How to Sing Like a Freakin' Bird
Chapter 1: And give up show business?

    At 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 and laughing.
     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, he knew.
     "Oh, he's so cute," the honoree repeated.  "What's his name?"
     "Rollo."
     "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.  You OK?"
     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 a servant.
     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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