On a street that’s busy day and night, down three steps, there’s a dark tavern. The bar is to the west, it’s long and deep. A few low tables scattered with a great deal of space between them. A very low stage bellies out from the south wall. The east end is hung with a thick indigo velvet curtain. The two bartenders are twins, women who are four feet high, skin that is white or whiter depending on which shadow they’re standing in, and gold-colored hair; they are perfect in every way. One in silver and one in black, they are Polka Dot and Moonbeam.
The stage is just big enough for two men. There’s a thin, thin fellow angled over and around his upright bass whose varnish is rubbed away in ugly patches. His face looks always like that of a man who’s just been saved from drowning. Beside him is the old singer wearing a shiny black suit with pearls sewn in a broken line like Morse code down the sleeves and the trouser legs. Where pearls are missing are tangles of silver thread that catch the light. The singer has the head of a real gentleman. He slides one foot about as though grinding out a cigarette. On and on he sings in the voice of the sun on black rock-strewn water. The bass player looks at nothing, and sometimes shakes a cramp from his hand without missing a phrase.
At the table closest to the curtain sits a third woman, the color of almonds, wearing a sailor suit of floating navy pants and white blouse with stars and medals, a tiny white cap. She entertains a heavy young man in a suit that’s unexpectedly too big on him. The table is tiny and low and, while they talk, the boy keeps stretching his arms in the loose sleeves and shifting his legs nervously to keep from touching the woman’s knees. “All the time…” the singer sings.
She laughs, her head back, a lovely hand on the tiny cap. “Oh my yes. Couldn’t be more right. I have just the thing.” When she rises, she is as tall as the top of the indigo curtain. She glides to the bar, Polka Dot has already stirred and poured a cocktail, which is turquoise in a frosted glass. In one turn, the woman picks up the glass with her right hand, opens her left fist onto the bar and little white beads, pearls, roll out. Moonbeam gathers them with a sweep. Back at the table, the woman hands the big young fellow the glass. “Darling,” he says, drinks, hands her the empty glass, then walks through the curtain which is hard to push aside even for someone his size. “I’m weary all the time…”
The door opens, grey cold light from the street comes in, and a man, small and clean and smiling and neat enters, shuffles melting snow from his shoes, looks around, rubs his hands together, and smiles with happy charm. “Something’s open! My luck! Freeze the blood of the devil out there.” No one turns round, but for one beat, the bass player drops one link in his rhythm. The singer snaps his long-nailed fingers; the bass player blinks, cringes, and on they go. “When I find her…”
At the bar, the small man takes in Polka Dot. “Two fingers of whiskey that’ll burn up, not down.” Neither twin moves. But the man’s now distracted and in two steps he’s at the stage. “Oh hey. That’s a fine old song. Listen to you put it over like a pro. I know this one. Here you go fella.” And holds out a five. The bass player plays on, looking out past the man’s shoulder, the singer shuffles. “Once there was...” All right, then,” the man says and lays the bill on the stage.
A frosted glass with a colorless drink has appeared. “Bartender knows best!” says the man, and he drinks. Waits a moment then says, “One of those where the kick comes up on you? All right, then.” He takes a seat, watches the show.
There are two women now at the table by the curtain. This new one has thick grey hair, a fresh strong face: she seems to have just alighted from one mountain and is waiting for the next. “Directly, directly so,” says the tall girl. And back to the bar, where Polka Dot places, and the woman lifts, the glass of turquoise, then the sweep of tiny pearl beads from the woman to Moonbeam. The grey-haired woman stands, drinks. “Good girl” she says and pushes easily through the curtain.
On the stage, the five-dollar bill has disappeared.
“I think I know this one too. A good old song, this one too,” the neat man says, finishes the clear drink and frowns at the empty glass. “A thousand drums…” The door opens again admitting a long startle of sunshine and a mailman holding out a stack of dozens of envelopes, there are so many he needs to balance the rubber-banded stack like a tray in his palm. “Here you go ladies,” he says and drops the bundle next to the cherries and lemon slices. “Bee-yoo-tiful day out there!” Moonbeam giggles into her hand.
The mail is still lying on the bar when the man looks right at Polka Dot and says, “Let me have a double of that Curacao. I’m thinking that’s the special here.” Moonbeam and Polka Dot turn their heads, and, though he expects they’re checking in with the tall hostess, it’s the stage they’re looking at. The bass player fixes his enormous startled wet eyes on the singer. “Still it’s a real good bet…” Maybe the old man shrugs a shoulder. The hostess is up and at the bar in moment, there’s the blue drink. Just two beads roll from her hand. She hands him the glass without comment and walks right back to her table by the curtain. “All right then,” he says and drinks. It’s dry and stings very badly. “How many times a day…” He walks right to the curtain, starts to push it to the side, and looks over his shoulder at the tall woman. She’s lovelier.
“All right if I go on through?”
“My heart…” The music is louder here, a trick of the space. He sees a narrow hall that goes on to the right following a long blank wall. Not blank, though, is it. There’s a window, a dim window that barely reflects the weak bulbs widely spaced above it. The avenue must be on the other side, he figures, and walks a few steps along the window, smooth and frosted or grey. A few feet ahead something is moving on the other side. Someone walking by outside. Further along maybe the men’s room, the singing now much clearer. “And some of them mine..” Dark shapes moving towards the window, away from it, why can’t he hear street sounds. “Apple tree…” Puts his hand up to the glass without thinking, and is through in an instant. It’s the same here, he can even hear the singer’s breathing, and dark shapes everywhere moving. For a moment one of them looks like…but maybe not. “Of paradise where roses bloom…”