“It was like a banshee....Whoo........ Whoo.... ”
Padraic and Tozi were mesmerized by Mary-Ann Ruane’s animated story telling skills. Tozi was slicing bread and Padraic was folding napkins. Both had their eyes and full attention on Mary-Ann who was standing in the middle of the cafe’s kitchen with her arms outstretched waving her white apron.
Since buying and opening the Two Deuce Coffee House and Roaster
On 22, West Chicago Avenue, six years ago, in 1916, when he ran away from Ireland, Padraic had hired and fired many waitresses, but Mary -Ann had stayed. The costumers adored her. She was more punctual, sober, and efficient than any employee to date. Add to that her smile and cheery disposition and Padraic realized she was, apart from himself, the Two Deuce’s, greatest asset.
Mary-Ann always had a story to amuse them and get them started into the work mode when they assembled at five ready to open at six am, to catch the hungry morning workers. This morning she was telling them about the fright she got when she drew back the curtains in her basement apartment on North Milwaukee and saw a shirt, frozen stiff by overnight ice. It had been held against her window by the biting strong winds of Autumn Chicago, and had been there so long it had frozen solid, its linen arms clinging to the chipped paint on the iron bars that had protected that same window for as long ago as when God was a boy.
“What’s a banshee?” Tozi asked placing a twist of parsley on the scrambled eggs breakfast for table nine.
“An Irish Ghost” said Mary-Ann, tying her apron back on and securing her snow white waitress cap on her red gold hair. “Whoo......” she laughed and lifting her order pad and pen, went backwards through the coffee coloured swing doors into the cafe, carrying the food.
Tozi looked through the eye slant peephole that gave him a full view of the cafe from his kitchen area.
“Mary-Ann is good people” he said washing some basil leaves under the running tap, “and she’s serving table nine, which is not good people, but what would I know I’m just an Italian who jumped ship”.
“Is your coffee strong?” asked the new customer at table six.
“So strong it will punch you in the face if you don’t talk to it politely” smiled Mary-Ann placing a glass of water and a menu in front of him on her way to table nine.
Table nine had one occupant, a young man in his early thirties, dressed in a black suit white shirt and black leather belt and shoes. He looked worried and Mary-Ann felt an instinct to ask him if everything was alright so she broke a long standing rule of the café, and did.
He answered slowly. He introduced himself as Robert and told her he was saving hard to have a better life. By day he was a piano player in the silent movie house two blocks away and at night he was the resident pianist in The Soda Fountain on North Cleveland Avenue. He told her he did half hour sets, starting ten to ten thirty, until four thirty in the morning, and he’d love her to see him work.
Mary- Ann found his eyes magnetic. She also knew that Tozi liked her and spent a lot of time looking through the hatch to check if any customers were flirting with her so she quickly moved on to table ten.
She was fascinated by the bobbed hairstyles and modern clothes of the three ladies at table ten. They were not accompanied by men and each of them had long shiny cigarette holders. They were wearing calf length silk dresses with dropped waistlines and high heeled shoes. The eldest was dressed in deep purple, with a long string of pearls hanging over her ample Chantilly laced bust line.
The others were dressed in fire engine red and midnight blue. They would laugh so loudly, the whole restaurant would stare.
The matriarch was speaking loudly. “I agree with President Harding, I am a prohibitionist, if it can be enforced”. The younger of the other two women looked up, “I don’t agree Esther, and I think a nice young Chicago girl should be able to go to cocktail parties. Cigarette smoking and cocktail drinking are good manners” she flicked the ash of her cigarette into the glass ashtray, and caught Mary- Ann’s gaze.
“Three orders of fried eggs” she said handing the menus back to Mary Ann. “One over easy, and two sunny side up, side order of tomatoes on all, and home fried potatoes on the sunny side up orders, a pot of tea for three, with a centre plate of white and brown cinnamon toast”.
Mary-Ann wrote the order, tore off the page and walked to the kitchen. Tozi jumped back from the hatch.
“Those flappers at table ten, should keep their voices down” he said taking the order from Mary- Ann. “They don’t know the meaning of speak easy” He reached for the basket of tomatoes. “That eldest one is a retired madam, if ever I saw one.”
Mary- Ann tore off another two pages from her order pad
“One H G Wells Sandwich on Brown, and Two Ezra Pound sandwiches on Rye for table five and two ginger ale and one orange juice”
She spun out the door. She was anxious to get back to Robert’s ebony eyes.
Tozi cracked eggs into one of his hot frying pans. “Don’t get that science HG Wells writes” he counted the egg yolks “Never did”
Padraic was around the corner standing over a big pot of boiling water in which he was steeping soiled table clothes and napkins. “It was your idea to ask the customers to name each new sandwich filling invented and place their ideas in the suggestion box”
He stirred them with a long wooden handled grip “Next sandwich filling you invent is going to be my choice to name and I chose the James Joyce. It’s only fair. Give the staff a turn.”
Tozi moved to the hatch. Two coppers were sitting at table two and hungry and tired as they were after finishing a long shift; Mary- Ann had done the impossible, and made them smile.
“Mary- Ann is some woman” said Tozi, placing the sliced tomatoes on another hot frying pan “she’s got power she doesn’t even know she has. Who cooks for her?”
Table one filled up with three young paperboys, and their employer. The young lads got up at 3 every morning and worked the “L” line, on Logan Square and Isaac, their boss, kindly took them to breakfast afterward. He didn’t need to, he was a millionaire since the world’s fair, but he loved the talk and banter between the boys. It reminded him of his poverty stricken boyhood.
“Ham and eggs for my baby millionaires and scrambled egg on brown for me” he said to Mary-Ann, “and a jug of your finest white wine”. When he said white wine, he’d mean milk, because he suffered from stomach ulcers, but the same joke brought the same forced laugh from the same dry young throats and empty stomachs, each morning and he didn’t see any reason to change it. Neither did the youngsters.
Mary- Ann hadn’t noticed Robert leave, but when she went to pick up his bill and the money and clear the table; she noticed a slip of paper. On it he had written. “Meet me in The Soda Fountain later? I’ll be there, just walk in and you’ll see me at the piano”
In her twenty summers on this earth this was the first time she had felt like a desirable woman. Mary -Ann turned her back to the hatch while she placed the note in her pocket. She had been unnecessarily careful. Tozi was at the back door, counting the clams the fishmonger was delivering for the lunchtime chowder.
That evening when Mary- Ann was passing the two deuces on her way to The Soda Fountain dressed in her finest long black skirt and white linen shirt, she saw the sign in the window that read “ Tonight’s special - Breast of Chicken a la Rose , Waldorf Salad and Mayonnaise.” She smiled to herself. The Two Deuce was thriving and her world was opening up and she liked the idea of it all.
She arrived in the Soda Fountain, just in time to catch the end of Robert’s eleven o clock set.
He was playing “Alice Blue Gown” when she walked in and sat down. He joined her almost immediately and kissed her on the cheek before sitting down opposite her.
“Would you like to see the Blind Pig” he asked, lighting the butt of a cigarette and blowing smoke in her face. When she didn’t answer he moved the ashtray nearer and explained.
“The sale of liquor is illegal but what is legal is to charge folk a fee to see something unusual and then give them a gratuitous serving of liquor. So when you’re asked if you’d like to see a blind pig, you’re really being asked if you’d like a drink of liquor.”
Robert deeply inhaled his cigarette and blew out the smoke throwing the lit butt on the floor. “Let’s have an adventure” he said taking her hand. She looked at him in disbelief and followed blindly.
At the back of the piano corner, they walked down a dark passage until they came to a green door. Stopping, Robert knocked on it three times. An eyeball with a smoky background appeared through a peephole.
“Jake sent us” Robert seemed to have suddenly gained a lot of confidence. The door opened long enough for them both to enter.
He held her hand more tightly, which was just as well because when the smoke cleared a little Mary- Ann could see they were walking down a steep staircase. She could hear laughter, music, and the clinking of glasses, she could smell cigarettes, and feel the pulsation of a packed dance floor.
As the cloak of cigarette and cigar smoked thinned she realized she was in a sunken ballroom. There were palm trees, tables, chairs, an orchestra, tuxedoed waiters, dancing girls, and streamers.
The bobbed hair of the flappers the fringed dresses the sparkling jewellery and the floor to ceiling mirrors, all added to the sophistication. Mary- Ann could see a bar, and liquor bottles with exotic labels.
Robert was watching her absorb it all. His mouth was twisting into a sneer, and suddenly she felt terribly out of place and lonely. She wished she was anywhere but here.
“Hi Bob, a new doll?” The voice came from such a small man she had difficulty seeing him. “Hi Jockey Joe” Robert answered steering her to an emerald coloured leather booth, and waving his hand to acknowledge the man and woman drinking in the adjoining one.
“A drink!” Robert was telling her, not asking. “I’ll get it.”
She wondered why he needed to go to the bar when there were so many waiters around. She said “yes”, just to get rid of him for a moment and see if, when he’d gone, she could gather her thoughts enough to figure a way to get out of this situation.
She sat alone and was trying to identify the melody of the song the orchestra were playing when suddenly there was a commotion at the next booth. The tall blond lady dressed in a black dress relieved by a white gardenia, suddenly leapt to her feet and threw the contents of her champagne glass and the bottle over her male escort. She smashed the empty glass against the wall behind him and ran immediately losing her balance and fell head first into the arms of four waiters who surrounded her and lifted her up like a dud dollar bill.
Four more waiters came over to the man, but he waved them away. He sat silently as the liquid soaked into his white tuxedo and plastered his hair. His face was the colour of dough. Two waiters stole silently to his side cleaned the table replaced the champagne and added two fresh glasses and napkins in seconds before stealing away just as swiftly.
A tall dark haired tuxedo clad man walked to the side of the booth and stood with his hand on his gun butt inside his jacket.
Still shaken the man looked around the room, his eyes landing on Mary Ann.
“Bring me the lonely redhead” He motioned a fat finger in Mary -Ann’s direction. Mary- Ann was wide eyed in disbelief. She felt as if someone had thrown cold sick down the back of her neck. As Gun Butt man walked towards her, she looked around frantically for Robert. She saw him. He was standing with one of the dancing girls. He was kissing her on the lips, then the tip of her nose then the crown of her head. The background of the room with Robert in it, turned to smudge as Gun Butt Man’s face and piano key teeth came into her focus.
The slack skin on his purple sweating face was right beside Mary -Ann’s wide blue eyes. Even though he had a cast in his left eye and a black and blue bruise under his right, Mary- Ann had no trouble knowing he was looking directly at her.
Her dream evening was turning into a nightmare and how to escape from it was beyond her experience, so when Gun Butt motioned for her to join Wet Champagne Man, she just walked to the booth and slid in beside him like an obedient sheep.
The band played, the crowd danced, the palm trees swayed and Wet Champagne Man still didn’t speak. Mary- Ann looked again for Robert, and then back at her new companion whose color was returning He was visibly relaxing. She picked up the fresh napkin and without a word began to mop his soaking brow. The dry cloth soaked away the mixture of sweat, shock, and alcohol as she noticed for the first time, a white thin scar that crossed from the top of his left ear to the base of his bulging chin. She continued her kind work and took his acquiescence to be the signpost of his acceptance of the arrangement
The booth she had vacated now had two men sitting there and she could plainly hear their conversation. “Don’t treat me like a Dago out of Philly, Serve me the best you got in this lawless city, not swill that belongs in a piss pot” they were talking to the waiter, who stood like a statue.
“Only the cream of the output from the distilleries of Europe passes my lips now, the rest are not agreeable, understood ...?”
Wet Champagne Man finally spoke, his alcohol- stenched breath sending a puff of air through the napkin.
“You from these parts?” His penetrating eyes locked fixedly on her.
Mary- Ann changed napkins and continued her work.
“Ireland” she said softly.
A smile of remembrance touched his lips. Mary -Ann kept drying his face.
He waited, enjoying the comfort of the company, and when he was ready, lifted her hand off his face, and placed it on the table.
He motioned to Gun Butt Man. “Show my Irish redhead the moon”
Mary -Ann knew she was in the presence of a man who was always obeyed, so she had no choice but to follow Gun Butt out of the booth, on to the outskirts of the dance floor and through four doors five dark passageways and a warehouse behind them. Her mind was spinning.
She thought about the blind pig, jockey Joe, and pots of swill. She came back to reality when Gun Butt pointed at the floor. A trap door was evident. He opened it and motioned for her to go down.
Twenty steps steeply descended to a polished wooden floor and then just as suddenly, Mary- Ann felt Gun Butt push her up more and more steps. These were concrete and even more steeply ascending. Ahead she could see a brick wall. Her mouth was so dry now, she could not swallow, but she kept doing what she was told.
Passing her by, on the steps, Gun Butt pressed the bricks on the wall and, like magic, they moved with his power. What Mary- Ann had presumed to be a wall turned out to be a door, that had bricks cemented to it, on both sides.
It gently opened and Gun Butt stepped aside long enough for a ribbon of pale moonlight to land and shine on Mary- Ann’s blouse. One final push in the back and she found herself on the street.
Blinking and looking around she saw a black Lincoln parked in front of her and raising her eye line, realized she was standing on West Chicago Avenue five doors down from The Two Deuce.
Craving for the familiar, she stumbled and kept going until the restaurant came into view. Tozi was pulling down the blinds and turning the “open” sign to “closed”. It was the most welcome sight she had seen in years.
She walked inside and sat down at table one. Tozi brought her a steaming hot cup of tea.
He dimmed the lights, took off his white chef cap, and sat down beside her. She stayed there, not moving, just breathing in the scent of fresh lemons on his skin. He sat completely still, not touching her but allowing the energy of his presence to fill her with comfort.
Eventually, ever so slowly he prized the crumpled smoke stained sweat and alcohol soaked napkin from her frozen fingers, and whispered
“I’m looking for a lady who needs to be walked home by an Italian, you know any?”
Max McCoubrey is a freelance writer. Her background is in show business and she often draws on her time there for inspiration. She has a diploma in creative writing. Her work has appeared in Woman's Way, Qutub Minar, Pioneer Magazine and Ireland's Own. She lives in Dublin Ireland.