorrow night before opening.  Horn in hand, Suttle walked up to James.  “Anything else, boss?  Stage is all cleaned up.”  Suttle was in a hurry—he was always in a hurry—to escape Pennhollow.  James shook his head and, open-palmed, directed Suttle toward the door.

“Heaven’s sake, Jim.  You’ve instilled your military precision just fine.  C’mon, everyone here knows what to do.  Right boys?”  The room provided an indistinct affirmation.  When James looked up, Lexis no longer had her drink and was sheathed in an ivory, knee-length cashmere coat.  “Looking for these?”  She dangled his keys on the tip of her finger in front of him, and James went rifling through his pockets as though the keys were not before him at eye level, hanging from that slender digit.  “Been a while since I’ve taken a ride in this beauty!”  She tossed him the keys.  “Let’s go!

The air was heavy as they walked to the car, snow falling lightly, waltzing across the streetlights’ glow.  They walked in silence, and it was perhaps the first time James could remember Lexis at rest, features slack and eyes soft.  He’d only seen her at Pennhollow, holding court.  He’d parked a little way down Forbes, up toward Craig Street.  Despite Lexis’s insistence to get moving, once she got outside, she walked with a languid stride, trailing behind James who ranged ahead before he noticed she trailed.  As he slowed to let her catch up, Lexis chuckled.  “Don’t worry, I know where we’re going.  My father’s the only one who thinks I need to be protected.  Exhausting, really.”  She flicked her cigarette butt onto the ground with an impish disdain.

“Have to admit I wasn’t sure what to make of your father’s request, and still don’t really know why I’m being paid to follow you around.”

“To escort me, Jim.  Daddy wants me home when he wakes up and not in the bed of some fop, ruining the family name.  So I suppose you’ll have to do….”

He cocked his eyebrow and, having arrived at the car, opened the passenger door for Lexis.  “I’ll get you home safely.”  She let out an audible hmmmph and sunk into the crystal blue car.  He gently closed the door, and the car seemed effervescent under the streetlight, the snow buffeting his spirits.  By the time James circled around to the driver’s side, Lexis was playing with the knobs in search of WJAS.  As he turned the ignition, the Cadillac purred to life as though it had been lying in wait for the next hunt.  Frustrated that WJAS was uncharacteristically airing recorded news reels, Lexis dialed back to KDKA.  The Kinder Sisters hissed through the speakers as James turned on the headlights and pulled away from the curb.

“Where to?”

“I’ll take it easy on you.  Musician’s Club.  Should be a nice, traditional jam tonight.”

James racked his brain—the Musician’s Club?  He’d never heard of it, like so many of the places he found in Pittsburgh upon his return from Europe.  This occupied his thoughts as he made his way through what felt like both his home and an uncanny near-facsimile of the town he left back in ’42.  Had he really been gone long enough to account for this inability to reconcile his muscle memory of the city and the reality directly in front of him?  He had to dig through different layers, different skins of the city each day, reading the city as a palimpsest rather than a map.  Pittsburgh was born again every few days.

“Right.  Fraid I’m gonna need some help with directions.”

“Head to the Hill—it’s on Wiley, but you can park on Protectory if there’s nothing available.”

James drove gingerly, easing into lane changes and rounding his turns with excess care.  He wasn’t sure whether this was the result of his cargo or the weather.  They made their way up Forbes for about a block, and, out of habit, James missed the turn north onto Craig Street continued straight toward Carnegie Tech.  He had to circle back around to head to Centre.  Within moments of the car setting into motion, Lexis had turned her head and sat silently with her gaze set unfixed somewhere indefinite out of the passenger-side window.  Tapping her index fingers in time with the music, Lexis was physically present but ineffably elsewhere.

Of the many things James disliked about working nights at Pennhollow, the drive home after two in the morning was not one.  With nobody about, with only the occasional pedestrian and even rarer vehicle, it was as though the streets had been cleared for his benefit.  There was a peace to the hour, a whist, the Cathedral of Learning luminous like an immense nightlight providing a surreal emptiness to Oakland on his way home to Shadyside.  James was often amused that the Cathedral of Learning remained lit all night, but St. Paul’s went dark.  Tonight, he drove in the other direction, toward town rather than home to bed.

Despite the light snowfall, the drive was a quick jaunt down Centre toward town.  After a quick climb, James’s Cadillac crested the hill and the lights of the city spanned out before him like an indecipherable pointillist painting obscured gently by the snow.  James felt a bit like he was floating over the crest and thoughts of racing through France with the 610th blitzed his mind, that feeling of inevitability as the tank destroyer battalion crested a hill to find a new city or town to liberate on their inexorable march to Germany.  He was filled with the same giddiness, the same high, surveilling his own, changed city.  What broke him of the reverie was the smell: there was nothing of the musky male sweat making the air in the cabin nearly viscid, but instead just the bittersweet scent of Lexis’s perfume and gin-laced breath.  She had been so sedate the only way James knew she was breathing at all was that ginsmoke breath wafting over from the passenger seat.

The Cadillac lurched to a stop near where James expected the Musician’s Club to be.  He turned to Lexis for confirmation, but she sat there, still drumming her fingers, off in her own world.  “Lexis?”  Nothing.  “Lexis – we almost there?”  Still nothing.  “Lexis are you o—“

“Yes, darling.  Just park.  You drive like an old man.  And here I thought you were some decorated war hero.  I want to dance.”

James found a spot right on Wiley, just shy of Protectory and shimmied his large torpedoed 62 into the space.  He was admiring his parallel parking when Lexis made an impatient lunge at him.  “Ready?”  She leaned over and put her hand on his thigh, giving it a squeeze.  “Yes, Jim.  You’re ready.”  And with that, the passenger door was open and she was crossing the face of the car before James could shut off the motor.  She shot off, spring-loaded, all kinetic energy bopping her way across the street.  James locked up and rushed after her.  It’d be a bad look if he lost her before he even got into the damned place with her.  He caught her as they turned to face the bouncer, a a slight, impeccably dressed young black man wrapped in a wide-lapeled bear coat, and the most beautiful feather in the band of his Belfry.

“Hey!  Hey!” he said, pointing to James.  “You can’t just go in ‘ehr.  Where’s your member’s card?”

Instinctively, James started patting his pockets in search of this member’s card, which he somehow neglected to obtain.

“Harold, please.”  Lexis grabbed James by his tie and pulled him behind her like she was walking her poodle.  “I’m his member’s card.”  She kept walking, firmly leading James by his tie past Harold’s shaking head.

“I’m sorry, Miss Peirce.  Had I known he was with you….”

“Shhhhh.  Nothing of it.  Love you, Harold.  And this one’s always with me, okay?”

“Yessum.”

Lexis ducked through the front door into a small, packed atrium.  Everything felt cramped and for the first time, James could hear the noise from upstairs—a cacophony of pounding drums, steady piano chording, and a battle between a trumpet and a tenor sax, all playing just a touch too fast.  A large Local 471 union sign hung against the far wall, and a middle-aged black man, cane in lap, was checking each person seeking entrance to the Musicians’ Club.  James stopped to fix his tie.  The line moved at a brisk pace, but occasionally folks were turned away, and not always pleasantly.  After the man at the door raised his cane at one young couple, James sidled up to Lexis.  “So…is there something I need to know?  Do I need to show something to this guy?”

“Jim, you have no faith in me.”  She handed him a card that said “Associate Member” across the top and was inscribed with the name Jim Fagan.  “Just show him the card, be Jim Fagan, and we’ll be on our merry way.”

“Who’s Jim Fagan?”

Arching her eyebrow, Lexis whispered, “Why, the man I always come here with, Jim!” as though James should have already deduced that bit of information.  Lexis was patient in line, but she couldn’t stand still.  Her feet were tapping on the backbeat and, although she never seemed to extend beyond her immediate circle of space, her shoulders were dipping, the long, manicured fingers of her hand curling above her head.  She moved like a ribbon of smoke.

“Well, well!  Miss Lexis Peirce!  Ah my, what a pleasure as always.  I take it this is the fine Mr. Fagan with you this evening?”  The doorman eyed James up and down, not entirely approvingly.  James’s suit was a little too…staid, his hat meant for an office not the Musicians’ Club.

“You know he is, Prez!  Is Leroy’s band playing tonight?”

“Oh, they playin’!

“Marvelous.  You look fantastic, Prez—I’ll see you around okay, my love?”

“You got it, sweet girl.  Have a wonderful night Miss Peirce.  Mr. Fagan….”

Once again, Lexis was headlong for the stairwell before James could so much as nod at Prez and she looked over her shoulder with an exasperated impatience as James lurched forward to follow.  As he caught up to her, she turned to say, “You’re in luck, Jim!  Leroy’s band is playing tonight.  He’ll be more up your speed—more traditional swing and blues jazz.  Let’s see how you do.  Maybe someday we’ll get you in for some bop!”  She weaved in and out of people through the serpentine hall—how long would it take to get to the ballroom?—casually brushing off the attention offered by a string of men smoking the butts of cigarettes.  James was tired.  It’d been a long day already: classes in the morning and afternoon, then straight to Pennhollow to get ready for the Friday night set, and now an after-hours club at 2:30 am.  It was a good thing he didn’t have to work until 5 pm tomorrow, not that Ella wouldn’t have a list of things for him to do.

He caught up to Lexis as she was shedding her jacket and handing it to the coat check with a singular shrug, as though she were simply ducking out of it and continuing on to the bar.  Remembering his topcoat and scarf, James disrobed with haste and followed Lexis to the bar to purchase her gin.  “Just water for me, thanks.”  Lexis, now shed of her jacket, became another person altogether.  James stood there, marveling at the way Lexis was the living embodiment of being—a walking, talking gerund, a noun that verbs, re-verbs in time with the changing music, and always in the present tense.  He unwittingly shook his head at this woman who was incessantly being and becoming herself.  While James stood flat-footed, Lexis was bouncing toward the stage with a confidence that drew everyone’s attention, heads turning as she passed; the strangest aspect of the scene was that Lexis was oblivious to everyone else, the bounce morphing into lithe dancing into a central spot on the dance floor where she moved with a visual form of susurration.  Then she stopped as the song ended, went entirely still before pointing directly at James and calling him to her as everyone watched James inch his way to Lexis with equal parts terror and excitement.  A few steps before he reached Lexis, the pianist laughed and began playing a sorrowful five flats progression starting in B flat.  The rest of the band looked at him quizzically—they had never played this together.  Leroy turned to face the audience and winked at the band.  To watch Lexis at the moment was to witness the silent direction of the inevitable.  You are unbelievable, Lexis Peirce.  She stood with her hand outstretched, not so much waiting for James, as she was hovering in suspended animation for his necessary arrival.  Leroy kicked in on his tenor sax, playing the vocal arrangement of the track.  As James reached Lexis and took her hand, the rest of the band kicked in filling in the harmony parts, drums all brushes, filling the morose track with a fulsomeness, a body that filled the small space.

“You had all of this planned, didn’t you?”

Lexis laughed him off, “All of what?

“This entrance.  The band.  Everything.  You’re putting on a show, Lexis.”

“Do I look like a girl who makes plans?  Now dance with me, Lover Man!”  James took her hand and placed his arm around her back.  She led.  Despite his purple heart, James held his own, for the time being.  Lexis set her head on his shoulder and whispered the lyrics in his ear.  “I don’t know why I’m feeling so sad/I long to try something I’ve never had.”  She spun them 270 degrees.  “Never had no kissin’”

”Liar.”

“Oh, what I’ve been missin’/Lover man, oh, where can you be?”  James closed his eyes and unconsciously began to lead the dance.  “The night is so cold and I’m so alone/I’d give my soul just to call you my own.”

“You know you’re not fooling anyone.”

“Who said I’m trying to fool anyone?”

James opened his eyes and looked around.  The dance floor was filled with couples dancing, though attention was trained on James and Lexis.  Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Suttle, who mirthfully shook his head and held his finger up to his lips.  “Got a moon above me, but no one to love me/Lover man, oh where can you be?”  Her voice would not make for a singing voice but was built for sultry whispers.  Without warning, Lexis gently bit James’s neck and he was transported to Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1943.  Men, you are in for a treat he said you are in for a treat on our way back to Atterbury.Godknew we could use some R&R after the heartbursting war game maneuvers in Tennessee those hills man those hills and tank destroyer gear they were not simpatico and as often as not the gullies and streams nearly won.As so a little carrot to go with the many many massive sticks a party.With women, those women from Western Kentucky State Teachers College who had lots to teach some of our boys who to be fair and much learning to do.We went by caravan the whole Famous 610th we and we were greeted like conquering heroes in Kentucky the keys of the town put into our young idiot sweaty palms I’ve heard it said that the thrill of romance can be like a heavenly dream were the girls in Bowling Green I go to bed with a prayer that you’ll make love to me and all of them in gowns as for a wedding but colored gowns and the band they hired a band to play in the gymnasium was because it was Kentucky a basketball gymnasium.  The boys and I had been crawling through shitmud for weeks on end and now suddenly in our dress uniforms like this was perfectly normal going from practicing how to destroy Nazi panzer divisions to sweatdancing in the steamnasium to swing with these girls all of these girls who saw only the uniform and lost their religion momentarily in the heat and the moment as they picked us out of the lineup as we marched because we no longer remembered how to walk but only marched through town through the gloaming and they picked us off like snipers which really wasn’t fair because were were tank hunters and not equal to the uniform attack of these teachers who took us onebyone by the arm and ran us to the hardwood where the band was playing standards and some new tunes we had never heard and they kept playing song after song after song and the girls, they worked us, they worked us like we were on maneuvers and tested our endurance, our virility one dance Strange as it seems, someday we’ll meet and you’ll dry all my tears and whisper sweet little things in my ear and they didn’t whisper like Lexis, were not subtle like Lexis, were not in command like Lexis but were on on on A-huggin’ and a-kissin’ oooooh, what we’ve been missing, Lover man, oh where can you be? And the songs, they were not slow and blue minor like this one but all major chords and filigree all show and surface not anything like this smokehaze room too small for the number of people Lover man, where can You be? But it didn’t sound like a question there was no rise in tone at the end of the whisper just a statement of fact where are you with me whispering sweet things in your ear

The band stopped for a moment, discussing what to play next as the crowd whooped and hollered in appreciation of such a strange version of that song, missing Billie, yet somehow even more pleading without the words.  Even more heartbreaking to James, who had never heard Billie’s string-laced version, only this taught, fraught stripped-down version with Billie’s part hushed into his ear.

“You vampire,” he said as he rubbed his neck.  “Do you bite everyone on your first dance?”

“A girl never tells.”  Her drink appeared in her hand—she couldn’t have been holding it during the dance as both of her hands were on James the whole time—and she finished it off.  “One or two more dances, what do you say?”

“I don’t suppose I’m in a position to say anything other than, ‘I’d be delighted.’”

“Good boy.”

Leroy got the band started up again, this time on an upbeat number, which, again, James did not recognize.  Amazing how much has changed in only a few years.  “Oh, I love Salt Peanuts—keep up, Jim!”  The drums came in like an artillery shell and the brass kicked in with the manic energy of the infantry shooting at anything and everything that moved.  A young man came from the stage to the front of the dancefloor to mighty applause.  He was dressed in a zoot suit, slightly scuffed black leather Oxfords, wore a goatee and a tam.  He stood still for a fraction of a second before grabbing his tam, holding it directly over his head, while dropping to the floor in a split with a bang perfectly in time with an accent in the song.  Before you could blink, he was back on his feet and jumping into the air, where he danced suspended for longer than could be possible oh thank god, they won’t be looking at us this time where’s my water I’m parched my water but she handed me a large apple juice this is how we do it in Bowling Green we don’t serve our guests no water what do you think we’re uncivilized and I really just wanted water but the apple juice was good enough for the moment when she grabbed the glass away from me and threw it at the refreshment stand and pulled me close Jim where did you learn to dance like this in Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania you know don’t kid me Jim, we’re in Pittsburgh right now, so shut up and keep dancing with me so I danced with her but she didn’t so much dance and wrench me boa around me and she pushed up flush against me smelling of apples and sweat, arm hooking my lower back saying it’s getting late won’t you come and I couldn’t hear myself think all trumpet and brass fanfare and her bloodorange hair clinging to my face and won’t you come and god I felt so guilty again so no I said no?

Lexis slithered from his grip and twisted as though she were entirely alone in the universe, eyes shut and left arm perfectly curved over her head.  Suddenly left alone, James froze, watching the rest of the dance floor part as Lexis glid by.  She moved not with elegance or grace, but an effortless brute athleticism unlike anything he’d experienced before.  The band was running through “Cotton Tail” a touch too fast and a new young tenor sax Leroy let join the band for the song was trying just a bit too hard to impress with a busy take on Ben Webster’s solo.  Lexis half pirouetted and launched herself at Jim.  She thrust her arm inside his elbow, and they danced hip-to-hip.  The performer in the zoot suit sauntered up to them and they gamboled in a triangle, moving together graciously, with and for each other.  James realized he was smiling as sweat dripped into his mouth and Lexis laughed at his joy, pulling him into here as the performer moved on, the moment past.  She clung to James and whispered in his ear, “You went somewhere back there a few songs.  Why’d you leave me?”

“I…I was here and taken back to the last time I danced.”

“You were a good boy, that night, weren’t you, soldier?”

James hung his head, having given himself away without knowing.  “I suppose I’m always a good boy.” 

“You’re all right, James Cavan.  I like you.”  He could feel her pressed against him from the dance, her arm still in his.  “Now – we’d better get you home to the missus, oughtn’t we?”

“But we just got here.”

“We’ve been here for nearly two hours.”

“Oh.  Well, then I guess we ought to get home.”

They gathered their items and James helped Lexis into her jacket.  Turning toward the exit, Lexis grabbed James’s hand and squeezed it twice.

“G’night Miss Peirce!  Jim, I’ll be seeing you round soon enough.”

Realizing he was unofficially welcome at the Musician’s Club, he turned to the bouncer.  “Thank you, Harold.  ‘Till next time,” he said tipping his hat.

The drive back was silent, the only interaction was the hand Lexis placed next to James’s thigh.  She lived not far from him, in another part of Shadyside.  This richer part of Shadyside.  James was tired.  His watch read 4:52 and he believed it.  As he was driving up Fifth Avenue, he had to make a conscious effort to remember to turn left onto Amberson rather than keep going straight up to Denniston on the other end of Shadyside.  He looked at the address he’d written down: 600 Amberson Avenue and was getting nervous because he was almost up to Ellsworth, which he knew would be too far.

“You’re almost there.  Two houses up on the left, just pull up to the gate and I can make it the rest of the way.”  James slowed the Cadillac and pulled to the left, parking right next to the gate.  He shut off the car and exited around to open the door for Lexis.  This time, she waited for him and emerged from the car by taking his hand.  They walked to the gate.

“Thank you much for a lovely evening, James.  You are a sport.”  She handed him the money and James recoiled.  “Go on, you earned it tonight.  Thank you.”  He took the money and attempted to follow her after she unlocked the gate.  “What.  Are.  You. Doing?”

“I promised your father I’d get you home safely.”

“You’re sweet.  This gate locks right behind me.  Mission accomplished.  Now go get some sleep.”  The gate clanged shut behind her.  James retuned to the car but waited to make sure she entered the house before he left.  He went to put the car in gear and realized he was still clutching the money.  When he looked closer, he saw she gave him a fifty rather than the $20 her father pledged.  What this a mistake?  As he looked at the bill, his spirits fell as he realized how transactional all of this really was.

He edged the car away from the curb and retraced the path to Fifth and drove the ten blocks to Denniston.  As he closed the garage door, he felt like he was ready to collapse from exhaustion.  Forcing himself to the house—that godforsaken house, her house—he unlocked the front door and nearly fell over when Ella nearly shouted, “James, where have you been?  She was sitting in the dark in the front room, in a sheer nightgown, tapping her right foot impatiently on the hardwood.

“I…I was doing that second job to make some extra money.  I told you I would be out late.”

This late?  No, you did not say that.”

“I said I would be back before you woke, but that it would be late.”

“Does it look like I’ve slept?  Jesus, please tell me I don’t always look this bad.  James, sit down.  We need to talk.”  He walked over to Ella, pallid, shimmering slightly in the dark, and sat beside her.  He put his arm around her shoulder.”

“Ella, what is it?”

“James, I’m….”  She lifted her face from the palms of her hands, and he just now noticed the tears smudged against her cheeks, still forming in her eyes.  Ella looked him straight in the eyes, her icy blues streaked with red.  “I’m pregnant.”

“Pregnant,” he whispered absently.  “But….I thought you said—”

“I’m pregnant, James.  I’m having a baby.  We are having a baby.”

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