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The Odd Ball


In the ballroom of the Elizabeth Hotel, nicknamed the Liz. Situated at the edge of run-down Near North and the adjacent, resurgently affluent Riverside District. Technically, The Liz is in Near North although the River-siders have claimed it as their own. The hotel is a luxurious, restored, historic Italianate structure comprised of what were once three separate buildings that share common walls, as was the nature of building efficiencies in the 19th century.

Large tables, each with six chairs with assigned seating, arranged on the perimeter, leaving an area in the center for dancing and performances. With Spence and Jeanine, in the far corner next to a portable bar, sit Officer Tommy Henkel (Jeanine’s police officer colleague), Tommy’s chubby and chatty wife Rhonda, George Miller, the owner of a successful local printing company, and his wife Maureen, a shy woman known for mumbling to herself. Balding George, whose remaining hair sprouts randomly on his scalp like tufts of grass poking through beach sand looks like a newborn chick. George is one of the communities leading philanthropists.

A cover band plays on the stage at the far end of the hall. The Passage (a makeshift band cobbled together for the evening) is led by front man, vocalist and rhythm guitarist, Stevie, with a mullet haircut and a high pitched, falsetto voice. They are fond of Journey and Cars covers. Their version of  Anyway You Want It, to Spence’s mind, needs a ukelele since Stevie sounds vaguely like Tiny Tim.

“The lead singer, I think his name is Stevie, is ‘Cinda’s cast-off boyfriend,” says Rhonda.

“Cinda?” Jeanine asks.

“Lucinda. Lori’s daughter. She goes by ‘Cinda. I wonder if she’s coming tonight. Stevie still carries a torch. It could be awkward for both of them. He licks his wounds in public.”

“You mean Lucy,” Jeanine says.

“Yes, Cinda uses that name also. Strange girl.”

Wishing to gossip but not getting many bites, Rhonda continues. “Lucy is involved with a much older man,” she says to Maureen in a conspiratorial whisper meant to be heard by all.

Spence, Tommy and George go to the bar for drinks. Tommy isn’t drinking because he’s on-call at the police station. He’s in uniform and armed. Jeanine wants a gin and tonic and Spence orders the same, passing on the crappy Budweiser and Miller. The gin and tonics are expensive and watered down. Spence doesn’t mind buying, even though he’s counting nickels these days, because all the proceeds go to Lori’s charity and he is riding on Jeanine’s dime. He learned the tickets had cost $100 each. He wouldn’t have accepted Jeanine’s invitation if he’d known how much she would be out. But, anyway, she’s the one with the good job.

When the men return to the table with the round of drinks Rhonda is still spinning gossip. “We don’t know who he is but rumor has it that he’s got about three decades on Cinda.” Jeanine and Maureen are rapt in attention. The Mullet scans the room as he croons hoping to spot Cinda or hoping not to if she is with her new beau.

The Impresario, (Lori’s business partner, Rhonda explains) in tails and top hat, works the room with witty pronouncements and disparaging one-liners to roast the more prominent guests. A juggler rotates colored balls. A unicyclist wearing a jester’s hat weaves in and out of dancing couples. The cyclist can stay in place by alternating forward and backward pedaling, occasionally dipping toward the floor like the yellow bird toy that takes a sip of water out of a glass before bouncing upright.

Moon, a palm reader, stops at their table. She reads Jeanine and Spence’s palms as a couple, a dubious description of their new relationship. Moon is a fat, middl-aged woman with unnatural brassy hair. She wears a muumuu as big as a tent, inky blue satiny material adorned with moons and stars and the ringed planet Saturn. She traces the lines on their hands with a long, garnet fingernail. Jeanine and Spence will both live to a ripe old age, she announces, although Jeanine will outlive Spence. Not exactly going out on a limb, Spence thinks. Women usually outlive men especially if the man is a decade older. They are extremely compatible Moon assures them though they should be wary of external influences in the  relationship. “True love is within their grasp but they will be sorely tested.” Jeanine blushes, squirms and avoids eye contact with Spence. Moon clasps both of their hands tightly and closes her eyes as if in prayer. She rises with difficulty from the chair she had pulled forward for the reading. Spence fishes a buck out of his pants and hands it to Moon. She refuses payment and floats away like a colorful barge down a river.

“I’m sorry,” Jeanine mouths silently to Spence as if she were responsible for the spectacle. She takes him by the hand and drags him to the dance floor for a slow dance. Nick the drummer takes over on vocals while The Mullet takes a smoke break, probably looking for Cinda. Nick’s voice isn’t bad, thinks Spence. He’s heard him before with another band called The Bangers.

Spence wraps an arm around Jeanine’s little waist. He extends his free arm for hers in the traditional dance pose but she throws both arms around his neck and pulls him close like a teenager at a sock hop. She’s a lightweight drinker and the weak gin and tonics are getting to her already. Her cheek rests on his shoulder. Her hair smells fresh and clean like after a rain storm.

“Thanks for coming. I hope this isn’t awkward for you,” she says.

“Only in the sense of the ticket expense. Let me reimburse you,” Spence says while hoping she’ll decline his offer. He suspects she will.

“Don’t be silly. I invited you. Please don’t be the chauvinist guy who thinks he’s supposed to pay for everything.”

“Okay but you call the shots. We’ll dance all you want and even have another session with Moon if you like.”

“If Moon thinks we’re a couple we probably should play along,” Jeanine says a little more suggestively than she would have liked so she quickly changes the topic. “These guys are pretty bad aren’t they?” she says referring to The Passage.

“Yeah but they’re better without the Mullet. What’s the deal with Cinda?”

“A child. 19 maybe 20. Always been a handful. We’ve hauled her in a few times.”

“For?”

“Juvenile stuff. Underage drinking. Disorderly conduct. Shoplifting. We rarely actually charge her. Lori is important but she can’t control her daughter. The only person Lucy listens to is her Uncle Lars. He mostly goes by the nickname Tic.”

“I’ve heard of him. How did he get his nickname?”

“It’s short for Lunatic. Lars is a Vietnam war vet with violent tendencies. Well meaning but violent. He’d kill for Lucy and Lori. That’s not an exaggeration.”

“Lunatic. Literally moon sick, you know. The ancients believed the moon could drive one mad.”

Jeanine snuggles closer. Spence can feel her heat. “Hopefully Lucy is cleaning up her act. We’re going to stop treating her like a kid some day,” she says.

###

Jeanine had pulled Spence over months ago on his way home from Ruby. Ruby Cafe is only about eight blocks away from Spence’s apartment. He should have walked per his usual but, for whatever reason, he hadn’t that night. BWOOP! BWOOP! Lights in his rearview mirror. He waited for a long time until a small officer of the law, a female cop, approached his window with a flashlight large enough to serve as a weapon. The light shined in his eyes as he dug in his pocket for his license and in the glove compartment for the registration thinking all the while that he was throughly fucked. He didn’t feel drunk but most assuredly was in the yes of the law.

“What did I do?” he asked.

“You were driving too slow.”

“Isn’t slow a good thing?” he asked, not argumentatively. She didn’t respond.

The police woman with a blonde pony tail poking out the back of her police cap stared at Spence’s license for the longest time before the inevitable question, “Mr. Croft, have you been drinking?” Spence sat clutching the steering wheel like he thought you were supposed to wondering how she knew his name until realizing, duh, she’s looking at his driver’s license. Maybe I’m drunk after all, he thought. Thinking he had nothing to lose he answered honestly, “Yes. And I’m less than a block from home.” He pointed ahead toward home and looked at her but couldn’t make out her expression because of the glaring light. She said, “Ok. I’ll follow you,” and handed him his documents. The world is still full of miracles.

Spence drove slowly but not as slow as before with the cop car on his tail. Pulled to the curb in front of his apartment as did the cop, probably making sure he had told the truth because the address on his license was the previous one before he moved to Near North. Concentrating extra hard not to stagger or stumble he walked toward the steps but turned around and went back to the cop car with the window down and the pony tail inside and said, “Would you like a cup of coffee? I know I could use one.” The second miracle of the night when she said, “I’m due for a break,” and called it in on the radio. Followed him up the steps and inside the apartment which thankfully wasn’t in its usual condition having been tidied the day before. He brewed strong coffee in his parent’s old electric percolator he’d had since college. He poured cups while Officer Jeanine (he’d learned her name by then) looked around the way cops are probably trained to. Scanning for dead bodies or drugs or contraband.

Over coffee they talked about the neighborhood and how it was changing in some ways for the better and in other ways not but it was definitely safer now though there were still dicey pockets and one shouldn’t wander around alone at night especially if one is inebriated, she stressed. Jeanine was pretty but not beautiful in the way Spence was good looking but not handsome. He thought, however, that she looked silly in the uniform like she was going to a Halloween party.

Jeanine talked about being a cop because her father was a cop and while she liked the steady work and good pay she didn’t really have a passion for law enforcement and wished she had more time for her art. Spence reciprocated with tales of his life as failed musician and failed novelist but successful drinker and womanizer. He said all this because she’d opened up to him and he’d kicked the evening off  by being honest and it had worked so far so why stop now.

The full moon bright through the kitchen window. He told her the moon is very gradually pulling away from the earth and was much closer and appeared much bigger in prehistoric times but scientists are divided on its eventual fate. None of it really matters because we’ll all be long dead by then and have more immediate concerns.

Officer Jeanine was finding all of this interesting and inspiring from an artist’s point of view when her radio cackled and she had to go because of a hit and run involving a pedestrian at the corner of Rubicon and Madison. She had overstayed her break anyway.

A few weeks later Jeanine pulled him over again while he was innocently returning from the grocery store and hadn’t had a drink all day and wasn’t driving too slow. This time, in broad daylight and without the giant flashlight, she approached the car with a smile and asked Spence if he would like to accompany her to a charity ball. He said sure why not because he was flattered. An officer of the law had never asked him for a date before. She wrote her phone number on a warning ticket and suggested they get together in advance of the charity event for a drink.

The met at the bar in Baci, a nice Italian restaurant in the Riverside District. Spence had to admit that Jeanine was much prettier in civilian clothing. Her hair was full and shiny when not hidden and smashed by the cop hat. She had been drawing pictures of the moon and stars, she told him, and she would show them to him sometime. Spence thought this was a clever way of suggesting an encounter in the intimacy of her home so he said he would enjoy it very much.

They met again to play pool at the Lap Dog Brewpub. She wore an alarmingly short skirt that showed all the way up her smooth and creamy, but substantial, thighs while she stretched over the table for a difficult shot. A view of panties and full bottom giving Spence a new appreciation of the tremendous variety of female terrain and charms.

That’s how Spence found himself at the Odd Ball with a woman he hardly knew but felt he had known all his life.

###

The Passage steps aside to allow Lori center stage. She thanks a long list of people who made the fundraiser for needy children a success. A unicyclist is pedaling from table to table depositing pledge envelopes. Jeanine puts a twenty in her envelope. Spence does the same with his, silently fretting over his dwindling resources. Lori points to a big thermometer poster that tracks fundraising results. The red is just short of the top of the thermometer. She recites the list of events that led up to the Odd Ball. Trotting for Tots, the annual charity marathon. Bikes for Tykes, the bicycle/tricycle give away for disadvantaged youth. Bids for Kids, the annual charity auction. Spence is into yet another pricey watered down gin and tonic. Jeanine has stopped drinking. When he is lubricated his imagination kicks in.

Yids for Kids, organized by the local synagogue. Dykes for Tykes, promoted by the lesbian community. Sots for Tots, sponsored by Alcoholics Anonymous. Spence laughs at his own witticisms, tearing up and shaking in his seat with Jeanine asking, “What? What?” Spence knows this is not an occasion for mirth but risks whispering his inventions into her ear. She puts her hand to her mouth and leaves the ballroom as if going to the restroom. He follows her, concerned, and finds her laughing in the hall. He realizes he is in love with a woman who can laugh at his silliness, big thighs and all, at least for the moment. He kisses her and gets that familiar jolt in the pit of his stomach. They reenter the ballroom together as Lori is announcing a special guest.

Through a door at the far end of the ballroom emerges a man wearing a safari outfit. He looks like a demented Boy Scout. Behind him a bear wearing a vest and a tasseled Fez. The bear, looking like a hairy Shriner, walks upright, ungainly on his hind legs. A small bear as bears go, Spence thinks, although he has never before been this close to a live bear. The bear appears to smile. Demented Boy Scout and Shriner Bear waltz around the room. Spence looks at his drink and all the faces at his table, making sure they are seeing the same thing.

Lori introduces L’l Bruno, the wildlife star of her soon to be released major motion picture – The Adventures of Billy and L’il Bruno. A share of the movie’s profits will be donated to her charity, she says. There will also be a restaurant named Bruno’s Beastro. Lori is an extremely ambitious woman, Spence is thinking.

The Impresario cuts in to dance with L’il Bruno. Boy Scout bows and steps aside.The Impresario and L’il Bruno waltz near a table next to the stage where Moon had been reading palms before L’il Bruno’s grand entrance. L’il Bruno sniffs at the air with his greasy bear nose and the smile erodes from his bear snout. Moon is the object of his olfactory attention.

L’il Bruno pushes the Impresario to the floor and drops to his natural four legged stance. Guests at the nearby tables scramble. Moon snags her muumuu on the rough edge of the makeshift stage as she attempts to flee. The muumuu is swept from her shoulders and falls, in a heap, at her feet like collapsing firmament. Mullet leaps from the stage to rescue Moon. L’il Bruno sees him as a rival and swats him aside. Guest race out the door into the hall.

Moon’s bare breasts hang like saddlebags, her thong of thin cords buried deep in her supple hips and the crack of her ass make her look like a trussed rump roast. She drops to the floor in a defensive position with her face down, hands to her head and her white moon ass high in the air. An unfortunate stance. L’il Bruno, thinking his celebrity status has earned him a prize, sniffs vigorously at the delectable bottom, preparing to mount.

The unicyclist, frantically pedaling away from the melee, head cocked to watch the bear, crashes into the wheel chair bound wife of a dignitary, burying his face in her lap. She screams and beats him frantically with her purse. L’il Bruno, spooked by the commotion, abandons his conquest and bounds into the hallway of panicked guests.

Jeanine looks at Spence with an alarmed expression. Spence stands with arms raised, ready to applaud. But doesn’t.

Officer Tommy dispatches L’il Bruno with two precise shots to the head at the entrance to Chez Simone, the hotel restaurant and the source of additional enticing aromas.

The Boy Scout, believing the execution unwarranted, weeps over the bleeding mound of fur.

###

Eventually, Jeanine takes Spence home with Steve Miller’s Abracadabra blaring on her B.M.W. stereo to distract her and calm her nerves. Not his home. Hers. She makes him take a handful of aspirin and drink a large glass of water. She strips him and wrestles him into bed. Spence keeps one foot on the floor to stop the spinning. Jeanine undresses to her panties and pulls on a tee-shirt that reads Isla Mujeres. Crawls in beside him. A train rhythmic on rails passes nearby. The last thing Spence remembers is Jeanine hovering and kissing him on the mouth, nose and forehead.

She listens to the  train’s clack, clack, clack and whistle and looks at the waning, imperceptibly receding moon.

 

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