|Apr/May 2019 Fiction|
Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm
"We get fined every fucking week!" Coleman railed, grabbing a pile of official notices off his desk. "Look at these. It's costing me hundreds and I want it to stop."
"And you want me to...?"
"Make sure my dancers are properly covered up for every performance. You make a mistake and I get fined, and it comes out of your salary. You make a second, and it's your job."
I leaned forward to shake his hand, then withdrew under his glare. "I guarantee you will not be fined as long as I'm on the job, sir."
"Now, go tell the bookkeeper you're getting six dollars a week."
"Thank you," I said, knowing that if my cousin wasn't one of Coleman's most trusted gambling runners, I would never have had such an opportunity.
"And, Robert, if I get one complaint that you're taking advantage of your position, I will do more than just fire you."
John Larson Coleman, at six and a half feet and close to three hundred unforgiving pounds, with a large, black, waxed handlebar mustache, broad cheeks and cigar smoke raging from between his thick lips, was an imposing figure with a fearful street reputation.
Coleman Hall was the largest and most flamboyant dance hall in midtown Manhattan, which boasted the greatest concentration of saloons, brothels, gambling parlors, dance halls, and "clip" joints in the city that horrified reformers called "Satan's Circus." As late as 1885, it was estimated that at least half of the buildings in the Circus were devoted to some form of depravity and, at the beginning of the twentieth century, it had become considerably worse.
Regency Hall was five blocks away and rumored to be owned by various city politicians connected to Tammany Hall, the most corrupt political machine in New York City, and therefore the entire country.
Coleman Hall boasted the best dancers, singers, jugglers, comedians, acrobats, strongmen, fire-dancers, and extravagant acts from all over Europe. Then, there was the chorus, a select group of beautiful, leggy dancers that had a legion of loyal followers.
I was given a stool and small desk, and Coleman put the chorus on notice. Any dancer caught not having their pasties perfectly positioned would be given only one warning.
As I quickly learned, many of the girls would purposely put on a pasty that was either too small or poorly affixed so that during a performance it would fall off releasing a torrent of coins from the mostly male audience.
After half an hour of my watching and waiting, and being the object of suspicion of every other male in the establishment, one of the dancers, a tall redhead with cat-green eyes came rushing over and, thrusting her breasts in my face, asked, "What do you think?"
Her red-sequined pasties were firmly secured but poorly centered, exposing the barest haze of the areola, a word I had learned only minutes before from Mirka, the Russian seamstress whose cramped space was next to mine.
With no clear instructions from Coleman, I guessed, "You need to cover it up a little more."
"Where?" she asked as the stage manager called for the chorus.
"Over there," I pointed.
A troupe of jugglers clamored up the narrow wooden stairs from the stage after their performance as the chorus moved down past them. One of the jugglers took liberties and in return one of the dancers let fly a slap that nearly sent him over the railing.
"I can't go back to the dressing room now."
"Well you can't go on looking like that," I said with unaccustomed authority.
"I know that!" she screamed frantically as the last of the girls disappeared down the stairs. "Why do you think I came to you? Fix it!"
"And, you are?"
"Adele! Christ, what difference does it make! I have to go on right, fucking, now!"
And with that, I stretched the fabric, still moist with glue, half an inch over the exposed areola from the eyes of whatever city official was waiting to pounce with a citation.
"There, but I don't think it will last for more than one performance."
She looked down at me as though I had saved her life, planted a quick kiss on my cheek, and flew off.
"You okay?" Mirka asked from her cubicle.
"No," I answered. Adele's breast was the first I had ever touched. At eighteen, and claiming to be twenty-one, it wasn't something a boy pretending to be a man bragged about.
"You be okay," she said with a nearly toothless grin.
This little old pear-shaped woman who had been working at Coleman Hall for half a decade took pity on me and got me through those first unsettling days.
The band played, the dancers danced, the jugglers flung, the divas trilled, the tumult behind the stage raged and flowed with screams, warnings, threats, and curses in every language.
I had found a home, and it had found me.
I spent the balance of that first show with Mirka learning about pasties, their construction, the glue used, and what can happen in the heat of the stage lights and the movement of the dancers.
When I returned from a smoke break outside, there was a rose on my stool with a note attached to it. "You saved my ass today. Come by after work if you want. Most gratefully, A."
Alice and Kelly came by before the next show. I took my time with both. They examined my handiwork and thanked me profusely.
When the curtain dropped on the final act, there was a sudden stillness about the third floor wooden ramparts where I was housed along with Mirka and most of the dressing rooms. I was in the center of a throbbing three-ring circus instead of living in a dark, dirty, airless room with my parents.
I waited until the last dancer left, then made my way to the woman's dressing room, a sanctuary of my every young fantasy and fear, and heard movement, then the door opened,
"Come in, Robert."
"Miss Adele," I said nervously, and fully aroused. "Thanks for the rose."
"We don't have much time," she said, pulling me into the empty dressing room and securing the door.
I glanced around the clutter in abject wonder. I was immediately lost in a cramped world of greasepaint where naked women, barely older than myself, preened, polished, fussed, and fastened themselves.
"I wanted to thank you properly for saving me today."
"That's my job."
"And obviously you're good at it, but I thought you deserved a special show of appreciation."
"That's not..." was all I got out before she pulled up my shirt, unbuttoned my trousers, reached in, and drew me out.
"Lovely. You have nothing to be ashamed about there, my boy."
And just as quickly slipped me into her mouth only moments before I exploded with a special show of appreciation.
"There now, that's how a real woman says 'thank you.'"
I was out of words, out of my mind and trying not to fall over, and in serious trouble.
"You're beautiful," was all that came to mind.
"So are you, my very sweet Robert, so are you," she said, cinched the cord around her robe and ushered me out of the dressing room.
There was no one in sight. Still, I panicked. My first day was going to be my last. Mr. Coleman would find out and there would be no excuses, though a certainty of broken bones.
Maybe my father was right, and I "would never amount to anything."
What happened that night was never mentioned again. We shared a secret, and an understanding of genuine affection.
The next day I filched a small green ledger book from the prop department. When I was satisfied with my handiwork, I knocked on John Coleman's office.
"What is it, Robert?"
"I've figured out a way so that we never get fined again."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"We can't stop those scoundrels at City Hall or Regency Hall, but I can make sure their henchmen leave Coleman's with all the citations they came with."
"I've constructed a ledger here," I said, opening it up to the first page, "listing the name of every girl in the chorus down the left side of the page. Across the top are the dates and shows. Every girl should be instructed to come to me before every show so I can make sure their pasties are properly fitted, after which I will check them off in my ledger so that I know, so that we both know, that every one of the 24 dancers has been inspected."
Coleman dropped what remained of his cigar under his heel, crushed out the embers, and grabbed away the ledger.
"No one will get by me without being inspected. I guarantee it."
He took his time examining what I had crafted. "Genius, Robert. Sheer, fucking genius. If you do what you say you can do, I'll double your salary. You have my guarantee on that."
I spent the next half hour tossing up breakfast. Finally, I had a career, a profession, a future, and in show business, no less.
"You okay?" Mirka asked when I returned from the bathroom.
"I am very, very okay."
I was now officially made responsible for the success of the show and making more money than my father ever did when he was able to put down his bottle.
From that day on, my life was a spinning carousel of sequins and breasts and thankful faces. The girls lined up in front of me before each performance, as instructed. They fidgeted, primped, fussed over their costumes, complained about how hard they worked, but mostly about how their boyfriends either took them for granted or were probably out screwing some other girl.
They bent over my desk six times a day; some winked, others made small talk. Mimi, Belle, Francy, Doreen, and Anita were the friendliest. Mimi and Anita remained the most flirtatious. Still, a few remained suspicious.
By the end of the first week, I could honestly say I loved them all and had to call upon more restraint than skills to carefully, artistically and lovingly fix their errant pasties. As time passed, more and more girls showed up at my desk as though their entire collection of pasties were in a state of disrepair.
Mirka only giggled when I was presented with such sartorial catastrophes. And it was becoming apparent that a few of the girls were bent on flirting with me until I succumbed to their advances.
That's when Jessie entered my life.
Jessie Hogan was a first cousin of Lisa Gentry, Adele's best friend. Jessie was my age and came from upstate New York where her widowed mother had just been hospitalized. They had little money, and when Lisa suggested that Jessie join the chorus, Adele went to work on the dance director.
That process had begun months before I arrived, as did Jessie's dance training. So when one of the girls was injured during a performance, Lisa quickly had her cousin suited up for the next show.
"I didn't quite know what to do," Jessie said standing in front of my desk in her robe long before the first performance.
"It's pretty simple. You come to me before each performance for an inspection. Most of the girls don't even bother trying to put on their pasties now and just show up at my desk."
"Like this?" She opened her robe with one hand and dropped two blue sequined pasties on my desk with the other.
It took me twice as long to put on Jessie's pasties. "There. You're fine. Go out there and knock their socks off, Miss Hogan."
"Oh, please, call me Jessie."
"Then Jessie it is."
She glanced down at her breasts and gave a little wiggle. "Adele was right. You're a genius."
"Yes, well, a very ordinary genius."
"Genius is rare no matter what form it takes, Mr. Fuller."
"Robert. Please call me Robert."
"Then Robert it is," she said, extending her hand.
She appeared at my desk along with the other girls five more times that day. Each time, my heart skipped a beat when her eyes met mine.
Adele came to me several days later, plunking herself down on my desk. "Strange, you don't look like a man in love."
"That's not funny."
"Jessie can't get over how you treated her."
"I treated her like every other dancer."
"She's quite taken by you, Robert."
"Well, I don't know why."
I walked home long after the final curtain, a desperate, defeated soul with feelings I had never experienced. I was nearing our apartment when I heard footsteps strike the cobblestones behind me.
"What do you want?" I demanded of the figure shaded in darkness.
"Are you Robert Fuller?"
"Who wants to know?"
I was alone on the street. Gaslights flickered along the faces of the buildings, creating a false sense of security. "Friends don't hide in the shadows."
"Sometimes they have no choice."
The figure was of a slight man with a voice that sounded decades older than mine. I was frightened, but if he wanted to do me harm, he'd already had the chance.
"What do you want?"
"Then you are Robert Fuller?"
"I am, now tell me who you are and what you're after."
"Don't be too harsh with me, Mr. Fuller. I bring you an offer to advance your career."
"At three in the morning?"
"I have heard of your skill and diligence. I also know that not one of the women you tend to has anything other than the highest praise for your work and honor. In the world of dance halls that is a rarity."
"Just say what you came to say."
"I recognize how much of a difference you have made to Mr. Coleman's enterprise and only wish you to do so for ours. Is that not a reasonable request?"
I was stunned, and more than slightly suspicious. The man's silhouette was fixed in the darkest shadows like a creature from another world, a small, desperate animal, cautious to the point of casting doubt on his own intentions.
"I don't partner with shadows."
"I am not a shadow, nor are the owners of a dance hall which has also been suffering at the hands of unscrupulous city inspectors. We have tried to find a young man to match your integrity, but our efforts have only been met with hardship for our girls."
"Precisely so, and, as John Coleman knows, very costly."
The more he spoke, the more I found his manner and tone inconsistent with what I pictured as the troublemakers at Regency Hall. But I couldn't be too careful. "True."
"The thing of it is, sir, we wish you to join our enterprise at double whatever Mr. Coleman is paying you."
Twenty-four dollars a week! A month's wages for a job I would gladly do for nothing. "I will not consider it."
"But you have not heard all of it."
"I have heard enough of it. And, if you respect my wishes, you will not press me further."
"Do you realize what I am offering you?"
"I do, but apparently you do not understand what I already have."
"What you have is half of what you could have."
"John Coleman was once a stranger."
"Which he no longer is."
"Good evening," I said and turned away.
"I will call upon you again Mr. Fuller, in case you change your mind."
"I wouldn't, if I were you."
When I was positive his footsteps had drifted back into the night, I fell to the side of a building. This job was not without its own particular and peculiar pressures.
I originally told my parents that I swept up the theater and kept the scenery in good repair for five dollars a week and was glad to have it. And now Jessie? And now this? What was I to make of what my life had become?
The next day I arrived so tired I was concerned that I might not be able to tell a left breast from a right. Though, by this time, I had become so astute an observer I could probably have identified the dancers by a quick glance at their breasts.
When I joked about wagering the entire chorus to Adele, she laughed so hard it brought Mimi and Francy to my tiny space. Two of them agreed I had lost my mind.
"Nonsense," Mimi claimed.
"Two bits a pair," I said confidently to the trio.
"You're mad as a hatter," Francy said.
"No one can do that," Mimi agreed.
"I can, and I will."
"My God, the boy is serious?" Adele questioned at the very moment John Coleman was coming up the stairs from his office. He noticed all three girls talking to me between acts, and well before inspection, and came over.
"Mister Coleman," Adele responded with perfect composure.
"You're doubting my skill?" I asked Adele.
"What we're doubting is your sanity." Mimi giggled.
"I only wagered that I could identify the girls by the shape and size of their breasts," I said to Coleman.
"Well, we have other things to do," Adele said, scooping up the other two girls and steered them back to the dressing room.
Coleman waited for the girls to disappear then looked down at me with an expression I hadn't seen before. "Do you think you can really do that?"
"Yes, I'm certain of it, sir."
"Then Coleman Hall will sponsor your challenge. We'll have a contest. You against the entire chorus line. We'll advertise it in all the newspapers and fill the dance hall until they pour out into the street."
"Mr. Coleman, this was meant to be a bet between me and a few of the girls. Nothing more," I added as the panic exploded inside me.
"Well, son, it isn't anymore."
"But what if I fail?" I asked, knowing how impossible that would be.
"Robert, even if you fail, we'll fill the house, and will have done something no other dance hall thought of doing."
I felt foolish, a braggart, and threatened. I wasn't prepared for publicity, much less notoriety. "Yeah, me making a complete jackass of myself."
Coleman laughed and leaned down over me. "No matter what happens?" he said in hardly a whisper, "I will guarantee you twenty-four dollars a week starting the day after the contest, no matter how many you get right. That's how confident I am that your game will put Coleman Hall, the soul of Satan's Circus, on the front page of every newspaper in the city."
And that's just what happened.
The man in the shadows never again cut across my path, if only because Coleman had me working so hard in the weeks of preparation, including speaking to every newspaper in the city.
Jessie was not at all happy with my idea and believed, as did many others, that the City Marshall would never consent to such a stunt. But when the newspapers cautioned them that no one was being hurt and that all the money raised from the price of admission was going to help build the new Chelsea Children's Infirmary in the poorest district of the city, the politicians—and with them the inspectors—relented.
Of course, this quickly complicated my day-to-day job. Before every performance, the girls were eager to test my skills and presented themselves, on more than one occasion, wearing masks. After a week had passed, I could tell which set of breasts belonged to which girl so quickly they practically had to run past my desk just to make it interesting.
Coleman got Mimi, Belle, and Anita to represent Coleman Hall in full nurses' uniforms and collect money for the Children's Infirmary at a fundraising event that had already been scheduled near City Hall. The three of them caused such a sensation on the steps of the mayor's office that additional police had to be called to restrain the noonday crowd.
As the day of the contest drew closer, there was an air of excitement bordering on hysteria. Coleman had sold out the house and could have filled it twice over again. Many of the major city papers and several smaller local ones were carrying the story on their front page.
And Jessie had completely taken my heart. She was quiet and reserved and confessed she was taking a course that would teach her how to be a secretary. I thought that showed such fine character.
On our third date, I got up the courage to kiss her. She wrapped her arms around me so tightly I didn't think she would ever let go. I certainly didn't want her to.
That was a week ago. Even before then, I could feel myself losing interest in my job, and also in my powers of observation.
Then, it happened. Mimi came to me after the show and confessed she had to readjust her right pasty after I had already passed on it. She told me she thought I was distracted, but I knew it was more.
And as the love grew, my skills and lusting and attentiveness to other women's bodies faded. With a week left before the contest, I knew I wouldn't recognize Adele's breasts from those of Boss Tweed at Tammany Hall.
"I feel terrible about this?" Jessie told me.
"I guess that says something about how I feel about you."
She took my hands in hers. "And about how I feel about you."
"Well, that's all well and good but without this job I go back to scraping a living from the streets."
"Mr. Coleman said you didn't have to get every one right. He probably doesn't even expect you to."
"Jessie, he said that only to take the pressure off of me. He thinks, as does everyone here, that I'm going to score a perfect twenty-four out of twenty-four. That's what the crowd is coming here for, and I'm going to make a fool out of myself if I don't get a perfect score."
"You'll work it out. I know that about you. You're too smart to let something like this beat you."
No one had ever called me smart. I knew Mr. Coleman thought I was clever, but smart?
Most of the stagehands and musicians in the orchestra were betting their shirts on the outcome. The entire chorus had wagered well beyond their means too.
On the day of the contest, Coleman Hall was filled to capacity with a hundred more milling about in front of the dance hall.
Mirka had fashioned special costumes in red, white, and blue for the girls who were going to assemble in their nurses' uniforms behind a curtain that split the stage in two. I was on one side; the girls would stand behind the curtain on the other.
I was to be seated at a table with twenty-four large pieces of paper, each containing the name of a girl in the chorus. Then, in turn, the girls would walk out and stand in front of another black curtain that hid them from the waist down and another black curtain that hung from the rafters and hid them from the neck up.
One by one, they would unbutton the top of her uniform and expose their breasts for exactly five seconds and I had to choose one card and hold it up to the audience.
It was my job to identify them from twenty feet away. Before I fell in love with Jessie, I could've done it from a mile.
"How are you holding up, my boy?" Coleman asked.
"Just fine, sir."
"Now, that's not exactly what I heard, Robert."
"Couldn't be better. This was a brilliant idea of yours."
"Considering it was your idea and the fortune I have already made from the flood of customers I've had every night since we announced the contest, as well as the publicity from your suggestion to give the gate to the Chelsea Children's Infirmary, I would say I had little to do with it except provide the space and drinks."
"Robert?" he asked, and seemed to be waiting for me to respond when all I wanted to do was drown myself in the East River.
"Mr. Coleman," I said as a vise squeezed every drop of blood from my chest, "I don't know what to say."
"Neither did I when Adele told me what was happening between you and Jessie, and how it was affecting your work."
"Why didn't you come to me?"
"Why? Haven't I treated you fairly? Haven't I gone along with everything you suggested?"
I felt like I had betrayed myself and, worse, someone who trusted me. "I don't know what to say. If you want, I'll leave now."
"You try it and I'll drag you back myself."
"I don't want to disappoint you or let everybody down, sir. Everybody has money riding on me. Some of the dancers have bet a week's wages. More."
"You wouldn't disappoint them or me, Robert."
"No, you don't understand. I couldn't tell Mimi's breasts from Carol's or Lauren's. They all look alike to me now."
"Now that you're in love with Jessie?"
"I can't help it, sir," I answered, forlorn in my despair.
"I don't expect you to, son. But I do expect you to follow my instructions."
"I've done everything you wanted. I spoke to the reporters. I worked with Mirka on designing the nurses' costumes. I stood outside on the street every day this week with Carla and Carol and sold tickets."
"Yes, that's true."
"What more do you want?"
"I want you to keep this piece of paper in front of you with the names of the girls in the sequence they will appear behind the curtain."
The scrap of paper was no more than a few inches wide by the same long. Each girl's initials were noted in order. Adele was listed as number twelve. Jessie came right after her.
"I made this up after I announced the sequence of the chorus, which I decided on a week ago."
"A week ago!"
"You didn't think I was leaving anything to chance did you?"
That made sense. John Larson Coleman's kind of sense. "I didn't think about it."
"Because you were so certain of your skills."
"I guess I was."
"Son, there are days when even the best of us fall to circumstances beyond our control. It happens. But in this business I try and stack the odds in my favor."
I examined the piece of paper. "Isn't this cheating?"
"You want to ask that of the people who work here, or the kids at the clinic whose life your idea may save?"
I knew the difference between what he was saying and the truth. "I could have nailed it by myself."
"I knew you could even before Adele came to me."
"I want you to know that."
"Just keep the paper between your hands and rest them flat on the table. Try not to look down. Speak loudly and slowly. And when you get to the last few girls, make it look like you're having a hard time before you answer. Let's give our audience the great show they came for." He patted me on the back and walked down the steps to the stage barking directions and compliments.
I walked downstairs into the wings of the stage and stared through a curtain peephole into the face of the crowd. They had come from all parts of the city. Men and women, young and old. Banners exhorting patrons to contribute to Chelsea Children's Infirmary covered the entrance to Coleman Hall and were strung around the sides of the building in bright red, white, and blue banners.
I slipped the piece of paper in the vest pocket of the suit Coleman had made especially for me. It was the finest thing I'd ever worn.
I had hoped to make a triumphant entrance with my chest thrust out, my head held high, my step quickened as the orchestra played. Instead, somewhat dejected, I made my way through the knot of stagehands and actors. Their faces were proud and expectant. Then Jessie came running over.
"Oh, Robert, this is so exciting."
"Yes," I answered, curious about the strange voices coming from the stage. "Who is that talking?"
"Dr. Charles Benson, the director of the Children's Infirmary."
"Right." The doctor wore a black silk top hat and looked to be at least two hundred years old. He was a man revered for his unstinting dedication to the health of the city's children.
"He's on stage with the City Marshall."
"The City Marshall."
"What's he doing here?" I gasped.
"To make sure the contest is on the up-and-up, I guess. Isn't it exciting?"
The girls in the chorus were standing in a group off stage. They threw me kisses and winks and nods of affection. I never felt so welcomed, so much a part of a family, in my life.
The City Marshall was a man as big and theatrical as Coleman himself. He was instructing the packed house about the precautions he and his staff had personally taken to make certain the performance would be carried off without the slightest hint of chicanery.
The crowd applauded as many customers shouted out, "Let the contest begin." and, "We want the girls." And with that, the City Marshall turned the stage over to John Coleman.
"Ladies and gentleman, Coleman Hall and its entire staff welcomes you to this evening's grand festivities. As many of you know, some months ago I hired an exceptional young man to make sure our dancers were in compliance with the letter of the city dress code."
The crowd hooted and cheered and nearly shouted him off the stage.
"As the Marshall in his professional thoroughness has explained, Robert Fuller, a man with unimpeachable integrity, will sit on the chair on one side of the stage curtain while the girls, one at a time, will present themselves to him. The Marshall himself will decide the sequence of when each of the girls reveals herself."
There was no desk to be seen anywhere. No place to rest my hands and conceal my crib sheet, which now was useless. As soon as I saw the small chair at the other side of the stage, I was unexpectedly relieved.
There would be no opportunity for manipulating the results. I would be out there on my own, as it should be.
As Coleman finished his introduction, a drum roll swelled up from the orchestra pit and filled my heart with courage.
"An assistant to the Marshall will stand next to the girls to guarantee that no signal is given that might help Mr. Fuller with his decision."
The first week at Coleman Hall came rushing back into my mind. My introduction to Adele, Amy, Doreen, Mirka, and all the girls who embraced me as their friend. I remembered their flirting wiggles—gestures that were both genuinely kidding as they were testing of my character.
"So, if we are ready," Coleman said, precipitating thunderous applause, "we will begin. Now let me introduce to you the man whose talent has already become a legend, a most brilliant and astute young man and a member of the family of Coleman Hall, Robert Fuller," he said and came over to me and took my arm. "How are you doing?"
"Fine," I answered, moving toward center stage.
"Robert, I'm sorry. I had no idea the City Marshall was going to take control of the performance. I think the newspapers, or the rogues at Regency Hall, put pressure on him to make us look bad."
As the applause increased and the audience and family behind me chanted my name, I was possessed of a surge of absolute confidence.
"But the crib sheet?"
I shook my arms gently at my side, took a few deep breaths and released the last vestiges of tension and doubt. "I don't need it, sir."
"But what about your ability to concentrate?"
As John Coleman questioned me, I pictured every one of my girls passing before my desk, throwing me kisses and suggestive winks. I saw their beautiful faces and their wondrous bodies and felt the power of their belief.
"It's not going to be a problem."
His expression lightened noticeably. "Are you sure you can go through with this?"
"I'm going to win this for you and the girls and the children's infirmary and Jessie."
"Then, let's get it done, my boy."
I lifted my hands and waved to the crowd. They applauded even louder and jumped to their feet. Some came to see me win, others to see me fail, most for the sheer spectacle.
"Let's get it done indeed," I said quietly to myself, relieved, energized, and confident, and thrust out my chest, held my head up high, and moved toward center stage where I belonged on this most remarkable of nights in the soul of Satan's Circus.