A. J. Padilla

The Wee Small Hours


A. J. Padilla:  "I am a college librarian who currently lives and works in New York's Hudson Valley, but my roots are firmly in The Bronx, where I was born and raised. My parents were proud Puerto Ricans who never allowed their four children to lose sight of their heritage."

         I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of Frankie Satin. Not many people have. That probably also goes for The Diamond Lounge, a Bronx supper club where I perform on weekends. The place will never give the Copacabana or El Morocco a run for their money, but I guaranty you won’t find better veal piccata anywhere in the city. People have come from as far away as Staten Island to have it. And if they happen to be there on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday evening, they’ll be around to hear me play the piano and sing as they have dinner, dance a little, or slowly drink themselves into a mellow mood.

         Like a lot of performers just starting out, I have a day job. Mine is on the eleventh floor of the Universal Life and Casualty building in Lower Manhattan, where I'm an accounts clerk in the Policy Loan Division. Every Tuesday after work I take a cab to a studio on Mercer Street in SoHo. Dr. Oscar Benyo has a place there and gives private voice lessons to students he considers promising. He’s a good teacher, but I’ve had another, far better teacher for most of my life -- Frank Sinatra.

         I have been listening and learning from Sinatra for years. The shelves in my room sag with the weight of his recordings, everything from his earliest 78 RPM’s with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey to the most recent LP. Some of my discs are so worn out from being played over and over that his beautiful voice is nearly lost in a rain of static.

         "Put Your Dreams Away" is the Sinatra number I close with on some nights at The Diamond Lounge. I was singing that tune a few weeks ago when I noticed a middle-aged woman at a nearby table. She and her husband were sitting with another couple about the same age. Her companions were laughing and drinking like most of the other customers. My songs were nothing more than background noise to them. But this lady looked right at me, hanging on every note, and that made me want to put more into the performance. So I closed my eyes and imagined that same woman forty years younger, full of dreams about her future:


                 Put your dreams away

                 For another day,

                 And I will take their place

                 In your heart


My voice embraced the song in a new and intimate way. I leaned a little closer to the mike so that she would be sure to hear every syllable, feel every emotion.


                  Wishing on a star never got you far,

                 And so it's time to make a new start.


         When the last note died away, I glanced over at her table and saw that she was still looking at me, only now there were tears in her pale blue eyes. I bowed slightly in her direction and she smiled as sad a smile as I've ever seen in my life.

         The woman hasn’t been back since that night, but every time I do that ballad I shut my eyes, get close to the mike, and sing to a youthful shadow of that tearful old face.


         Yesterday was my birthday. When we were done with supper, my mother brought out a cake she bought at the nearby Cushman's Bakery. She lit the twenty-two candles stuck in its thick vanilla frosting, but nobody felt much like singing anything as corny as “Happy Birthday to You,” and so we washed down slices of birthday cake with champagne my father had brought from the Manhattan restaurant where he works and let it go at that.

         The next day, a Thursday, after I got home from work and was laying out my tuxedo to take to the cleaners, a familiar banging shook our front door. There was no question who it was. My friend Pablo always pounded away at the front door as if he was Paul Revere come to warn us that the Red Coats were just up the street.

         My mother let him in and a second or two later there he was, a little over six feet tall and with a face that looked pretty much as it had back when we first met in grade school: curly black hair, full lips, and alert coal-black eyes. He leaned slightly forward, like a boxer closing in on an opponent, which was the way he dealt with whatever life put in his way. Pablo never had any illusions about himself. Growing up without a father around probably did that. While the rest of us were busy trying to live up to our dad’s expectations, he was forced to push and shove his way through each day with no helping hand in sight. Our birthdays were only six months apart, and yet, without thinking much about why, I’d looked on Pablo as a big brother from the day we met.

         "Hey, kid. Brought you a little something for your big day."

         He handed me a package sloppily wrapped in yellow crepe paper held together by Scotch tape. I sat on the edge of my bed and opened it. It was three of Sinatra's earliest recordings with Tommy Dorsey. They looked brand new.

         "Holy shit, Pablo, where'd you ever find these?"

         "You forget where I work? I talked to one of our wholesalers a few months ago and he dug them up for me."

         Pablo has a job at a local shop that sells musical instruments. They also stock all the latest sheet music. On most afternoons, the shop becomes a popular hangout for neighborhood teens looking for 45’s of songs they’ve heard on the radio or American Bandstand.

         "Thanks, man. These are incredible."



         "Aren't you going to look at them?"

         "You want me to look at the records?"

         "Sure. Why not? That's rare stuff you're holding in your hands, kid."

         I shrugged and gently pulled the first glistening black disc from its sleeve. A paper fell out onto the floor.

         "Now what could that be?" Pablo said with a big smile.

         I picked up a first-class airline ticket to Las Vegas.

         "What the hell …"

         "Hold on now. Don't get overworked. Take a look inside number two."

         I did, this time peering into the sleeve first. It held another first-class ticket.

         “One more. Go on, Ricky.”

         The third sleeve contained paperwork confirming a reservation for The Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. I put the recordings away and spread the tickets and reservation on the bed next to my tux.

         "Okay, Pablo, what's all this about?"

         "You taking that tuxedo to the cleaners?"

         "Yeah. I need it for tomorrow night."

         "Any other errands?"


         "Then grab the tux and let's go. I've got an interesting story to tell you.”

         Before I go any further, you should know a little more about the people Pablo works for. The Two Brother's Music Shop is owned by George and Stavros Kazantzakis. They also own a flower shop near the El train on Westchester Square in the East Bronx. Stavros takes care of the flower shop and George runs the music store. Both are model sons, devoted to their widowed mother. But that's where the similarity ends. George is a quiet, stay-at-home type; Stavros is the neighborhood playboy who dresses in custom-tailored suits, always with a white carnation in the lapel, and walks around in handmade shoes imported from England. He’s never seen without his Borsalino fedora or a cane with a solid gold handle. His life's greatest passion, other than flashy peroxide blondes, is gambling. Stavros bets on horse races, football and baseball games, hockey, basketball, boxing, and just about anything else where chance has a hand in the outcome. He doesn’t think much of his older brother, most of the time dismissing him as the “boring multiplied a thousand times." Stavros is the only person from our block, other than Pablo, who has ever come to see me perform at The Diamond Lounge. On his arm that night was a statuesque blond who could have given Marilyn Monroe some competition.

         "You ready to explain?"                     

         I’d just dropped my tux off at the cleaners and we were standing on the corner across from the red brick public school where we met twelve years before.

         "How about a Coke, birthday boy?"

         "Will you tell me then?"

         "The whole sorry tale."

         "Let's go."

         Pablo refused to say anything as we walked to the corner candy store. We went in and fished out two ice-cold soft drinks from the big red Coke cooler. 

         "You going tell me or not?"

         Pablo took a sip of his drink.

         "Delicious. Cold as liquid ice.”

         "I don't care about that. What I do care about is how you managed to get your hands on a couple of first-class airline tickets to Las Vegas when I know damned well you can barely afford a trip to the Bronx Zoo."

         "That's the beautiful part. I can't afford them but I got them just the same."



         "Georgie's brother?"

         "You know another Stavros?"

         "So Stavros just shows up at your door one day and hands them to you?"

         "Not exactly. You see, Ricky, it was Stavros and his latest blond bombshell who were supposed to go to Vegas next weekend. He goes there a dozen times a year, to gamble and take in the shows. George has told me all about it, complaining about how his good-for-nothing brother is always throwing away the family’s money. Well, this time all hell breaks loose around Stavros. First, the girl's grandmother dies and she's so upset she drops out of their lost weekend, won't go no matter how much Stavros pleads with her. Next, there's an electrical fire at the flower shop and the place has to be shut down ten days for repairs, so now he can't go either, with or without the blond, and the trip to Vegas is permanently off. He winds up giving everything to his brother, who just happens to be my boss. Can you believe it? Georgie? That guy hasn't left the neighborhood in twenty years except to go to work. And now he's supposed to take off for Vegas? To do what? Sit in a hotel room and watch re-runs of I Love Lucy? So yesterday George is standing around trying to decide what to do with the stuff. He’s thinking he might give everything to one of our suppliers, but before he has a chance to do that, I bring up your birthday and also, by the way, remind the cheap bastard that I haven’t had a real vacation from the shop in almost two years. I must have caught him in a moment of weakness because he shoves the stuff at me and says, "Here. Take it! I'm saving money anyway, letting you go instead of my no-good brother."

         "That's unbelievable, Pablo."

         "Wait a minute, kid. The most incredible part is yet to come."

         "What could top a free trip to Vegas?"

         "How about Sinatra?"


         When I was a kid I used to sit for hours in front our old Emerson radio listening to guys like Johnny Ray, Eddie Fisher, Frankie Laine, Nat Cole, Vaughn Monroe, and Tony Bennett. I enjoyed singing along with all of them and never stopped to ask myself why. That would have made about as much sense as asking why I breathe. Later, when I got to junior high, I joined the school chorus and got to do a few solos during our performances. At some point, I don’t know when exactly, I decided I liked singing enough to try doing it for a living.

         When I told my father I wanted to become a professional singer, he took off his eyeglasses and put down the El Diario he’d been reading. He looked at me for what seemed a long time before he said a word.            

         "Get a real job first, Ricardo. After you can pay the bills, then go ahead and do whatever the hell you want."

         My mother's reaction was about the same. So, to please them both I enrolled at a junior college, received a certificate in bookkeeping, and went to work at Universal Life and Casualty. At the same time, I learned to play the piano pretty well and began studying with the voice coach in SoHo.


         The audition that got me the Diamond Lounge gig might never have happened except for a bunch of coincidences. The owner decided that adding live entertainment on weekends would be good for business. And so he went out and bought a grand piano, installed a row of spotlights on the ceiling, and added a small space for dancing. He ordered the piano at the Two Brothers Music Shop, and almost gave Georgie a heart attack by paying for it in cash. Pablo drove the truck that delivered the piano. He stopped to chat with the owner and that’s how he found out about the auditions scheduled for the following week. There were supposed to be six of us that Monday evening, all trying for the same gig, but one of the biggest snowstorms in New York City history hit that day, and I was the only one who showed up. Al Cuccio, the hugely overweight proprietor, sat impassively as I did a couple of Sinatra tunes while accompanying myself on their beautiful new Steinway.         

         “Is that it?” he asked when I was done.

“Yes, sir.”

His expression never changed and I was sure that I was done for.

“Can you do two shows on Saturdays and Sundays?”

         “Sure,” I said. “Whatever you want, Mr. Cuccio.” 

         "You got a real nice set of pipes, kid. And you play our new piano as good as that Liberace guy on TV. You start Friday. Be here by seven.”

         I thanked him and started getting my sheet music together.

         "One other thing,” he said. “Get yourself a tux. This ain't no dive."

         I was too excited to ask about salary. As it turns out, I didn't have to. Angelo, a skinny guy with thick glasses and a beak nose, came over to me as I was getting ready to leave. He handed me an envelope stuffed with cash.

         "I’m Angelo Beppo. I manage this place for Mr. Cuccio. That's for the tux. You’ll get the same thing after your last show every Sunday night."


         "You got a picture of yourself?"

         "Sure. At home."

         "We don't want anything you took with a Brownie.

I was way ahead of him. That summer I’d gone to a photographer and had some studio shots taken wearing a rented tux that smelled of moth balls. The guy did a good job. He held up one shot for me to examine.

“I think this one works really well, kid. You look like a smiling Puerto Rican James Dean.”

I never cared much for Dean. I’ve always been more of a Brando guy, but that was okay. The photograph was exactly what I was looking for.

“Bring in a color shot, eight by ten, something we can put out front above your name. What do you call yourself?"

         "Frankie Satin."

         "Satin, eh? Like the cloth?"

         "No, like in 'smooth as satin'."

         "Well, Mr. Satin, welcome to the bush leagues of show business. See you next Friday. And don’t be late.”


         The trip to Vegas came and went in a flash. We flew in on a Friday night and left two days later. It all happened so fast that afterwards it seemed more like a vivid dream than anything else.   

         Neither of us could sleep on the flight back, even though we'd been up most of the weekend driving around in a rented Pontiac and gambling in the casinos. Pablo won five hundred dollars his first time out and another nine hundred the following night. I lost fifty dollars and change the one and only time I tried the slots.

         "Beginner's luck," Pablo said about his own good fortune. "Wouldn't happen again in a million years."

         "Lady Luck seems to have skipped right past me. I wonder how Stavros does."

         "Not too well, according to his brother, but they've got plenty of money already, so who cares."

         Las Vegas at night was like a frantic dream lit by multicolored neon. It was an awful place to be in during the day. The trip’s only saving grace was a chance to see Sinatra perform live, and even that did not turn out quite the way I had expected.

         We had just settled into first class when Pablo turned to me.

         "You know what, kid? Stavros can keep Vegas. What a graveyard."

         "You did okay, didn't you?"

         "Yeah, but did you happen to take a good look around? The place is scary, especially in the daytime. Old lady zombies with blue hair pulling at those slot machine handles for dear life, and wild-eyed desperate types losing money and dreaming of a jackpot most of them will never see if the live to be a hundred. Creepy, man. One thing’s for sure, somebody should keep the sun from ever coming up over that place.

         A stewardess came over to ask if there was anything we needed. She was a dead ringer for Eva Marie Saint. Pablo asked where she was from and she said Minnesota, originally, New York City now. He got this astounded look on his face and started in on how his family, too, was from Minnesota, which was about as big a lie as I've ever heard him tell. As they went back and forth, Pablo piling fabrication on top fabrication in an attempt to impress the beautiful stewardess, I looked out of the tiny window at the darkness thirty-five thousand feet below us and thought about Sinatra.

         He was shorter than I thought he would be, and his hair was thinning badly, but his voice was perfect, youthful and strong as ever. I saw right away that during his performance he didn't so much work a Vegas audience as seduce it.

         After a few songs, Dean Martin took the stage along with him, followed later by Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis and some guy named Bishop. They started clowning around, singing half-assed versions of songs and making jokes that the audience lapped up but which really weren't very funny. I kept hoping the others would leave, but it turned out that all the stupid stuff was part of Sinatra's act. The Vegas crowd went nuts, giving them ovation after ovation.

         Finally, toward the end of the show, the others left and Sinatra was alone. The lights dimmed and a soft blue spot enveloped a tired-looking Frank. A stagehand brought him a stool. He sat down, lit a cigarette, and did Wee Small Hours, a song I’d heard a hundred times, but never like that evening. The antics of his Rat Pack were over and done with. It was time for Sinatra to have his final say, and it was as if he'd saved all his exhaustion, all his sadness, for that performance. Maybe he was still thinking of Ava Gardner. It was a tormented piece of autobiography he shared with that Vegas audience, and when he was done they offered him consolation in the form of thunderous applause.

         During the show, an older guy at the table next to us said to his date, who looked young enough to be his daughter, "Maybe I'll introduce you to Frankie later, honey."

         "You know him?" The girl sounded flabbergasted.

         "Sure I do. Frankie and I go all the way back to Hoboken. How about another drinkie-poo, baby?"

         The guy could not have been more full of shit if he'd been a toilet, but he gave me an idea. When his sweetie's drink arrived, I called the waiter over. He got me a piece of hotel stationary and an envelope and waited as I wrote a note, put a name on the envelope and sealed it. I took a new fifty-dollar bill from my wallet and gave it to the astonished waiter.

         "Do you see the name on that envelope?"

         "Yes, sir."

         "Will you see that he gets it? That's a little something for your trouble."  

         "Yes, sir! I will hand it to him personally. Thank you very much, sir."

         Part of me was certain I'd just thrown away fifty bucks. I could almost see the waiter pocketing the bill and tossing my envelope in the nearest trash bin. Well, I was in Vegas, wasn't I, a glittering asylum where long shots are the order of the day? I wished the waiter well and went back to my bourbon.

         We landed at Idlewild on a raw January night. The cab ride to the Bronx revealed that we'd missed a snowfall while in Vegas. Slushy islands of the stuff were piled high all along the route back home.

         Pablo sat smiling in the darkened cab.

         "What's so funny?" I asked him.

         "Just thinking about the stewardess. She really bought that Minnesota stuff. You tired?"

         "A little. You?"

         "No. Wish I didn't have to go back to work just yet, though. I’d sure like to look up that stewardess before her next flight."

         "Yeah, work’s a drag. But what else can we do?"

         "Nothing, I guess. Life's got us by the balls, Ricky. When I figure out how to make it let go, I'll let you know."

         The taxi's tires rang with a high-pitched whine as they sped over the metal grating of the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx.


         Gino Pirelli has his weekly voice lesson just before mine on Tuesdays. He sometimes waits for me to be done and we'll go to a pub on Houston Street and talk about music while nursing a beer or two. Gino loves jazz, bebop in particular, and is full of praise for the virtues of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. Gino also likes Sinatra, but he worships Nat Cole. We’ve sat for hours arguing the merits of each like lawyers defending their clients.

         It was Gino I asked to fill in for me the weekend Pablo and I flew out to Vegas. The Tuesday after the trip I made a point of leaving work early, anxious to know how he had done. I ran up the two flights of steps to the studio entrance, hearing as I did Gino's beautiful operatic baritone doing an aria from Don Giovanni.

         A girl was sitting on the bench just outside the closed studio doors looking through a copy of Modern Screen. A gray overcoat lay neatly folded on her lap. Her curly black hair was cut short in the Italian style Gina Lollobrigida made popular a few of years ago. She looked up at me and her eyes made my knees buckle. They were a deep emerald green. A small, perfectly shaped nose and mouth gave her the look of a porcelain doll. Her beautiful smile lit up the dingy hallway and probably could have lit up Grand Central Terminal.

         "Hi! You must be Frankie Satin."

         The look of surprise on my face made her laugh.

         "Don't look so shocked. I saw your picture outside The Diamond Lounge.”

         I searched in vain for something to say.

         "Why don't you sit down here 'til Gino’s done with his lesson."

         She patted the bench with her small hand, which was as perfect as the rest of her.


         "It shouldn't be too much longer."

         I could only hope Gino stayed inside forever.

         "I never heard you, but Gino says you’re really good. My Uncle Tommy goes to The Diamond Lounge all the time with his gangster buddies and he said the same thing. Gino sang there this weekend. But you already knew that, didn't you? His friend Walter played piano for him. I wanted to go to see him Friday night, but he wouldn’t let me. He said I'd make him nervous. So I went to a movie with a girlfriend instead. I don't think it went too well, you know? The owner said something about how if he wanted Mario Lanza he'd of hired Mario Lanza. He said people come to his place to eat and drink and have a good time, not to listen to opera. I mean, Gino didn't sing opera, not really, but he's just got this voice, you know, so whatever he sings sort of comes out that way. They had a big argument, him and the owner, after the first show on Friday and Gino walked out. Walter stayed on and played the piano. Listen, Frankie, be a sweetie and don't ask him how things went, okay?"

         "Anything you say." I would have jumped into Central Park Lake if I thought it would have pleased her.

         "He's still upset about it, you know? Better to pretend the whole thing never happened."

         The double doors to the studio opened and Gino stepped out, looking like a slim, well-dressed version of Jake LaMotta.       

         "Hey, Frankie! How was Vegas?"


         "Noisy? Is that all you have to say? How about your idol? Nothing about Mister Wonderful?"

         "He was okay."

         Gino looked down at the girl, then at me.

         “Just okay? I think you got jet lag or something. Maybe you should skip your lesson today and go straight to bed."

         The girl gave him a playful shove and rolled her beautiful eyes at him.


         "Oh, yeah, sorry. Frankie, this is Angela, Angela this is Frankie. Satisfied?"

         "You left something out, didn't you, Gino?"


         She crossed her arms in front of her and looked up at the ceiling.

         "Frankie, Angela works over at a stationary store on the Concourse, she's got an older brother who was drafted into the army a couple of months ago, she went to Dodge High School, she goes to Hunter College over by the reservoir because she wants to be a nurse, and … and let me see, what did I leave out?"

         Angela stuck her left hand out to show me her engagement ring.

         "Oh, yeah. Almost forgot. We're engaged!"

         Gino laughed and gently stroked her cheek.


         I took a cab to Pablo's apartment when I was done with my lesson. His sister told me he was working late, so I walked over to the Two Brothers Music Shop. He was behind one of the place's glass counters, writing something down on a clipboard.

         "I have to talk to you, Pablo. It’s important."

         "Have to finish this first. Wait for me in Woolworths. I'll be done here in ten minutes."

         I ordered coffee at the Woolworths lunch counter and waited. Pablo showed up twenty minutes later.

         "What’s the matter, kid?"

         He asked the woman behind the counter to bring a coffee.

         "Talk to me, buddy."

         "I met a girl."

         "That’s the big news? Are you kidding me?"


         "So you met a girl. I don't want to shock you, kid, but guys meet girls all the time. Meeting a girl isn’t usually a cause for alarm."

         "Cut it out, Pablo. I mean I met the girl."


         "Remember that Gino guy I told you about?"

         "The guy who took over for you last weekend?"

         "That's right. The girl is his fiancée."

         "What! Are you nuts? Did you say anything to this girl?"

         "We talked. That's all."

         "I mean, does she know how you feel?"

         "No. We only met a couple of hours ago."

         "No good, kid. No good. You stay away from her, you hear me? There are plenty of good-looking women around here that are free as birds. Man, don't you know that even Saint Francis would have kicked your ass if you messed with his girl?"

         "I don't think Saint Francis had a girlfriend, Pablo."

         "Don’t be a smartass. You know what I mean. You touch another guy's girl, it does something to him, changes him inside. But why do I have to tell you this? You're not stupid. Or maybe you are … maybe we're all stupid when it comes to women. I don't know. I do know you need to stay away from this Dino's …”


         " … girl, now and forever. You get what I’m saying to you?"

         Of course, Pablo was right, but soon she was all I could think about. I wanted to see her again, talk to her, that's all. At least that's what I kept telling myself.

         After work the next day I rode the train to Fordham Road and went to every stationary store on the Concourse until I found the right one.    

         I pretended to be surprised at running into her. She had on the same smock worn by the other salesgirls but on her it looked great. Even a plain gray smock seemed designed to set off her beauty.

         She asked what I was doing there and I told her I needed blank staff paper. I said I was writing a new song for my gig at the Diamond Lounge. That seemed to impress her. Her brow knit ever so slightly, her lips pursed and she brought a perfect index finger up to touch them.

         "Hmmm. Let me think. I know I've seen those in the stock room somewhere."

         She went off toward the back of the store and I noticed for the first time that she walked with a noticeable limp. I suddenly realized that I had not seen her stand or walk during our encounter at the studio. The imperfection did nothing to diminish the way I felt. In an odd sort of way, it made her even more attractive.

         She returned with the staff paper.

         "Is this what you need?"

         "Yes," I said, barely noticing what she held in her hand.      "I'll take them."

         “All of them?”


         She looked at her wristwatch as we walked together to the register.

         "You're my last sale of the day. I have class in an hour."

         "Hunter, right?"

         "That's right."

         "I'm headed that way myself. Not to the school. To see a friend who lives by the reservoir. Do you mind if I keep you company?"

         "No, not at all. Gino's working all day at his father's deli so I'm flying solo."

         I waited outside while she got her things, telling myself that this was all perfectly harmless, that Pablo would have been right only if I intended something more than mere friendship.

         The bus stop was on the corner across from the Paradise Theater. They were showing Ben Hur and I asked if she’d seen it yet. We talked about the film for a while, but she wanted to know all about my trip to Vegas.

         "It sounds so exciting. What were they like in person? I mean Dean Martin and the others."

         And as I stood there trying hard to avoid staring at her perfect face, feeling wonderful being with her and awful every time Gino crept into my thoughts, the trip to Vegas all of a sudden began to seem every bit as glamorous as she believed it had been. I went on about Sinatra's performance, embellishing here and there and half believing everything I told her.

         When the bus finally lumbered to a stop in front of us, I held her arm as she managed the first step with some difficulty.

We sat in the row of seats just behind the bus driver and talked a little more about Vegas and then about her wanting to be a nurse. She had decided to become a nurse when she was a little girl and spent time in a hospital being treated for polio. The nurses had all seemed to her like angels in white.

         We got to her stop all too soon. I walked with her to the college entrance and we said goodbye. Afterwards, I watched her until she was out of sight.

         I hiked all the way home and never stopped thinking about her. It wasn't until much later, when I was in the shower, that I realized I'd left the staff paper I bought on the bus.

         I returned to the stationary store several times over the next couple of weeks. At first, she was the same as when I first went in, but after a while her smile vanished and she became cool and business-like whenever I visited. The final time I went into the shop she avoided me altogether, and handed me over to another salesgirl for help.

         That’s when I decided to stay away from her, forget I ever met her. That worked for maybe one afternoon. I went back to thinking about her all the time, wanting her to break up with Gino more than I could remember ever wanting anything.

         The following week, when I got to my lesson on Mercer Street, I found Gino pacing back and forth on the sidewalk outside the studio. The collar of his blue pea coat was turned up against the cold and his hands were buried deep in its pockets.

         "Quit early today?" I asked.

         "Yeah. Got a minute, Frankie?"

         I had fifteen minutes before my lesson.


         "Let me buy you a cup of coffee."

         We went to a diner by LaGuardia Place. It was nearly empty, but Gino walked to a booth all the way at the back. A tired-looking waiter came over and took our order for two coffees.

         "How's it going, Gino?"

         He didn’t bother with preliminaries.

         "She’s not the girl you think she is, Frankie."


         "We going to play games here, or we are we going talk? You know damn well who I’m talking about."

         My heart began racing. 

         "Okay. Go ahead."

         "You been a gentleman about it, I'll give you that. You never once tried anything. That's why we're talking instead of throwing punches."

         "Now hold on a minute, Gino --"

         "But you saw her and like most other guys all you could see is an angel. The sweet and innocent act she puts on is good, too, while it lasts. But I know better than anybody what's behind that pretty face. She was laughing at you, Frankie. All the time she was laughing at you. She thought it was funny the way you kept showing up at the store, following her around like a puppy dog and buying more music sheets than any ten musicians could use in a lifetime. Yesterday we're sitting in her living room watching Gunsmoke and she turns to me and says, ‘How about that little spic? How could he think I'd ever go out with him, even if we weren't engaged?' Just so you know, I don't like that kind of talk. I’ve never been that way. Everybody's the same in my book, but that's Angie and her whole stupid family."

         So that’s all I could ever be to her, a spic? I was Frankie Satin to everyone who had ever heard me sing at the Lounge. Sometimes even I even managed to convince myself that's who I really am. But in those beautiful green eyes of hers I'd always be Ricardo Villalobos and somehow inferior, unworthy, a vulgar ethnic joke.

         "If she's such a monster, then why not dump her?"

         "Because I’ve been crazy about her since we were kids. You’re a good guy, Frankie, and I figured you should know what's what. That's why I'm telling you this. You’re not the first, not by a long shot. A guy sees her, goes ape-shit, and she kind of leads him on for a while, makes him think he’s got a chance. Then she gives me little reports, like 'guess who I ran into today?' or 'your pal Frankie came by again'. She never takes any of it seriously. She’s just playing games. I think she does it because she's angry about what polio did to her leg. She’s taking it out on guys, showing how in spite of everything she's got this power over them. Stay away from her, Frankie, because of me, if you want to think of it that way, but really for your own sake."

         "Look, Gino, I want you to understand --"

         "You don't have to explain anything, Frankie, really. Before you, I never knew any of the guys she was stringing along. Once in a while I'd see some poor bastard on the street and she'd say 'oh, there's so and so I was telling you about' and I'd look over at some slob who seemed about ready to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge."

         "I've got to go, Gino."

         "Yeah, me too. You want to hear something stupid?"

         I didn't say a thing, just sat there looking at him holding his coffee mug.

         "The really crazy thing is part of me keeps hoping some guy will take her away from me, that one day she'll get caught in her own trap, because if nobody does then I'm going to marry her next June and sometimes I'm afraid there'll be a whole lifetime of this crap waiting for me down the road."

         I went back to the stationary shop one last time, careful to stay out of sight while I waited for her to leave. I followed wordlessly as she limped to the bus stop. She didn’t see me until I walked past her for the last time, just as she took a seat in her usual place behind the driver. That’s when I saw a smile, a bitter triumphant amused little smile, twist the features of her angelic face. It told me better than anything Gino could have said that it was all true.

         I stayed home from work the next day and lay in my room listening to Sinatra, trying not to think about her but still haunted by her green eyes and the ugliness of what she had said to Gino. I made one phone call that whole day, to Angelo at The Diamond Lounge.

         Somehow, I struggled out of bed the next morning and went through the motions at work, staying to myself and speaking to as few people as possible.

         It started snowing late that Friday afternoon. I stood at my bedroom window for a long time, watching it drift down onto the sidewalk. Sometime around seven, I got into my tux and took a cab to The Diamond Lounge. As it pulled up to the entrance, I saw that Angelo had done as I asked. There was my photograph, framed in gold glitter, just as it had been from the beginning of my gig. Above it, in letters of iridescent blue script, it said, “Now Appearing at The Diamond Lounge, Ricardo Villalobos.”


         I was in my dressing room, which had once been a janitor's storage closet, sipping a glass of Portofino and staring at myself in the small lighted mirror Angelo had placed there for me.

         One of the waiters knocked on the door.

         "Five minutes, Frankie"


         I finished the wine and walked out into the familiar noise and cigarette smoke of the dimly lit lounge. It was a good crowd for a Friday evening, not an empty table in sight. The bar, too, was packed. The more the merrier, as far as I was concerned. The mass of faces, the sounds, all helped blot out the one face and voice I wanted to forget. I sat at the gleaming Steinway to scattered applause.

         I'd done the first couple of numbers a hundred times before and sang them in an indifferent sort of way, putting very little into them. But that changed when I got to the first of the songs I'd added to the set. “Angel Eyes” was there for her. I had been somewhere else, but now I was pulled back into the performance, pouring all the emotion of the last few days into the lyrics, confessing all my painful secrets to that roomful of drunks and bored couples out for the Bronx equivalent of a night on the town. Hurt, anger, and sadness spilled out of me like blood from a wound.

         Angelo came over to me after that performance and patted me on the back

         "Man, that was amazing, Frankie. Really good."

         The next show was the same, ordinary until I came to the first of her songs. Those all came from a different place, a place I had glimpsed only briefly many months ago when I sang to a tearful older woman in a blue dress.

         I felt spent when I walked in to do my final set late on Sunday night. Those are the wee small hours at The Diamond Lounge, when all that’s left as an audience are people with no place to go or no place they want to return to.

         I was halfway through the set when there was some sort of commotion all the way at the back of the place, very near the entrance. I couldn’t see much beyond the spots trained on me, but it didn’t matter. I was singing and couldn’t have cared less about waiters running around with plates of food or racing back and forth to the bar. All that mattered to me was the heartache shaping my songs.  

         When I was done, I glanced out into the dimly lit lounge. Everything seemed the same as every other Sunday night: stragglers clutching their drinks like life preservers, tired- looking men and women sitting at their tables, avoiding each other's eyes. I mumbled my thanks into the mike and walked to the dressing room. Angelo ran in right after me

         "Did you see him?"

         He was perspiring and his glasses were askew on his bird-like face.        

         "See who?" I really didn’t care. All I could think of was the cab ride home and a warm bed.


         "What are you talking about?"

         "He was here, I tell you! He was standing all the way in the back, by the wall. He was with a bunch of guys and said to me he heard somewhere that the veal piccata here was the best in the city and he wants to find out if it’s true. We got the cook back in the kitchen and meanwhile he's standing there calm as you please, ordering drinks for his pals and listening to you. When we brought him the veal, he took a couple of bites and said to me, 'This is good, pops. Wrap it up.' He took six orders with him, then tosses three one hundred-dollar bills on the table and says to me, 'Buy yourself a pup tent, junior' and walks out. I'm telling you, Frankie, it was like a dream, a dream. He gave me this, too -- for you, he said."

         He handed me a wrinkled note flecked with droplets of tomato sauce. The stationary was from the Waldorf Astoria.

         "Say, how do you know an important guy like him?"

         "I don't."

         My hands were trembling and I could feel my heartbeat in my throat. The note was brief. In clear, precise script it said,


You were right about the veal.

By the way, I couldn't have done a lot of those numbers any better myself.

                  Francis Albert


         "When did he leave?"

         "A few minutes ago."

         I ran out of the back entrance and up the alley onto the sidewalk. New snow was piled ankle deep and I fought to keep my footing. I looked up the street and saw the brake lights of a white limousine flash before it turned east and disappeared from view. I sprinted after it with Sinatra's words still in my hand, but by the time I reached the corner there was no sign of the limo, and I stood there reading and rereading the note until snowflakes dampened the paper and blue ink ran like tears down onto my fingers.

© The Acentos Review 2020