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Speak Easy

Catherynne M. Valente

  Speak Easy Copyright © 2015 by Catherynne M. Valente.

  All rights reserved.

  Dust jacket illustration Copyright © 2015 by Michael Wm. Kaluta.

  All rights reserved.

  Print version interior design Copyright © 2015 by Desert Isle Design, LLC.

  All rights reserved.

  Electronic Edition



  Subterranean Press

  PO Box 190106

  Burton, MI 48519

  For Helen, who introduced me to a certain building

  For Heath, who speaks more easily than anyone I know

  And for those wild departed souls who danced awhile and then no more


  There’s this ragamuffin city out east, you follow? Sitting pretty with a river on each arm, lit up in her gladdest rags since 1624. She’ll tell you she’s seen it all, boy howdy, the deep down and the high up, champagne and syphilis, pearls and puke. Oh, she’s a cynical doll, nothing new to her.

  Don’t you believe it.

  Treat her right and she’ll open up to you, as innocent as Eden and twice as naked. She’s got secrets, sure, who doesn’t? Pour me a snort and I’ll spill, mister. Spot me a meal and I’ll show you the goods.

  If you go looking for it, just about halfway uptown and halfway downtown, there’s this hotel stuck like a pin all the way through the world. Up on the roof of the Artemisia it’s heaven in a handbag, green grass and golden chickens laying golden eggs under the telephonigraph wires, five hundred if there’s one. They got Chinese ducks the color of nose-powder, twelve she-goats descended straight down from the girl who gave her tit to a Titan, a coupla Jersey cows giving milk as sweet as maple syrup, bees like gold buttons closing up the clouds, sheep just busting out fleece that spins better than silk. Ever got drunk on a tomato? Hopped up on cucumbers? Well, then you never ate outta the garden on top of the Artemisia. And I swear, up there in the sky? They got a little black bear as tame as a kitten. I hear tell he goes by Rutherford and learned himself to growl “I love you.” That’s how you know it’s heaven: the goats don’t eat the sugar peas and the ducks don’t fly off and even the fella with the claws knows about love.

  Down inside the Artemisia it’s this mortal coil all over. Earthly delights on every floor. Says hotel on the neon but most folks live there on the permanent, or as permanent as anything could be in a city that’d eat itself just to grow another block. Showgirls on nine, jazzmen on four, starlets, molls, and debs on seven, abortionists and poisoners and bankers all shufflin’ together on three and the real heavy sugar up high: baseball players and bootleggers and bought cops who never busted a joint-a-vous since the Amendment. All the doors stand double-wide to wedge in pianos, card tables, bathtub stills. Real bodhisattvas and down-dirty despots bouncin’ and shakin’ those red halls: Russian composers on rolly-skates, outfielders tootin’ saxophones, tenors practicing archery on big buck glass-eyed deer heads, writers shimmying in bare feet. Poor lambs, but the rent and the drink, they do come before the shine and the shoes. Some damned body rolled out a golf course in the east ballroom, flattened out that green with an iron like it was Pan’s own shirtfront. Ain’t nothing out there in the city some fool didn’t drag in through the service entrance. Everybody said one of these days the moon’d come rolling in like a dining table, COD. Up on her side, boys! Mind the chandeliers!

  You never saw girls like those glitter janes with their sequin crowns. You never saw boys like those velvet fellas getting their edge, neither. If Eve went door to door with her apple, not a soul in the Artemisia wouldn’t have grabbed it, planted a kiss on old Mama Fig Leaf, and had that shiny red temptation turned into the applejack of good and evil within an hour.

  And down below? Oh, baby, it’s dark down there in the underworld. Barrels of strike-me-dead skee rolling in full and out empty, stills working full-time, trickling out aqua mortis like the fountain of youth meant to call in all her debts at once. Every hour some long black Duisenberg slows up right into the basement, full of Canadian busthead, Mexican tea, or girls like a matched set of earrings. Down there in the shadows the dandies got themselves a swimming pool like a lake of tears, decked out with silver lanterns on every wall and red silk cabanas full of bath-house boys, svelte sibyls in pomade and not a whole lot else. Those kids’ll have you opium or coke on a gold plate before you know you want it. Come midnight that pool’s gonna look like a Bosch painting, you follow? The water’ll fizz black with running mascara. Fifteen minutes in the basement is a lifetime up above. And the closer you get to the basement the more you get confused on the matters of swell and dastard. Just one little floor up in the grand green-gilt lobby they fixed the Series over turtle soup and Pernod. Out front one of them hired heavies turned his gun on himself and sprayed the glass doors with Chicago paint.

  The basement do like her little nightcaps.

  Up and down between the parts of the world the brass-stamped dumbwaiters never stop. Bellhops like archangels bring eggs and honey from the heavenly farm to the sleepy kittens lying soft like the Flood never came. The kitchens turn out six tries at gluttony a day, silver domes and gold tureens. Up out of the underground kingdom flow diamond necklaces, ruby diadems, controlling stock in this and that, morphine like a quicksilver dream, laudanum like white honey, and the infinite, all-forgiving bubble-sea of wet-hot happy juice—don’t mind the iodine, darling. You hardly even taste the kerosene. Up in heaven they call it drinking the soda pop moon. In that jazz-hearted Midgard called the Artemisia it’s panther sweat. And down at the bottom of the world if you ask for coffin varnish you’ll get what you’re looking for.

  One man rules it all, even when he’s not there, even when he’s back home counting money and bones. Oh, everyone knows who! If you saw him on the street you’d make a path for the shortest man in town, strutting along in his pixie-colored suits. The dapper never wears the same ones twice: tangerine, granny smith, grape popsicle, cotton candy. There’s belladonna in his pockets, foxglove in his lapel, and a golden pistol in the lipstick linings of his jackets. The man powders his face like a dame at town, half an inch thick if it’s none. Folks say a fella sliced up his face over a dance hall girl years back, scarred his cheeks something terrible. But it just ain’t so. If he didn’t pile it on, his boys would see he wasn’t quite right—the color of his skin too blue, his ears too long, and I tell ya, if you look in his eyes too long you can see a ring of stars like toadstools at the bottom of their black.

  Call him what you want: Scarface, Boss, Big Daddy, King of the Fairies and Lord of the Dead.

  Most everyone around here just calls him Al.


  There’s a saying among showgirls: this city only knows two kinds of stories. A girl comes to New York and a girl dies in New York. Well, I got a story to tell. Wanna make it interesting? What’s the over/under on somebody leaving this book in a box? Leave your wager inside the dust-jacket, kittens.

  You have to work up a real lather to stand out among the sparklers at the Artemisia. When the kids look to be using up all the parties of the next hundred years in one summer, what’s another passed-out sweetheart in silver fringe? What’s one more gamine with her shoes danced to tatters? Nothing but a black bob on a pillow, a bathtub princess with her head in the sink.

  Unless the girl was Zelda Fair.

  A door popped up at the back of Zelda Fair’s closet round about Thanksgiving-time. Room 1550. Nobody knew about the door, but everyone knew about Zelda. Well, they knew of her. The about came harder. Girl kept her lips tight on the subject of origins. Come from some nothing town in Pennsylvania or Missouri or Alabama to make it as a dancer or an actress or a writer, whichever came fir
st. She drank like a Czar and sang like a broken squeezebox and danced like the Sugarplum Fairy cutting loose at last. Zelda was winter’s best dame: pale and dark and thin with a shimmer of Christmas in her eye, a flash of New Year in her laugh. Every Tom, Dick, and Rockefeller threw themselves at her, showered her in emeralds like green candy, sent a regular parade of dresses in long grey boxes, the very opposite of Al’s impish rags: Arctic midnight, storm-clouds, frost, pure 12-year aged starlight. If the It-girl didn’t show up to your hop, you might as well just have a glass of warm milk go to bed early. And for a minute, not a little more and not a little less, Zelda was the It that never quit.

  Zelda F couldn’t afford that flat all on her lonesome, oh no. Three other sparrows had their first and last on the lease: Olive, Opal, and Oleander. Olive Bay made her scratch in the Follies, high-kicking her spike-heels against the North Star till her calves looked like them faces out on Easter Island. Opal Lunet sewed up shine for half the hotel to shimmy in. After a year in the Artemisia she’d handled so much glitter her fingertips would sparkle till she died—and then her grave-dirt dazzled, too. And Miss Oleander Coy had herself a blue mouth. Little stains at the edges of her raspberry lips where she put her pen when she was thinking, which was always. She told the town what to do and where to go—the acid girl, the bitterest critic ever to clench a column in each fist. And God help her if any of those nice rich theater folk find out the hard-to-please heart they’re dying to win belongs to a black girl. A byline’s as good as a mask.

  They came to town: Olive and Opal high-tailing it from the boardwalks, Atlantic City and Virginia Beach. Guess they couldn’t stand one more popcorn lunch between telling fortunes and dancing in a pretty glass box. Only Oleander was home-grown, Harlem first and Harlem last and Harlem the only room in her heart.

  You might think, when four girls get up to living together, a nice fat kitty-cat just puffs into existence on their favorite chair, already fitted out with a crooked tail, a missing ear, a disinclination to catch anything not already put in a china bowl for them at suppertime, and a name like Tiger or Smoky or Mr. Puss-Boots. Not so for 1550. But it’s true when Ollie turned the key with a suitcase and a soup-pot in her saddlebags, the apartment was already occupado. Some scoundrel’d left their pet behind— back then the odder flat was the one without some zoo escapee noshing off the oatmeal pot. The poor beast flapped and squawked and banged around the empty walls and fresh, clean windows, in and out of the bedrooms like a wicked boy, whack on the ceiling, smash on the stove-top. Funniest looking bird you ever saw! Big as a kindergartner, beak like a pink scimitar, feathers on top like the cream on milk and shiny as a black satin ball-gown on bottom. The ornithologist in 1523 gave them the scoop later on, and the scoop was called Pelecanus Conspicillatus. The Perceptive Pelican of the Southern Hemisphere.

  But they did name him Puss-Boots.

  Room 1550 was only ever quiet from 3:30 am to just around 5, when even those four had to show their necks to sleep. Then it was Olive first to the clock, singing scales around her toothbrush, up and stretching her long legs on a stick of hickory she’d bolted to the kitchen wall while sucking down black coffee with one hand and reading the latest book Ollie had told her redeemed the whole idea of writing a story from start to finish with the other. Puss-Boots stretched with her, his neck, his bill, his long legs, but never his wings, careful as a girl fresh out of finishing school, him being so big that opening up his great fat wings would knock over the milk jugs, the phonograph, the teacups, the side table near the sofa, and probably the sofa, too. Somebody’d trained that pelican to be downright dainty.

  Opal hit the tile next, still mostly asleep while she fed a whirl of silk through her rat-a-tat machine, chasing a river of thread through the teal. Ollie punched in with the cymbal-whack of her typewriter by the alley-side window while a happy neon sign six stories down flashing Hobart and Sons’ Fine Smokables got its purple light all tangled up in her eyelashes. And sooner or later all this racket would thump Zelda Fair out of her linen, wandering out naked as a painting and straight to the gin-jar: the Artemisia’s favorite breakfast. By eight a.m. the bellhop, just as bright as a rooster in his cap and brass, would ding the bell with fresh eggs from the rooftop and a pot of honey on account of him being sweet on all four of them, but one in particular. See if you can guess.

  Zelda boiled them up hard for her sisters and toasted bread, if they had any, over the gas range, yawning like she might get her mouth around the whole world. And before she laid out the 1550 blue-light special, she’d say now, there’ll be no more Zelda Mummying you once I find my Goodies, my darling O’s. You’ll have to eat ’em raw.

  That was how Miss Fair called whatever talent she would, soon, can’t be long now, turn out to have all locked up at the bottom of her. Her gentlemen-friends laughed and patted her hair and told her not to fuss about it, she was perfect at being Zelda and they’d keep her in eggs and diamonds forever. But not our Z, not her. She wanted to be Good. Not just Good, but Good at Something. She coaxed her Goodies like a fussy cat, whispering for them, kissing for them, leaving out milk in the hall. She tried something new every Tuesday so that she couldn’t possibly miss her Goodies when they showed up.

  This week was sonnets. She wore fourteen bracelets on her right arm and drizzled her poems in honey over her darlings’ morning toast. Last week was lion-taming. A beardy fella down on the fifth floor who owned three entire separate theatres below 50th St kept a big old circus cat named Marlowe, who still trotted the boards for the odd Tempest or Midsummer or any show cheap enough to rely on a grandpa-lion snoozing upstage left for excitement. Zelda put her head in Marlowe’s mouth and took it out again over and over. Marlowe sat patiently on his green velvet armchair like the cat was at the dentist. He was an awful good sport about it, but she couldn’t call it a triumph. Zelda was viciously honest with herself. Can’t say you’re a lion tamer when the four-legged carpet’s already tamed. He did bite her once, when he fell asleep with her still using his tongue for a pillow and his poor jaw just went slack. Didn’t hurt a bit. She just pried herself loose, curled up between his paws, and helped herself to his nap.

  Miss Fair put her head in all kinds of things last week, I tell you what.

  The door in Room 1550 up and invited itself into Zelda Fair’s boudoir like everyone else—plain as you please, no different than the door out into the hallway, just smaller. Knocker and knob gleaming fine. Maybe it smelled a little like fresh paint. Maybe the keyhole was a little dinged up like they get when their owner keeps on coming home so soused they gotta scrape that key over the brass like butter and toast before they can figure where the grease goes. Maybe it came up to a girl’s waistline, but no higher than the hip-slinger length they hung back in ’24. That door settled on in like anybody else. Locked itself up tight behind a curtain of icicle-dresses and stockings thin as coughing.

  And ever since that door moved in, Zelda’s checked out.


  Up in 1801, that fellow who played Robin Hood at the flickies threw a New-New Year’s bash to cause fits. January is so depressing after New Year, he moaned. Nothing but slush and onion soup and shredded streamers. Can’t have it! Not at the Artemisia. Let’s give January a good sock in the jaw and a double-slug of bourbon on her way out, shall we?

  Robin Hood knew how make Sherwood jangle and all the merry men shimmy till their spats popped. I’m telling you, Portuguese trapeze-swinging triplets flew from chandelier to chandelier and four separate barons—one newspaper, one copper, one railroad, and one baritone sax—played poker on the floor with their socks off. Some bright-blood jazz-daddy pounded that monster grand piano with a tiger-skin draped over his shoulders, striped head on his head, teeth bouncing on his skull like his fingers on the keys, while a ballerina with a missing pinky finger plinked out the high notes for him with her perfect pointed toes. Maid Marian came with two flamingos named Cliquot and Strawberry, one on each arm like a pair of beaux. Even the curtains had dates—
that lump in the velvet over there is none other than a lady blackmailer and a fella who’s Papa started a whole religion. It’s true if I’m a day old. Nobody came without their sequins roaring. Hell, without sparkle, you were as good as naked in the Artemisia. And oh yes, King Gin and Queen Whiskey and their little bouncing baby Champagne showed up first and left last. Screwing in the bathroom, dancing on the tabletops, giggling on the rug.

  Now, you know those royals weren’t supposed to show their face in company back then. Some fine little dandies out in Washington waggled their fat fingers and said: don’t you go doing that nasty old thing mankind’s loved better’n babies since before the Egyptians ever hearda eyeliner. And we crossed our fingers behind our backs and said yes, sir, Mr. Fancy Hats. You sure do know what’s best for us. And as soon as those temperate backs were turned, out came every flask and jug and barrel and milk bottle, upturned down every gullet. Nobody drank like we drank, not since beer was new and scotch was still some ambitious peat bog’s pipe dream. The second it wasn’t allowed, liquor turned magic on us. Sweeter, stronger, bitterer, better. I suppose that might have been the wood alcohol, but it didn’t matter. Screw opium, snuff can go hang—who can get me a beer? A little rum, mister? How ’bout a swallow of red wine? For my nerves, you understand. We chased it like leprechaun gold, chased it down alleys and up six, ten, thirteen stories, chased it out of the city and underground. Every Granny who didn’t think twice about her evening sherry in 1919, in 1920 knew somebody who knew somebody and might shank somebody with her sewing scissors if she didn’t get her bottle on the sharp. If it could rot, we made it booze. Peaches and limes and cherries and apples and gasoline and iodine and Lysol and the wood off the church pews. Slurp it up, call it friend, hold it tight, keep it safe.