February 1, 2011

Tony Barnstone

JACK LOGAN, FIGHTING AIRMAN:
THE CASE OF THE RED BORDELLO

                  It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick
                  a hole in a stained glass window.
                                    —Raymond Chandler

ACQUAINTED WITH THE NIGHT

The streets are dark with something more than night.
I walk out in the rain—and back in rain.
Though I outwalk the furthest city light
I can’t outwalk my shadow, outwalk pain
of Lizzie’s death. An interrupted cry
comes over houses from another street.
I know that cry. You hear it when men die,
when something sharp turns them from flesh to meat.
A knot of beggars, drunks and prostitutes
around a body, but what takes my eye
is her—the type that takes away your breath.
A luminary clock against the sky
is ringing bells out to the time of death.
A drunk man leers at her, “What’s your name, toots?”

Music: “On the Cool Side & Mystery!,” by Kevin McLeod

TRICKS AND STAG FLICKS

A drunk man leers at me. What else is new?
It’s happened all my life, or at least since
my breasts came in. It makes me want to rinse.
But I can’t let these people misconstrue
the reason why I’m here, by the dead man,
so I hitch up my chest and play the part.
I guess seduction is a kind of art,
though men like that would make a garbage can
out of my body, fill it with desires,
with acts they learned from taking in stag flicks.
Well, I can act as well, and make the tricks
believe in me. And that is what transpires.
I strike my most convincing hooker pose
and, sweet as I can, lie, “My name is Rose.”

Music: “Hot Swing,” by Kevin McLeod

Mike Casy by Tony Barnstone

THE NAME OF THE ROSE

“My name is Rose,” she sweetly grins.
“You should come up and visit us sometime.
My girls know how to wash away your sins.”
The lighted church clock bangs out one last chime,
then’s silent as the galaxy above.
I learned in school that galaxy means milk,
that some Greek goddess leaked stars out of
her breasts. I’ve known some goddesses, the silk
kimono at the crack of noon type, but
this one, well, I’d join her religion. She
goes back inside the Red Bordello, shut
inside like fantasy (though that is free).
Then there’s the corpse. I check: still dead. One clue:
red rose on a white matchbook. It’ll do.

Music: “Bad Ideas,” by Kevin McLeod

THE TRICK TURNS

The matchbook’s blank except for a red rose
but that’s sufficient to suggest the fellow
with the switchblade in him was the sort goes
to do his business at the Red Bordello.
It’s quite a garden there, each color rose
planted around the bar for men to pluck.
When I walk in, the door-tough strikes a pose.
I laugh and slip the waiter a sawbuck,
“There is a man outside who’s so darn sick,
he’s dead. I found this matchbook in his clothes.
I’m not a cop, I’m not a private dick,
I’m just the curious type.” “Then talk to Rose.”
Rose talks to me all night without her clothes.
By morning I’m her man. That’s quite a trick.

Music: “Fast Talkin,” by Kevin McLeod

THE ACT

Living’s an act of faith, not just a trick
the body plays on us and I have trust
that loving’s also faith, not just the bust
and bicep, the nude dance, that makes us click.
Living’s an act for me—of theater.
I’ve always played the role of woman for
an audience of men, a kind of whore
in my own right, and now I’m playing her.
Poor Rose was sick. The worms who found her bed
at night, the choices she had, destitute
and battered, sickened her. Like Rose, I’m sick
of men (and yet, there’s Jack). But Rose is dead
and Jack must think I’m just a prostitute
performing passion for another trick.

Music: “Babylon,” by Kevin McLeod

TWO BLACK BOOKS AND A STACK OF CASH

She is tricked out in something scanty, looks
like a light wind would rip it like a cloud.
From bed, I watch through lashes: two black books,
a stack of cash, a gun. I give a loud
yawn, as if surfacing from a dream,
and stretch and wave my arms in semaphore.
Just then boots clomp on the wood stairs, a scream,
a shout, a scuffle outside of the door.
“Jack, this way, fast!” she hisses, climbing out
the window to the fire escape. “Spider
Floyd’s on his way.” No time. I spin about
and step in front the window so’s to hide her.
“Give up the frail,” the gunman scowls. Instead,
I look at him and smile, “Ah, shut your head.”

Music: “Nerves,” by Kevin McLeod

ANGELS AND BUTTERCUPS

“I’ll open up your head,” says Spider, hard,
“and you’ll be leaking plenty, ’less you spill.”
I casually sit upon the windowsill
and stare at him. A knife glints like a shard
of glass, then quivers next to my left ear.
Another throwing blade is in his hand.
“Sure, buttercup, I think I understand,”
I say, “But I think I need atmosphere,”
and I roll back and out. The next knife clangs
the fire escape but I’m already sliding
down the steel ladder and then quickly hiding
behind rank rows of trash cans. Spider bangs
down to the alley, curses. I’m discrete.
I tail him to a place on Angel Street.

Music: “Walking Along,” by Kevin McLeod

ANGEL FACE

The face of Spider Floyd is like an angel,
the sort of angel offers you an apple.
He’s flash, he’s jazz, he’s angling for an angle.
His eyes are dead. He’d sooner shoot than grapple,
being the dapper, slender sort of thug
—doesn’t want to break his polished nails.
Framed in the door is Spider’s pretty mug,
a pistol in his hand. “I don’t like tails,”
he growls. “That’s funny. I heard you was born
with one,” I smile. He smiles back with a smile
should be in a movie, maybe porn,
commences pistol-whipping me a while.
I wake up to a choir of devils singing.
Either my head or else a phone is ringing.

Music: “Backed Vibes Clean,” by Kevin McLeod

O'Malley in the Alley by Tony Barnstone

A HEAP OF BROKEN IMAGES

A phone is ringing somewhere in my head,
or maybe someone’s banging hammers on
an iron oven. Spider must be gone
somewhere, and I guess maybe I’m not dead.
The heap of broken images goes round
till I decipher I’m tossed in a chair,
pretty messed up. “I see they mussed your hair,”
comes Rose’s voice. “Behave. Spider went down
to the first floor, and I snuck up the back.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
she holds an automatic in her hand,
you answer what she asks: “You a cop, Jack?”
“No, Rose.” “Like hell. I’ve seen just how it goes
with cops. You won’t pin murder on this Rose.”

Music: “Backed Vibes Clean,” by Kevin McLeod

A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME

But how can you pin murder on a dead
woman? The problem is I cannot prove
that I’m not Rose, now Al is dead. Well, you’ve
got to admit the irony. I said
to him when I went in no one could tell
me from my sister; after years on stage,
playing gun molls and madams, four engagements
each six weeks, I’d trip no warning bell.
But now I’ve played the part with so much art
I can’t establish my identity,
can’t prove it’s not my name on the marquee.
They never could tell Rose and me apart.
And now, it’s curtains, Rose. The curtain falls,
and you won’t rise again for curtain calls.

Music: “Dreamy Flashback,” by Kevin McLeod

TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW

The curtain rises on a scene. Here’s Jack,
his lovely face so swollen it’s inflated.
Here is the heroine. Here is a shack,
abandoned, knocked askew, dilapidated,
a bare room barely lit by a bare light.
Here is a desk and hidden in the back
the white book scribbled with a code that might
uncode the black books, putting me on track
to find out why my sister Rose was killed.
I can’t let Jack catch on, don’t trust him yet.
Someone in all this mess turned coat and spilled.
It’s all an act, this acting rough
but I act well. I light a cigarette,
put on a pin-up smile, and then get tough.

Music: “Comfortable Mystery,” by Kevin McLeod

THE KISS

She pins a smile onto her face the way
you’d pin a butterfly to a cork board,
and sweetly says, “If I hear just one word
from you, I’ll make you a new mouth, okay?”
pressing the Luger up against my Adam’s
apple. And she is one sweet apple herself,
in her tight-laced corset rimmed with fur
and tiny skirt, a looker among Madams.
She has a face to make a reprobate
out of an archbishop. I’m a believer.
I can’t take her, and yet I can’t leave her,
though I’m no priest. “I love you, Rose,” I state,
with tenderness. She dips the gun, her wrist
gone weak. That’s when I kiss her with my fist.

Music: “Just as Soon,” by Kevin McLeod

THE DISTRESSED ROSE

I kiss her with my fist and she goes slack
the way a hooker’s dress drops to the floor.
I kick the gun away and lock the door.
She mumbles something weakly, “Me, too, Jack.
I love you, too.” Aw, hell. What a swell dame.
Outside of prostitution, gambling, oh
and just a little homicide, a Joe
could take her home to Mom. I’m not to blame,
she is a whore, and with a heart of tin,
no kind of damsel. When she looks distressed
her face would make a stockbroker divest
of money, make a saint invest in sin.
But still, I just can’t leave her here for them.
I guess I’ve fallen for this fatal femme.

Music: “Just as Soon,” by Kevin McLeod

TOUGH GUISE

I’m not the type who falls for muscle guys,
and something’s off with Jack, that he would want
a madam or a murderer, disguise
or not. Or something’s off with me. I can’t
pretend I don’t enjoy pretending, that
tending to Rose’s garden at the Red
Bordello as a madam with a gat
inside her purse, an airman in her bedroom,
hasn’t knocked my head askew. But Jack
must see too many movies, thinks he’ll own
this rose. We both are trapped inside our poses,
the tough guy fighting mobsters on our track,
the bad girl lounging in her dressing gown.
An insect in the bed will kill the roses.

Music: “Night on the Docks,” by Kevin McLeod

Bleed Edge by Tony Barnstone

THE DEATH TRAP

Falling for Rose just might be fatal, but
what’s not? I’m just an airman with a knack
for trouble and a killer uppercut;
I know that Spider Floyd is on our track,
but spend the afternoon in Rose’s dive,
because you can’t keep days inside a box.
Maybe to love a tramp’s a paradox,
but no one’s getting out of here alive.
I’m not just killing time with Rose. Time does
the murdering. Rose stitches up the cut
across my heart. I hold her tight in bed,
because I’ve learned of love one thing: it goes.
It’s true that time is a great teacher, but
unfortunately kills its students dead.

Music: “Private Reflection,” by Kevin McLeod

THE CITY DEAD-HOUSE

“I am a student of death,” mortician
Joe Martin says, “the pistol, bomb and knife
and their particular effects. If life
is sickness, you can cure it with a gun.
The fellow over there with a switchblade
stuck in his heart had bigger problems than
four inches of sharp steel. The gentleman
was killed and later stabbed—a masquerade.
It took a while to figure how he died.”
Joe turns away from where the corpse is flayed
in autopsy, and hands me the switchblade,
smiling. He looks a bit self-satisfied.
“Stop dancing, Joe. Just tell me what you found.”
“Seawater in his lungs. The fellow drowned.”

Music: “Back Vibes,” by Kevin McLeod

DRESSING THE MEAT

“The fellow drowned? Who was he, Joe, a sailor?”
“Hardly. How many sailors do you know
who have five large in their billfolds? Who blow
their noses on fine silk? Who have a tailor
fit their suits? No, the man there’s moniker
is Algernon Byrne Westlander III.
A stuffed shirt type. Now more of a stuffed bird,
but was the Deputy Commissioner.”
I whistle at the news. Why’s a white shirt
like Algie pitching woo out at the Red
Bordello? His type gets a dame in bed
with just his name. He don’t need a pro skirt.
“Thanks, Joe. Let’s snort some giggle juice.” “Oh, no.
I gotta fit Al for his wood kimono.”

Music: “Back Vibes,” by Kevin McLeod

FROM TEMPEST TO OTHELLO

Algernon, or as I dub him, Algie,
got tossed into the drink and drank a lung
or two of salt water and ocean algae,
but here’s the little thing that has me hung:
we live in Chi-town—no salt water for
a thousand miles—so tell me how this fellow
sucked sea? I’m stumped. I knock on Rose’s door.
“Culture tonight,” she says, takes me to Othello.
Uh-huh, I know. O-what-o? It’s a play.
I ain’t from Cultureville. I’m from Chicago,
like Al Capone. But Rose has some great gams
so I will play her way, though I should say
just like that fella in the play, Iago
(or was it Popeye?) “I ams that I ams.”

Music: “Laconic Granny,” by Kevin McLeod

SPIDER CAT AND BAD EYE

I am the guy I am, so at the theater
I’m watching all the high hats in the crowd.
One man bad-eyes Rose as if he ate her
for lunch and got a bellyache. The loud
gee on the stage is spitting wind in slang
so jingle-brained there ain’t no tail or head
to it. At intermission I go hang
my elbows on the bar. “Get to the shed,”
a whisper comes from to my back. I know
that voice—it’s Spider Floyd. “The boss is at
the opening.” Spider and Bad Eye go
and Rose come gets me. “Rose, that Spider cat…”
“I know. This theater’s being shaken down,
like every other business in Chi-town.”

Music: “No Good Layabout,” by Kevin McLeod

WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS

“In Chi-town every store shakes out the cash
or else the Big Guy who’s behind the scenes
will whack you, blast your place to smithereens,
or angel-face will burn the store to ash,”
says Rose. “He’s like a gangster God. The law
can’t touch him.” Snow is sifting down outdoors
like salt. Joe Morton made a salt that pours
instead of clumps, he found the formula.
If they had that at Sodom and Gomorrah
when fire and brimstone rained and cities burned,
that woman who looked back would not have turned
to a salt pillar, right? Well, I’m not sure a’
this stuff. Maybe the dame would still have bought
the farm. As things shake out, it was her lot.

Music: “No Good Layabout,” by Kevin McLeod

ANIMALS

Back on the farm I taught myself a lot
by watching animals. My sister Rose
protected me against our dad. She taught
me sacrifice, and when he ripped her clothes
I heard the screams like mating cats, the weeping.
At fourteen I took off. My pop was found,
a kitchen knife stuck in his back, blood seeping
from the icebox to the back door. Around
the pool the starving animals collected,
lapping it up, as later men drew round
to drink Rose in. I think that I’ve detected
her killer and the place where she was drowned:
the Shedd Aquarium and Al Capone.
I leave Jack sleeping, and drive there, alone.

Music: “A Singular Perversion,” by Kevin McLeod

NOTE LEFT PINNED TO THE PILLOW (SIGNED “VIOLET”)

Dear Jack, you’re lovely, sleeping on the bed,
and all I want to do is crawl inside
the covers next to you. But I can’t hide
from what I have to do. I’m at the Shedd
Aquarium. Ten thousand gallons of
salt water, right? It must be where poor Al
and Rose were drowned. How strange that you should call
me by my sister’s name and fall in love
with her. Rose is a part I’m acting, Jack,
to make her murderer think she’s alive.
When Spider tried to kill me in that dive,
I knew Capone had ordered the attack.
Dear Jack, you’re lovely, sleeping on the bed.
Don’t follow me. If I’m not back, I’m dead.

Music: “Long Road Ahead,” by Kevin McLeod

SMALL FRY, BIG FISH, AND THE DISH

I follow, but the opening party’s done.
There’s just the wilting tinsel, empty glasses,
a janitor, and my false Rose is gone.
I grab the janitor’s arm as he passes,
and twist. He screams, and I twist harder. “Where?”
I ask. “Where what?” he moans. I twist until
I hear a crack. And “Where?” I ask, and stare
him in the eyes till he knows that I’ll kill
him soon, unless he gives it up. “The bim?”
he asks. “You want to know about the dish?
Al’s gunsels grabbed her coming up to him,
gun in her fist. I don’t know where she is.”
I wrench his arm until I hear it break.
He shrieks, “She’s at his hideout on the lake!”

Music: “Devastation and Revenge & News of Sorrow,” by Kevin McLeod

ANGELS FALLING FROM THE SKY

I’ve found the secret island hideout. Now
two speedboats jet from the bay, opening
up with machine guns mounted on the bow.
I nudge the wind in my red biplane, slingshot
on an updraft, dodge the first barrage,
then bank and dive right down their throats.
The hissing bullets rip my fuselage,
but I let loose with bombs and now the boats
are bloody flame and so the good guy wins
—until a black plane dives out of the void
and shreds my wings. The handsome pilot grins
as smoke and flame decant. It’s Spider Floyd.
I stall to make him smash my plane, the brute,
then grin, too, dropping in my parachute.

Music: “Rising Game,” by Kevin McLeod

Fatal Femme by Tony Barnstone

TAXES AND DEATH

My parachute drifts toward the high treetops
and as I float it all begins to gel,
how Rose was drowned for working with the cops.
They must have tortured her to make her tell
who she was working for. So Algernon
is next, but meantime here is Violet
running the Red Bordello. Rose is gone
and stiffs don’t walk, but they can’t take that bet,
because there is the matter of the books
that Rose got off a drunken gangster trick—
Capone’s accountant—the white book ascrawl
with fake expenses, and the two black books
of real accounts. Capone. Nothing will stick
to him. I drop, but swear he’ll take the fall.

Music: “Rising Game,” by Kevin McLeod

A BOUQUET OF VIOLENCE

I clip the guard behind the ear. He falls.
I’m through the window with my silencer
spitting hushed death and spattering walls
with abstract paintings all in red. A stir
in the hallway. Two men burst in and taste
two bullets. I leap over them and find
the stairs down to the underground. I waste
a shot on shadows, then—cat feet behind
me. A knife scrapes my ribcage, but I whirl
and slam the knifeman up against stone,
gun to his neck, and grit, “Where is the girl?”
He spills the dope, and then spills blood. Alone
in a locked room, I find my Violet.
“Hi Jack,” she smiles, “You got a cigarette?”

Music: “Dirt Rhodes,” by Kevin McLeod

VIOLETS ARE BLACK AND BLUE

“Hi Jack,” she smiles, “You got a cigarette?”
She’s chained up to a chair and bruised blue-black,
her dress torn down her shoulder ’cross her back,
and that’s how I first meet my Violet.
But then I see her eyes flick to something
behind me and her smile congeals to ice.
I spin too slow and catch the knifeblade twice,
once in my arm, once in my chest, but bring
the gun around and just before I shoot
his large brown eyes expand, his lips form “No!”
Before he dies he grips my leg below
the knee. I kick his hand off with my boot,
grab Violet and run down to the pier,
steal a speedboat and shoot off in high gear.

Music: “Dirt Rhodes,” by Kevin McLeod

UNTOUCHABLE

We stole a speedboat and kept going till
we got to Canada, where we laid low
until we thought the heat was off, but how
I had to plead with Jack not to go kill
Capone and get himself blipped off in turn.
Now I’m off Broadway, playing a gun moll
again, and Jack and I have found a small
bungalow in New Jersey, and we burn
up the dance halls and we are happy here.
Jack couldn’t quite believe I was alive
when he arrived, but as I tell him, “Love,
they couldn’t kill me till they found out where
I’d stashed the books, but how could I confess
I mailed the two black books to Eliot Ness?”

Music: “Unanswered Questions & Night on the Docks with Piano,” by Kevin McLeod

from Rattle #33, Summer 2010

CREDITS:

All Music by Kevin McLeod
Under Creative Commons License

Actors:

Jack Logan: Tony Barnstone
Spider Floyd: Tony Barnstone
Street Drunk: Tony Barnstone
Mortician Joe Martin: Tony Barnstone
Red Bordello Waiter: Tony Barnstone
Shedd Aquarium Janitor: Tony Barnstone

Rose: Jennifer Sage Holmes
Violet: Jennifer Sage Holmes