Chapter 1: Goose

“God, Priscilla, where do I start?” coos curly blonde Grace, just past the waiters out of earshot.

A jukebox [nickel-in-the-slot phonograph] croons velvet tunes in the corner of the dim, the smoky; the speakeasy. Jazz: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller: risqué then.

It isn’t a huge room. The size of a large-ish one-room retail store; there’s enough room for the bar (a few tables and banquettes), enough smallness to avoid encouraging a party and to grow some cl an de st ine. Bartender at bar, waiter somewhere, girl smoking, smoking in the opposite corner booth. There are two guys dressed smartly, but minimalistic—shirt/shoes/cap—to the point of telltale; the clothes are sturdy, but without frill—“most likely can’t afford the frivolity in appearances so sought by pompous men of class”—sitting at the bar.

“Come now, Grace, you started with a gin and tonic. We’ve moved past starting,” answers the French-braided brunette (Priscilla).

Grace leans in toward the table, accentuating her pretty face and framing her tits. She lifts the sunglasses a couple inches up. She’s always had this flair for the dramatic. She could do sunglasses inside, makeitlookeasy-type. The glasses’ black, circular lenses—they sit, sat—set in a gold frame. She was young and already knew her position; powerful, and took advantage of it, but silver-lined everything with this diabolical mix of innocence and naivety that could ensnare almost any opposed. Lynx.

“Are you sure you really want to know?”

“Do I even have to answer that?” fast-replies Priscilla, angular, trying not to sound desperate, pulling it off. Priscilla poses: her hand beneath her chin, head cocked, elbow at 90-degree angle with the handcrafted, American-made table. Nothing but Grace is on her mind, usually. She’s so at home, alone, with Grace.

“Eugh,” counters Grace, withdrawing both physically and from the conversation. She changes the subject.

“Do you see those two boys perched over at the bar?”

Priscilla sits back upright and nods her head subtly, suddenly solemn.

“Do you think they could be soldiers, newly returned from the war?”

“1923 would be awfully late for them to have just gotten back,” answers Priscilla, maybe meek, without a moment.

“Fine,” huffs Grace. “Perhaps they’re police officers. Two partners sick of this dreadful prohibition business and trying to drown their perceived transgressions in a bottle-a-piece. Get it Priscilla? Bottle-o-peace.”

She gazes over at their turned backs.

“Goodness, Grace. Well, that may be the case for them, but in ours, the bottle has only left you in pieces. And as for those two boys, where you see soldiers or police officers, I see young, unkempt men of working age spending their Tuesday afternoon huffing sterno in a speakeasy!” Priscilla’s legs crossed, but the one on top bounced up and down a little.

“Do you think I should go over and talk to them?” Grace hadn’t listened to a word beyond “Grace.” She was busy fantasizing.

One of the men shoves the other. Priscilla groans.

“Grace, you promised that if I came here with you then you would tell me everything!”

“And I shall,” she replies.

Priscilla exhales, relieved.

“After I go to the bathroom,” finishes Grace.

She exits their booth and then saunters by the boys at the bar, whispering something in one of their ears on her way past.

Chapter 2: Gander

“She’s lookin’ over here again, Ern! Ernie! She’s lookin!”

Ernie glances attempt-stealthy over his shoulder at the two women in the booth.

“What should I do, Ern?”

“I’ll tell you what you do, Bruce: you shut up about it, see.”

Embarrassed, Bruce closes his mouth and returned his eyes to the glass of cold water in front of him.

“You wanna know what you do after that?” offers Ernie, sly.

Bruce’s face lit up and he turns his attention back to his elder and only brother.

They work the night shift at the Domino sugar factory, doing maintenance work on some of the refinery machines. They grew up poor, bounced between relatives, and are self-taught as far as work: the far from airtight confidence of those that made it without understanding the fundamentals. Ernie has that, while Bruce more does what he’s told, but with a firm grip on morality. But so good-hearted, they take care of each other, and their relatives; they were staying with their great uncle, who had just recently passed. The mourning process wasn’t long but was respectful, and now they’re left broke after paying for the funeral just that past week. Undeterred, Ernest was always sure they were on their way up. They had work in a few hours.

“You see, those ladies over there are dressed real nice, Bruce. They got big pearls in their ears and necklaces on their necks; s u a v e, my guy. You can’t just go and walk up to ‘em lookin’ like you do, like every other sad sap this side of New York. What you do is you head over to the bathroom right now, and you take this comb here and you run some water over it, see. Then you do what’s done with combs, you know what’s done with combs, right, Brucie?” slaps him on the back (Ernest talks good and he talks quick when he’s excited), “and you wash your face, and  you come straight back here. Once I’ve given you a once over, you reach right in your pocket, grab the rest of your measly dough, and you buy two drinks”—he holds up two fingers“Then, you walk over to their table, slow like and cool like”—voice’s rhythm slows, gliding“and while you do, I want you to look at the brunette one, not the blonde one. You see, if anyone here’s gonna stop this happening, it’s the brunette one. It’s her you gotta make sure to win over. And after you’ve approached the table makin’ sure that the brunette one’s lookin’ at you”—smiling—“you give them their drinks. And then after you give them their drinks, what do you say?”

“Here?”

“No, knucklehead!” He shoves his brother. Because Bruce is bigger and more handsome, Ernest, though wiser and good-hearted, has always bullied him a little: jealous. “You can’t just say ‘here.’ You gotta say something s u a v e.”

“Suave?”

“Yeah, s u a v e. You walk up to them, and you say”—inhales, pointedly—“’To you, I may tarry near cliché, ladies, but I don’t care: I’d be living a life of regret if I didn’t buy the prettiest women I’ve ever seen some drinks.’”

“That’s from the movie we just saw, Ern!”

“I know that, but does she know that? No.”

“I can’t remember all that Ern!”

Do you want my help or not?”

“’Course I do.”

Ernie: “It’s; I’d be—no—“he withdraws his notepad from his pocket (opens it to where its supposed to be, marked by the halfway-done pencil he leaves there)—“To you I may tarry near—“

“Do it.”

looks up “What’s that, Bruce?”

“I didn’t say anything, Ern.”

Bruce turns his head to see, from the bottom up, the back of the blonde woman as she pushes open the door to the lavatory.

Chapter 3: Doughnuts

“What did you say to that boy, Grace?”

“Nothing, sweetie,” Grace replies sweetly, mocking the innocent.

She’d only just returned from the restroom and had sat down after her own sly glance.

“Oh goodness, what have you done?!” asks Priscilla as she watches one of the men Grace had talked to stride over to their booth, purposefully, with drinks in hands and lit by the few light bulbs scattered and suspended around the ceiling, as well as candles on tables abound dripping wax.

“Excuse me, Miss,” he says to Grace.

She feigns surprise.

“I’m—well, to you I—you’re—you’re both very pretty. And I regret my living because I didn’t buy you drinks,” jumbles Bruce.

Grace seemed genuinely sad.

“Well, who are those for then?” Priscilla asks, with her eyes aimed at the martinis he’s holding, being helpful, semi-tentionally.

The recipe: (perfected only the year before, in London) Gin and Vermouth combined at a 2:1 ratio, stirred in a mixing glass with ice cubes and some aromatic bitters, then strained into their chilled martini glasses and garnished with a green olive on a toothpick—”Dirty.” If a wine glass is a tulip, a martini glass is a petunia. And said petunias bore some nectar.

“Well, um, they’re for you,” says Bruce, setting the glasses on the table in front of her. They swish around some.

“Wait, what?” Grace chimes in.

Bruce lowered himself slowly into the booth opposite Grace, forcing Priscilla next to the wall. Aggressive?

“My name is Bruce,” he says.

“Ooh, Bruce,” purrs Grace, eyes closed and seductive.

“Who’s that were you sitting with?” she asks.

“Oh, that’s my brother Ernest.”

“And you’re just going to leave him there?” questions Priscilla.

Bruce stammers then yells and gestures for Ernie to come over. At first, Ernie pretends to not hear his brother, but then after a second or two of summoned blasé, he gets up, unhurried, and continues over to the party. Ernest slides into the booth beside Grace. A moment of silence filled with Bruce’s seeming to be over the moon and Ernie’s being stuck in some state, but with a touch of confused, and then Grace, poised as ever and grinning, but, as Priscilla could very well tell, fighting back deservèd laughter.

“So boys, what exactly do you do?” Priscilla inquires.

Respectively, and simultaneously, Bruce and Ernie say “construction” and “law firm.”

“We handle the legal side of building and construction and such,” saves Earnest.

“I see,” says Grace slowly, nodding. “And what is it that’s brought you here?” She poses this to Bruce specifically.

“Just lookin’ for a bit of fun, I suppose. A chance to relax,” he answers modestly. “We just saw a—“

“Fun, I know what would be fun,” asserts Priscilla, cutting him off. Grace, Bruce, and Ernest all look at her. Unfazed, she continues: “A new bakery opened up just a block or two from here, and I’ve heard that it’s as good as it gets. And they sell doughnuts. Have you ever had doughnuts?”

Ernest says “yes” as Bruce shakes his head. Nonplussed, Priscilla withdraws from her purse by her side, between her and the wall, her matching (matching to her clothes and coincidentally also the wall) wallet, and from that, two dollars. She puts the money on the table.

Grace jumps in. She wants to play along. She says, “If you’ll go find this place for us and buy as many doughnuts as you can with this and bring them back here, we can enjoy them all together!”

The expression on Bruce’s face evidences only sheer pride. Ernie’s, however, is slightly distraught before hid.

“There’s a job I feel like old Brucie here can handle by himself. Can’t ya, Bruce?” Ernie says, patting his brother on the back. Retreat.

“Come now, Bruce; you’re not going to leave your brother behind again, are you?” says Priscilla before Bruce can get up or reply. Routed.

“We’ll be back in a jiff,” Ernest says, defeated, but rescuing his pinned kin.

The brothers shuffle out.

Chapter 4: Simple

“Damn you, Bruce,” says Ernie, seething, his face inches from his brother’s.

The back of his brother’s head’s backed against the brick wall; he’d been pushed. Ernie was clinging onto Bruce’s lapel.

“Why’d you have to go and do a thing like that, huh? Why?!”

Ernie releases his oafish brother who crumples to the floor, pathetic.

“I’m sorry, Ern, I just thought—”

“No you didn’t. Your thinking would be a miraculous thing Bruce, and I don’t see any angels. Now c’mon, get up.”

Ernie dusts his brother off.

“Listen, I know that you were only trying to do something sweet for the dame, who’s obviously driving you damn near crazy, but have a little more sense next time, okay? Trust me. You’ve gotta’ trust me, Brucie, before you go and royally screw us again, see.”

“I do,” answers Bruce, sniffily.

“I know, Brucie, I know,” says Ernest’s softer voice. “Now let’s go get them doughnuts.”

***

Bruce had, in an attempt at being romantic, halfway exchanged one of the dollars bestowed unto him by Priscilla for a bouquet of roses advertised by a scraggly boy on a bike. He gave the boy the money, but as soon as he did, the boy’s face contorted to shock. Bruce in shock, Lenny-like The boy let out a simple, though convincingly-enough exasperated “what?!” and the iota that Bruce turned around the boy rode off cackling with Bruce’s dollar. Bruce spends a good eight or nine seconds scanning the horizon for the boy’s phantom distraction like a golden retriever, fooled into believing its ball had been thrown. Ernie had been up the street tying his shoelaces. He caught up to watch the boy ride away guffawing and then that’s when he attacked his brother.

***

A block further up, past mostly apartment buildings and a hat shop, and a store that sells religious paraphernalia and iconography: no bakery. Another block. No bakery, most certainly no doughnuts.

Ernest stops a man moseying down the pavement. It looks like its going to rain.

“Excuse me, sir.”

“Yes,” replies the pudgy man.

His excess in flab informs—or implies—to Ern that he’d know where to find the bakery in question, and if not, one nearer. And besides that, the man’s dressed fairly well, in a pinstripe wool suit. Bowler hat. Leans back as he walks, head high, self-important, restrained in emotional offering, evident hedonistic tendencies, wary condescension in his eyes, that type; his tongue was too large. Sausage fingers. He’s probably a little hot for early Fall, but still dressed well just the same.

“Hi, sir, I’m looking for a bakery around here, it sells doughnuts. Can you help me out?”

“I most certainly cannot,” answers the stranger, offended. “There are no bakeries within walking distance from here, I’m quite sure.”

Scrupulous, Ernie replies, “Well, what’d you mean by walking distance?” eyebrow raised “’Cos that’s kind of a person-to-person thing, isn’t it.” eyes avert to strangers belly

“You’re chasing geese, boys.” Leaves angry man, day not so ruined, but hardly made. Though his day is an unreasonably tough one to make, if one did ever try, given his not believing in compromise and all.

The boys sidle on.

Chapter 5: Speak Easy

Priscilla’s shocked. Grace is embarrassed, a little, which is unusual for her given the circumstances. Having not been noted by Priscilla, however, no one would’ve known. The faces we find most recognizable and desirable, as in Grace’s, are usually those best manipulated, especially by their hosts.

“You’re really going to go to court?” Priscilla asks.

“Yes.”

“And you’re going to testify?” Priscilla’s tone wobbles.

“Yes, I am. He stole from my father. For years!”

“But he’s your fiancé, Grace.”

“He’s my formality, Priscilla. Rearrange fiancé and you have finance. And besides, what with the money Daddy wins back in this, which I am sure that I’ll be due for at least some of, I’ll be set for life. No such husband for me. I want a puppy, or maybe two puppies! Bulldogs, but French, not English! One boy, one girl. I’ll put a bow on the girl’s collar to difference the two. A pink bow…”

Grace’s voice turns to humming in the distance, away from their booth’s leather cordovan, but its so dim in there, s’almost black, not ox-blood. What a find, Priscilla!  Well, she was always on the lookout. Compelled to excel, demonstrate, accommodate for grace. It had always been like that. She didn’t regret it, not usually. And Grace did reciprocate, in her being one of the six women of the very first class of women ever allowed to study & graduate from Bellevue Medical College at NYU. She’d even helped Priscilla with her own work studying law, and she was gorgeous, so impressively diligent in academia, but then in life, such as now, often helpless, which gave Priscilla purpose.

Priscilla speaks, trying to coax her friend away from the edge. “That is supposing your father gives you the money, Grace! And he doesn’t just try to marry you off again to another one of his employees. You’re nearing the uncertain here. Look before you leap.”

“There’ll be no leaping here, Priscilla.” Grace’s tone hints at annoyed. “Instead, a perfect ten swan dive. And I’ll land comfortably in a land of independence.” She looks away again.

They both laugh. Grace more than Priscilla, much more.

Chapter 6: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

He removes his white gloves before he opens the door. The funny thing about that is that he only wears the gloves to stand out, but then removes them whenever he goes in, as in inside, to fit in. His air and consequently heirs is and are snobbish, all people in symbiosis with their ego. His suit is expensive, tasteless, but just the same, as are his shoes. He has a monocle—yes, a monocle—and a pocket square, and a pocket watch, and rings a plenty, and would soon add to his collection what he thinks is a well-deserved wedding ring. A new one, once he’s remarried, his wife having passed the year before. His hair is greying and skin supple despite his age, not even supple—honestly, that’s L Y I N G—more like clings tight to his skull. Sweat clings to his face and clothes and pools, as is so unfortunately typical when it gets hot, given the expected dress code of the day. Atop his head is a black top hat. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney’s dying youth unveils in of it already amounting in an effort to move, especially when in distress.

At the bottom of a tried-to-be-forgotten case of stairs, in an alley underdeveloped, Charles shoves open the old, mute door to enter the dim, smoky speakeasy.

***

For all installments from 30 Birds, click here.

Previous installments

  1. “Velvet” by the Bloody Eyes
  2. “Subtle” by Yukio Mishima
  3. “Geronimo Sunset!” by Jun. 27
  4. “My Hero” by Annie Wonoffate Million