The Blue Lantern sprawled along the lake, ready to ooze music from its bank of windows facing the water. Clumps of loud, laughing people disembarked from the South Shore train stop across Chicago Road and meandered over.
Harriet Braun stared at the slick young men in flashy suits, some wearing tuxedos and toting instrument cases, as if coming from gigs of their own. Women in frocks that probably cost more than Harriet would make all summer were talking to each other in languid drawls, blowing cigarette smoke through aristocratic nostrils and looking around at the other clientele from under kohled eyes.
"Harriet!" She turned. Charlie Horvath, the manager who worked for Jean Goldkette, was sweating with excitement, slapping shoulders and steering groups of revelers through the balmy evening air toward the dance hall. He grinned at her. "So you finally decided to come out and hear the band. Is this your first show?"
Harriet smiled and fell into step with Horvath and the rest of the crowd. "Funny, isn't it? I mainly took the job because of the music, and this is the first chance I've gotten to see the band, although I can hear it loud and clear from across the road. Mrs. Smith keeps me so busy at the hotel I don't have much of a chance to have any fun."
Horvath rolled his eyes dramatically. "Oh, Mrs. Smith runs that little hotel like a prison. Why couldn't a smart, pretty college girl like you find a better place to work over the summer?"
"Oh, it's not so bad. Anyhow, I'm going to have fun tonight."
"Good for you!" Horvath barked. "But watch yourself. Sometimes there's trouble." And then he was gone, busy ushering people into the Blue Lantern.
Funny Horvath should say that, Harried mused. It was just what Mrs. Smith was always saying, how the citified musicians from the Jean Goldkette band didn't belong here and were going to cause trouble. They didn't look like much trouble to Harriet. Although she hadn't seen them play yet, she'd caught glimpses of the musicians, mostly when they were lined up in the hotel hallway in their bathrobes, spindly white legs exposed, towels over arms, waiting to get a 25-cent bath before the big Saturday night show.
True, they didn't look like the Hotel Hudson's usual clientele--families from Michigan City and South Bend, with peeling sunburned skin and bland faces, alike as a herd of Hereford cows. The musicians were alike in a different way--fast-talking, cigarette smoking, with rapid-fire city slang and flashy clothes, smelling of hair pomade and bootleg alcohol.
But they seemed harmless. Half of them were married, their wives smiling and complacent in beacon robes and pincurls, chatting among themselves on the cottage porches during the day. And the single ones didn't look much different from the boys Harriet dated at Indiana U.
As she pushed through the crowd into the brightly-lit soda fountain up front, Harriet noticed that Ray Reynolds, the soda jerk, and his teenaged assistant were doing a booming business. People were jammed in shoulder to shoulder at the counter, and Ray's hands were a blur as he wielded dripping metal scoopers of strawberry and vanilla, fizzled seltzer into long, tall glasses, sluiced syrup over mounds of whipped cream and minted fragrant golden coins of banana slices.
Harriet eased her way through the crowd, inhaling the crush of sweat, smoke, powder and perfume, all underlined by the sharp odor of shellac that Horvath had administered to the wooden surfaces just last week. And another odor, faint but noticeable, emanating from the soda fountain--the smell of bootleg liquor. It was an open secret that Ray dispensed shots of local moonshine into the bottles of Blue Bird cola and Orange Squeeze soda pop he sold. There had been a lot of big police raids in South Bend lately, with speakeasies getting chopped up and people thrown in jail. Harriet hoped Ray was discreet enough to avoid something like that at the Blue Lantern. Maybe that's what Horvath meant by trouble.
"Li'l sister! There ya are!" Joy was resplendent in a splash of glittering red silk, clutching the arm of a swarthy, bespectacled boy with a ribbon of dance tickets in his hand. He was chewing his bottom lip and gazing at Joy's breasts with an expression of undisguised lust.
"You look adorable, honey! Okay, the dress is a little on the Mary Pickford side, but what the hell, you're so cute it don't even matter. Harriet, meet Benny. He's here to see the band. This kid can play the clarinet like nobody's business, right, honey? Now, come on. I got us the best seats in the house, right in front of the bandstand, and I hadda fight Horvath tooth an' nail to keep 'em. Benny, go grab us our table, okay?" As Benny walked away, Joy linked arms with Harriet and immediately began whispering into her ear, her breath moist and urgent.
"Ohmygod, honey, I'm so glad you're here. I can handle Benny, he's just a sweet little puppy dog, but this greenhorn I danced with before has been followin' me around all goddamn night. He's as big as a house and I think he wants me to bear his children, for God's sake. And say, I got a load of how old Charlie Horvath was givin' you the eye. Honest to God, kiddo, men, you can't live with 'em and you can't shoot 'em..." She led Harriet through a set of French doors and into the dance hall.
The room was long and arch-ceilinged. Two aisles, open to banks of windows and arranged with tables and chairs, ran on both sides of the long dance floor. The end of the room overlooked Hudson Lake from a porch at the back. Amber bulbs flickered in bronze sconces on the walls between the windows, and the newly waxed and varnished dance floor reflected lights off its surface like the lake reflected stars.
Joy hustled them to their table and settled into a chair, glancing around the room like a fluttering homing pigeon finally at rest. "Benny, be a doll and run get mama a bottle of Blue Bird with, will ya? Here's some dough. Get one for you and li'l sister, too." The boy walked through the crowd and Joy leaned across the table confidentially. "I tell ya, that kid can play. He just landed a job with a big orchestra, and him only seventeen. In a couple years he'll be givin' a lot of these fellas a run for their money."
"How do you know all these musicians?" Harriet asked, glancing around the room at the well-dressed crowd that clearly wasn't local. I'm local, she thought, fingering the folds of her Mary Pickford number. She wished she'd let Joy talk her into borrowing her arsenic-green satin dress, the one cut far down the back that would have showed her shoulder blades.
"Why, from Chicago, toots. I told you that's where I'm from, didn't I?" Joy clacked her beaded handbag onto the table and dug for cigarettes. "Well, maybe I didn't. I seen little Benny play at the Hull House on the West Side, years ago, strictly yokel dances for the wops and the hebes. But I knew right away he had something." She lit up, her smile turning Cheshire-like. "Bickie took me."
"You mean the trumpet player in the band?"
"Cornet. Just like Louie Armstrong. I seen him, too. Oh yeah, we went everywhere. The Friar's Inn, Valentino's, the Rendez-Vous where Bickie played, even the Sunset and the other nigger joints on the South Side. We heard all the hottest bands in the city."
"I've seen a lot of bands, too," Harriet said, trying to sound worldly. "Rudy loves jazz. Last winter and spring we went to hear every band that came on campus, and we even went to Kansas City with Rudy's brother once to hear Coon-Sanders' Nighthawks."
Joy gave her a smile that Harriet interpreted as pitying. She puffed her cigarette, grinning, and leaned toward Harriet again. "These guys tonight are better than any of 'em. And you'll see why."
Benny headed back toward their table, carrying three pop bottles. Joy air-kissed him a thanks, and Harriet swallowed a mouthful, practically spitting it out on the table.
"God, what is this...."
"Aw, damn it, did Ray put in too much pop again? Benny, you know you have to watch him." Joy sipped at her straw. "No, it's fine. What's wrong, li'l sister?"
Harriet sniffed the bottle. "It's...."
"Not the best stuff in LaPorte County, but at least it'll get ya happy. What's wrong, don't you like gin?"
Harriet put down the bottle and laughed, pushing it toward Joy. "I don't drink much, that's all."
Joy lifted her bottle toward Harriet. "Your funeral, kiddo. Oh, here comes Itzy. That means they'll be startin' any time."
Harriet watched as a lanky man in a tuxedo with a long, lugubrious face and a nose to match mounted the bandstand and began playing notes on the piano, his ear inclined toward the keyboard to hear over the crowd. One by one, other tuxedoed band members followed him onstage, setting up music racks, tootling on saxophones and clarinets, tapping cymbals and drumheads and wooden percussion blocks.
Horvath stepped onstage and murmured something to a serious-looking young man holding a saxophone. They both looked over the crowd, as if searching for someone. And then Horvath pointed and grinned and the sax man turned to the other musicians, giving them a cue. Harriet turned to see the last musician stride across the floor and step up on the stage. She started laughing.
"So that's Bickie?" she asked Joy, who was pointing and laughing at the man in the rumpled tuxedo and crooked bow tie. "Bix? The guy you've been talking about all this time?"
"Hey, Beiderbecke, fix your soup and fish!" Benny called.
Horvath clapped for attention. "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the beautiful Blue Lantern Inn. I'm Charlie Horvath, general manager of the Jean Goldkette organization, and it is with great pleasure that I'd like to introduce tonight's entertainment--direct from Detroit, the fabulous Jean Goldkette Orchestra, under the direction of the renowned Frank Trumbauer on saxophone..." the wooden-faced man took a bow, "...and on cornet, the incomparable Mr. Bix Beiderbecke!"
The man Joy called Bickie had his back to the crowd, arranging a chair for himself by the piano and the drum kit, not out in front the way you'd think a horn player should be. He turned and waved, more in dismissal than acknowledgement.
Harriet looked around, surprised to see that more than half the crowd was on its feet, whistling and stomping in recognition of this man with the incongruous features of a baby doll--small red mouth, snub nose, and eyes that seemed to be laughing at something. He was medium height and solidly built, and Harriet was reminded of Rudy and his fraternity brothers, the ones who played football. He sat in the chair between the piano and the drum kit and crossed one knee over the other, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and put the horn to his lips. And then Trumbauer counted to four and the band started to play.
They kicked off with "Nobody's Sweetheart," opening with the cornet player and his startlingly clean tones, then shifting to the sax man, who played out front with all the seriousness of a monk. It was a tricky part, replete with arpeggios and trills, and the band thumped along behind him, nobody stealing his thunder. But halfway through the tune, the saxophone and the cornet began exchanging licks in an intuitive call-and-response way that had the savvy crowd on its feet, some dancing, others at tables and up by the bandstand, just listening.
She sat there, mouth open, half-smiling, listening to the two instruments playing tag with each other. The sax would play a figure and coyly wait, and the cornet would follow suit, answering with an echoing phrase, twisted just enough to make it different. And then both instruments hooked up in harmony, like a couple of buddies out on the town with arms around each other's shoulders, escorting the tune to its end.
Joy slapped Harriet on the arm as the crowd hollered its approval. "Well?" she shouted over the noise. "Whaddaya think?"
"They're great!" Harriet said and before she knew it Joy and Benny had carried her up to the bandstand, Joy elbowing her way through the crowd of "alligators" hanging around the stage, and directly to the patent-leather feet of Trumbauer himself. Joy reached up and tugged at his pants cuff.
"Hi, Frankie," she said, winking. The dour-faced man glanced down, rolled his eyes and signaled the band, which kicked into a speeded-up version of "Dinah." This time the cornet player took the lead, driving the band like a getaway car. At the chorus he and the trumpet man were as tight as a matched pair of horses in harness and then the cornet took a solo turn, delivering an effortless arc of notes that had the crowd around the bandstand shouting for more.
When he was done, the cornet player just put his horn on his knee and sat there, lips pursed, as if pondering what he just said on his instrument and how he should have worded it differently. And then it was his turn for a solo again and instead of standing up to take it, he leaned over in his chair, the bell of the horn pointed at the floor, and let fly a whirl of sound, as easy as breathing.
Harriet felt a tap on the shoulder and before she knew it Benny had pulled her onto the dance floor, with Joy cheering them on. She let him lead her in an easy fox trot, one with the crowd, the music making every movement as fluid as swimming.
She stopped counting tunes and dance partners after that, only cried out song titles in pleased surprise as the music roared past and a stream of men from the stag line cut in on each other to dance with her. She never got a chance to try another sip of her doctored Blue Bird pop because she never got back to the table, until Trumbauer finally announced a break.
And then Joy shook herself out of the embrace of a raw-boned boy with the sunburned look of a farmer and dragged Harriet and Benny back to the darkened porch that was open to the breeze off the lake.
"That's him, the big rube," she whispered to Harriet, nodding toward the raw-boned boy. "I think I shook him. I told him Bickie's from Chicago, and a friend of Al Capone's. Think that'll hold him?" She laughed and pulled up a cane-backed chair. "The guys in the band always come out here on their breaks," she said, waving one of the Japanese paper fans that the dance hall passed out as party favors. Her red dress was dark with sweat under the arms, her wet hair sticking to forehead and cheeks in jagged spikes. She nodded. "Here he is now."
Bix had to stop about a dozen times between the bandstand and the porch to shake hands with people, but he eventually made it. A lanky, grinning young man who Harriet recognized as the band's clarinet player trailed behind him.
Bix slapped Benny on the back and sank down into a chair between him and Joy.
"How'd it sound?" he asked, pulling a flask from his breast pocket and offering it to Benny.
"Fuzzy's a little off tonight," Benny said, passing the flask to Joy.
"Yeah, and I am, too. That 'Suzie' solo was pretty rotten, I thought, right after I blew it."
"Aw, shut up, Beiderbecke," jeered the clarinet player. "We all know you really think you can walk on water."