|Chapter 1: And give up show business?
precisely 9 p.m. Charlie Bonaire pulled the dusky brown ‘78 Buick Electra
off Route 22 into the parking lot of Ristorante Dell'Abate and swung it
into a spot far from the stucco facade of the building. He turned
the engine off and after a moment sighed and took a swig from a flask,
then reached into the back seat for his mechanical monkey.
He opened the door and stepped
out. The parking lot was perhaps a third full and smelled of diesel exhaust
from the semi trucks constantly roaring by. And although officially
summer was still two weeks away, already the oppressive Jersey humidity
had settled in for the season. Charlie put the monkey on top of the
car, then reached in for his tuxedo jacket — red with black lapels — and
put it on. He tucked in his shirttail, hung the monkey around his
neck by its plastic strap, and reached into the seat again for a clipboard,
which he put on the car, and a cheap black top hat, which he put on.
He consulted the papers on the clipboard, withdrew one sheet, put the clipboard
back into the car and closed the door. He studied the sheet again
for a moment before folding it and putting it into his jacket pocket.
He stepped back, checked his
black bow tie in the window's reflection, brushed a few donut crumbs from
his pink ruffly shirt, smoothed his black slacks and adjusted his hat to
a minimally jaunty angle. He felt his side pockets to confirm their
contents. "All equipment accounted for," he muttered.
"Rollo, howya doin'?" He tapped the monkey's little sailor hat and
the monkey screeched three times, its mouth opening and closing smartly,
before Charlie tapped it again, and the monkey began clanging its little
tin cymbals together in 4/4 time. "Perfect, as always," said Charlie,
tapping it once more, to silence it. He adjusted its little red vest
and pulled one of the little red-striped pant legs back over a rubber foot.
"Yeah, we're goin' places, Rollo, you and me. Look, here we are at
Ristorante Dell'Abate in Union, New Jersey. Big time."
He popped a breath mint and headed for the restaurant.
As the grandmotherly hostess
went into the Venezia Room to announce his arrival, Charlie waited in the
reception area. This was the part of the job he hated most: being
ridiculously conspicuous. When he was "on," hell, that was show biz.
But standing around in a waiting area and being made to endure the scrutiny
of the general public was more than one could stand, especially if one
were dressed in a red tuxedo jacket and a mechanical monkey.
Charlie smiled politely at the
two couples waiting to be seated and brushed off one man's remark about
the monkey. He withdrew the document from his inside pocket and studied
it again. It was a standard work order from his employer of
two weeks, Singing Telegrins, bearing the official logo, a top-hatted monkey,
its mouth wide open, presumably in song. This was Job. No. 00811,
a "Good Luck" message to be delivered to one Anne Marie Pucci at a party
in her honor at Ristorante Dell'Abate at 9 p.m. ("SHARP!!!" written in
red next to it), on the occasion of her opening a travel agency in Secaucus.
The song to be performed was not a standard Singing Telegrins ditty, the
form noted, but a custom composition written out below, to be sung to the
tune of "O Sole Mio."
Charlie was reviewing
the "lyrics" when the hostess returned and told him there would be a slight
delay while the party's dinner dishes were being cleared away. He
thanked her and returned to the work order. Under "Remarks" was written,
in the intense red block lettering of his boss, Steve Podowski: "THIS IS
A VERY IMPORTANT JOB, STICK TO THE SCRIPT!" Under "Payment," more
block letters: "PRE-PAID. DO NOT WAIT FOR TIP."
Charlie reviewed the information
until a soft whistle made him look up. At the door of the Venezia
Room stood a man of medium height with black hair, dressed in an expensive
olive-colored suit, black shirt and gold tie. He beckoned to Charlie,
who put away the work order and cleared his throat as he approached the
dining room. "Steve gave you the song?" said the man. His face,
though not handsome, carried a friendly dignity that a large Roman nose
and a mole on his cheek could not dispel, and his voice was calm, knowing.
"Yeah," said Charlie.
"O Sole Mio," right?
"Right," said the man.
"Don't fuck it up." Charlie caught a spark of light from a diamond
pinky ring as the man slipped a bill into Charlie's jacket pocket. Without
another word the man made his way back to one of the dozen or so round
tables clustered before a long table where the guest of honor, and four
others, sat smoking and chatting. Most at the head table were sipping
coffee, but Miss Pucci, wine glass in hand, was telling a waiter to bring
another bottle. Behind the table stood several floral arrangements,
and off to one side, a small band — pianist, drummer and bass player —
waited on a compact stage. Three of the four walls were covered with murals
of the Italian countryside, of a volcano, and of Venice.
Still at the doorway, Charlie
looked at the bill — it was a fifty — transferred it to his pants pocket
and smiled. Yes, for such a tip he would not fuck it up. He
took a deep breath and withdrew a siren whistle from one pocket.
He sounded a little ascending triad on it and marched toward the head table.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced with the enthusiam of a ringmaster.
"We interrupt this festive occasion for a special message from Singing
Telegrins! Anne Marie Pucci, this message is for you!" Those assembled
— a well dressed mix of young and old — broke into applause as the guest
of honor covered her mouth in surprise and glee. About 35, with dark-ringed
eyes and possessing the remnants of a modest beauty, she wore a dazzling
purple off-the-shoulder dress with a large diamond brooch, and her black
hair was cut short but stylishly. On either side of her sat less-stylish
young women and one slight blond man — employees, Charlie guessed — clapping
Charlie reached the head table
and stood near the recipient. "Miss Pucci, on the occasion of your
new travel agency, in beautiful Secaucus, New Jersey-- " and here he waited
for the laugh to die down, "-- your family wants to wish you every success,
and sends this special greeting to you." He withdrew a small plastic
kazoo from his pocket and sounded a single note, then began to sing, strongly
but with the sweetness of a gondolier.
"Congratulations / Oh Anne Marie;
Congratulations / on your agency. Successful / and lovely too; Oh
Anne Marie / we're proud of you." Halfway through, the pianist had
joined in softly, and as the party applauded and the pianist continued,
Charlie theatrically hummed another verse on the kazoo as the honoree looked
up in gleeful rapture. After a closing flourish, the pianist broke
into "E La Luna." Delighted, Charlie pulled a small device
from his jacket pocket which, with a deft snap, extended into a full-sized
cane. Charlie tapped twice Rollo on its hat, and with the mechanical
monkey clapping its cymbals in perfect time, Charlie danced a circuit around
the tables, playing the melody on his kazoo and conducting with his cane
as those assembled clapped and sang along in Italian. As he passed
the band the drummer and bassist exchanged a smirk, but the pianist winked
happily at him.
At the song's end, Charlie wound
up behind the head table, where he tapped off Rollo, removed his top hat
and bowed deeply to the guest of honor, then to the guests, who were applauding
generously. Suddenly, and a bit unsteadily, the guest of honor
pulled Charlie over to her. "Don't go yet," she laughed. "I
want to see your monkey! He's so cute!" She touched one of
his little rubber feet. "Look," she said to the young woman next
to her, "they look just like hands."
"They do," the woman said, "and
his outfit is adorable."
"Thanks," Charlie said, "but
it's strictly off the rack. Robert Hall."
The guest of honor laughed heartily.
He hadn't stuck to the script precisely, but hell, every job required a
bit of improv, and "E La Luna" had been a big hit; he'd done well,
"Oh, he's so cute," the honoree
repeated. "What's his name?"
"Awwww! Rollo! Can
I give him a kiss?"
"Uh, sure," said Charlie, who
moved a bit closer. The woman leaned over to kiss Rollo, but at that
moment her hand came to rest on the monkey's head, and it screeched as
its mouth opened and closed.
The woman jumped back, grabbing
her nose. "Shit!" she yelled. "The little fuck bit me!"
"Oh, jeez, I'm sorry," Charlie
said. "I shoulda warned you about the hat — it turns on the gizmo.
The woman next to her was tending
to Miss Pucci's nose. "It's OK, hon," she said. "There's just
a teeny red mark, it'll go away."
"I'm really sorry," Charlie
said. He looked over toward the table where the man who'd tipped
him sat. Sitting with three other men, all about 40, two laughing
and one sour looking, the man nodded impassively toward the door.
"I gotta be going," Charlie
said. "Hey, I'm so sorry."
The woman, after inspecting
her nose in a compact mirror, also looked toward the man in the olive suit
and touched Charlie's arm. "Listen," she said, "I'm OK, the damned
thing just scared me for a second. I'm OK, really. Thanks for
the song, it was really nice." She stood up. "I'm OK," she
announced to applause. "The little moolie got carried away."
As the guests laughed in relief,
Charlie gave a final triad from his siren whistle. "This," he announced,
"has been another Singing Telegrin! Good night, everybody!"
With an apologetic smile to the guest of honor, Charlie strode toward the
door. "Bad monkey," he said theatrically, gently smacking Rollo's
head. As he passed the table with the four men, one of them, the
angry-looking specimen who looked like he'd been stuffed into his grey
sharkskin suit, started to rise, but the man in the olive suit put his
hand on his arm, and the man sat back down. Charlie smiled and shrugged
to the table, and the olive suit impassively waved him out as if dismissing
In the waiting area Charlie
passed a young couple; their little girl, about six, pointed to him.
"Look at the monkey!" she shrieked.
"Yeah," Charlie muttered, pushing
through the oaken door into the muggy parking lot. "Look at the monkey."
(c) 2001 John F. Crowley
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