Before going down the steps to Avery & Avery, I paused on the sidewalk and dreamed about wrapping my job in butcher paper and sending it to Albany. I looked around at the glorious world of peace and prosperity surrounding me, the hustling bustle of the Roaring Twenties. Life was an Armistice parade, and I wanted to go jooking with the rest of the swells. But today was payday, so I descended to my own private Inferno, and, before I'd even crossed the sill, Mildred the receptionist began screeching that Peggy was waiting for me in Room Five.
"New girl," Mildred's nails-on-slate voice declared.
I cast my eyes to the heavens. "Why me?" I wailed. "Shall none of my wounds go unsalted? Must all of my injuries have insults heaped upon them? Is Life naught but a magazine?" I cast my most beseeching face upon her.
"Hop to it, Barrymore," she grated.
"Listen, Mildred. Make lunch reservations for you and me at Ruster's; then add a note for me to give you the sack if you don't come across."
"In your dreams, Mueller."
I winked, tipped my boater, and sauntered down the hall, a veneer of bravado to mask my misgivings. I peeked through the little window of Room Five and saw the incarnation of my worst fears. The large white bow at her throat proclaimed Modesty. The lack of make-up shouted Innocence. And the way she concentrated on plinking a melody out of the upright attested to her Seriousness. These were attributes I did not relish in a writing partner. My instincts told me that she'd taken the hay wagon north to the Big City, planning to humble Broadway with her ability to square dance. I smoothed my mustache, adjusted my bow tie, and prepared to bathe in her honey-thick southern drawl. With the door wide enough to admit my head, I gave her a "Howdy, Toots."
"So there's your schnoz," she Brooklyned. "Koernberg needs a closer for Act Two, and the request got lost in the shuffle. It's already listed on tonight's program."
"If it's Eric Koernberg, it probably got shuffled on purpose," I said, flipping my boater toward the chair in the corner. It swooped to the right and bounced on its brim. "He stiffed Avery for a couple songs last fall."
"Yeah, and they blackballed him up and down the row. Well, this time they've collected up front. Unfortunately that means we've got to knock out a romantic ditty for Shirley Katzman to warble tonight," Peggy said. "She's got a range of about five notes, including sharps and flats."
"Give me your best five-note melody, Toots, and I'll dress it up with the Lyrics of Love."
"The name's Peggy Black. Use it in good health," she said. "Now ... you want the title of this curtain-burner?"
"It's got a title?"
Her exasperation blossomed. "I told you: it's already on tonight's program. Shirley's looking for ..." (unrolling a nifty arpeggio) "... ‘A Gentleman, Dapper.'"
"Shirley you're kidding."
"Here's what I've got so far," she said, vamping through a catchy series of chords. "Da-dee-da-da-dee ... dada-dee-da-da-deeda ... Looks like I'm in love . . . with a gentleman, dapper."
I burst into applause. "Huzzah!! Huzzah!!"
"Can it, Hambone. I'm counting on you to lead me home."
"Tell me the truth, Peggy Black. You've done this before, haven't you?"
"Five years at Miller and Meyer's," she said, "right up until Mrs. Miller found out about certain unwritten terms of my employment."
"Ouch," I said. "So why haven't I heard any music by Peggy Black?"
"Oh, you've heard it," she said, "but Mr. Miller took credits as well as liberties."
"And I thought I had it rough," I mumbled.
"Hey, show your strengths and hide your hickeys," she said, lifting her chin to adjust the big white bow.
"Yup, we're all looking for a gentleman, and I don't even need dapper."
"Dapper," I groused. "How can I create romance with a dangling syllable?"
"I'm sure you've done it before," she said with a smile that I couldn't help returning. "So slip me some syllables, song-slinger."
"Let's see ... Clapper ... Crapper ... Yoiks."
Her voice thickened with warning. "Hambone," she said, "tempus is fugiting."
"Okay, okay," I said. "Let's see...Da-dee-da-da-dee... dada-dee-da-da-deeda...okay, how about this? ‘He lifts me above...all those floozies and flappers.'"
She pushed her lips out and then tightened them into a painful smile. "Well, it's a start."
"Nah," I said. "It's a gift. How about: 'I keep thinking of...my beloved whippersnapper.' This character isn't, by any chance, a cartographer, is he?"
She shook her head and pounded out Shave and Haircut...Two Bits.
I took a bow and warbled, "I'll wager my glove...that his gum's in its wrapper."
She glared at me.
"Hey," I said. "We've got his jack. Why don't we stuff a pig in his polka?"
"Don't tempt me, Hambone," she said. "Hey, you're supposed to be brilliant. How about turning on the spotlight?"
I stared at her. "You know, sometimes Life is like your upper lip: it's right under your nose, but you can't really see it."
She smiled in spite of herself, threw up her hands, and looked toward the heavens.
"Shuffle them chords, sugar," I said, pulling up a chair. "We're going to make this gentleman dapper!!"
Copyright © 2003 Kenneth R. Mullin