Booze, druids, the blues, silly hair, tattered cloth, stoic mythologies, really though does anyone remember laughter? Houses of the Holy may not be the marquee Zeppelin album, but why not? “The Ocean”, “No Quarter”, “Over The Hills and Far Away”, these are places fit for a euphoric soul, and thus they are a place for nerdy fan fiction. – Luke Winkie
“The Song Remains The Same”
BY ADAM SCHRAGIN
The West End is what William said was the “hot” part of London, so to the West End they trudged, William and Stanley and a not so sharp shooter with a bristling head of red hair, Patrick, but they called him Pat. William, who only Pat called Willie, served as ambassador because he had been stationed in the city for two months already, and from the sound of it was a master not just of local custom and nuance but also the ins and outs of finer culture and dining.
“There’s a restaurant down here – you get a good steak and Guinness for five bucks all told. You guys had Guinness yet? Real capital stuff.”
At this idiom Stanley and Pat exchanged a quick, knowing glance. Their incredulity of William’s ambassadorship to England was one of a few things they shared, other than the same brand of cigarettes (Tareyton – “Dual Filter Does It!”) and of course their service. Other than that, Stanley’s adolescence through the maze of Detroit felt far removed from Pat’s reminiscences of cattle farming and heat in Texas, but here they were all aliens. Except for William, of course; the man acted like he was basically raised with an accent.
“Hey Willie,” says Pat. “You met the Queen yet?” Through his snicker you could still make out William’s quick retort – “Hey pal, she’s a stone fox but still don’t got nothing on your mamma.”
Pat and William exchanged mock blows while Stanley stood sharply at the cross of something that looked like Oxford and Baker street.
“Hey numbskulls, do you know how to get where we’re getting?” Stanley yanked a Tareyton from its pack and into his mouth. He ran his hand over his nearly bald head, his black hands glowing in the light of a street lamp. The city streets were not crowded, just a few quick buried faces walking to and fro as the early evening accepted the night. A few pubs they had passed murmured with the inviting sounds of beer and revelry.
“Say man,” Stanley exhaled again. “It’s around here, right?”
“No doubt, brother,” came the over-enthused reply, resulting in another knowing glance between Stanley and Pat. “And I told you, you’re gonna be having too good of a god damn time to even mind the walk once we get up in that place, anyhow.”
“Whatsit,” rejoined Pat sarcastically, still bobbing and weaving at William. “The Crocodile?”
“The Flamingo, and it’s a place where even a square can have a ball,” came the rejoinder, suddenly serious. “I’m saying, they like our kind of music there, and the women are niiice. Problem is, there ain’t a chicken fried steak in the whole place. Think you’ll starve, Pat?”
This resulted in more jousting. Stanley smoked philosophically and surveyed the intersection. His was a wild card among two jokers.
“They got good music here,” continued William. “Soul, like back home. Pat, they don’t have any square dancing but you’ll do okay.”
“You know it,” said Pat, strutting across the street. “As long as I can get close to some honey I’d do the monkey if I had ta.”
“Ain’t no one doing the monkey,” said William severely.
The two leapt ahead of Stanley, and through the light fog and falling light they eventually made it to an almost non-storefront that William made a big show of directing them toward; a door and then a flight of stairs down, and William could hear what unmistakably the organ lick of Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away” as they headed into the husky heat of what he imagined would be a very tiny space.
Instead, the interior of The Flamingo was full of bodies and smoke, but not for want of room. The space looked as though maybe it had been a bingo hall at one point, and the walls were abnormally tall. A gaudy chandelier hung above the dance floor but let off an almost imperceptible amount of illumination, and instead Stanley’s eyes adjusted to the sight of fifty or so lit cherries of fifty or so different cigarettes, cigarillos, and the occasional flare up of a match. The room was hot and full of movement. Severely dressed young men in suits with long hair and tight pants and the stomp of boots; women also in boots, cropped, bobbed hair and dark eye makeup. In the corner two men in tortoiseshell glasses appeared to be arguing over which record to play next.
“Beer!?” Pat was already looking for a place to escape as they came to the foot of the stairs. White arms and unblinking strange eyes flashed before them. William gave them a sign of “wait,” and left them there awkwardly. Sam Cooke sang “Twistin’ The Night Away” while they stood stock still, Pat starting to twitch just a bit. Stanley’s eyes adjusted to the scene, his hands in his pockets as he swayed slowly to the music. What they said about British fashions were true, and Stanley felt suddenly itchy and staid in his dress greens. Still, he’d heard women love a man in uniform, and there were lots of women here, wiggling and moving with an ease he couldn’t recall from the States. Then again, there was a lot to take in, and the smoke was playing with his eyes, and his memory was never that great to begin with.
Stanley had just lit a cigarette and offered one to Pat before William returned, hustling both other boys into an anteroom where a tight-faced lad was staring into a strangely ornate mirror, teasing the line of hair that fell just over his eyebrows. Stanley produced, with much ceremony, three white pills.
“The hell are these?” asked Pat.
“You take this, and then you don’t have to drink.” William said. He handed out the pills and popped his immediately. Stanley popped his as well, but Pat seemed unsure.
“What, I’m just supposed to swallow it like this?”
“Whatsamatter, you’ve never taken a pill before?” said Stanley. He hadn’t. Feeling suddenly bad, he turned to the gaunt British boy. “Uh, say there, you don’t have any drink on you, do you pal?”
Without so much as turning, the boy produced a thin flask from his jacket. “Cheers,” he said. It took an embarrassing amount of time to coach Pat into swallowing the pill without choking or coughing, but finally the deed was done. The flask returned to the lad, “Cheers,” he again said, even more deadpan, and the visitors made their way back into the main room, the full force of Eddie Floyd convulsing the dance floor. At that, the trio took an unspoken cue and split into different parts of the room. Stanley moved his arms and they led him into the back, his hips swaying to this comfortable, familiar music. The pill, whatever it was, made his head feel inflated in a pleasing way, and his limbs didn’t so much twitch as spread. He looked around at the room, and felt as though maybe the white pill was something everyone else knew as well, as though maybe they were dancing inside that white pill, one big new earth with a new dusty smell and better movement.
Stanley stared forward. In his bobbing he thought he caught a vision of Pat’s red top, but that may have been the light of twelve close cigarettes. Like a beam of some kind, he stared straight ahead, and into the faraway eyes of someone. This someone was shaking herself, her long blonde hair dipping across her arms. Across the way other, faster dances passed before him, and she was gone in a whir of cashmere coats and thin tartan ties. She reappeared, closer; she cut around him, dancing and smiling, and for a second he was unsure of himself and his place here, and then the song turned to Lyn Collins and “Think (About It),” and it was like they were conversing, the music a familiar topic and their dancing to it the way some people shake their hands when they get emphatic about something or other.
She was a good dancer. Her straight black dress held to her close, and she engaged him with her arms and body without touching him or indicating at him, but as they moved he knew he was moving with her and she with him. Then she did speak. “Got a smoke, love?” Stanley almost forgot his arms but found in his breast pocket a cigarette and handed it to her and lit a match. She held his hand with the match in it to light her cigarette. He opened his mouth to say something but the music came on even louder than before and she just grinned and began to move, so he moved with her. “That’s How Strong My Love Was.” She was still smiling when he took her hand in his and twisted her around. They were having fun; she laughed at him and turned him around likewise, and he had to duck under her arm because he was a good foot taller than she.
“What’s you name?” he asked her.
“Veronica. And you?”
“Stanley! And how long are you here?”
“Do you like England?”
“This is my first day on leave. I like it so far.”
The rest of their conversation was dribble between dance beats, and he got less shy with her and took her hand more often, and he thought he could see an outline of his friends dancing somewhere in the artificial dusk, and he felt at home for the first time since he had left. They danced and danced, and occasionally she would leave for a minute or two but she always came back. As “Dearest One” faded down, though, she whispered-spoke at him: “It was nice to meet you Stanley. Enjoy England.” Her lips grazed his cheek and she turned. Behind her he could see the man from the restroom, his coif now unmanaged and nearly mangy. Stanley gave him a nod and a smile and was surprised at the cold in the boy’s eyes. For a minute he danced alone, and then like a shock he realized what he was doing. He all but leapt through the crowd and nearly collided with a bedevilled Pat being led out by William. Pat was shouting aggressively and William was pushing him away from the crowd. After some gesticulating with Stanley it was arrived at that they should all go upstairs, and out of the Flamingo. Outside the sky was velvet dark and the wooze of the music and warmth and drugs dissipated a little in the cold air.
“What the hell is wrong with you two?” asked Stanley.
“We can’t take this fool anywhere,” said William.
Pat looked genuinely sulky. “I’m doing my thing, right? And I’m moving like you’ve never seen and this fellow starts shouting that I stepped on his Italian loafers or some business. You’d have thought I asked his girl to meet me in the coat room or something by the way he huffed and puffed.”
“Yeah, but with the way you were leaping around the dance floor it’s a wonder they didn’t toss you out to begin with,” argued William.
“What can I say? I was feeling real good.”
Stanley wandered off a bit from the conversation, training his eyes around the street corner. The turn of an engine arrested his attention, and from a distance he could see Veronica on the back of a scooter, clutching the boy from earlier while she swung her hair back.
“Veronica!” he yelled and waved, and she turned back and dangled her fingers behind her. The engine of the scooter roared and the vehicle leapt into gear. The growl of it was loud, but not so loud that Stanley couldn’t make out the distinct, gravel-voiced slur thrown back at him – “NIGGER!” – and the voice seemed to hold in the air even when the sound of the scooter disappeared. Pat’s wounded pride and William’s aggravation were forgotten. For a second no one moved, and then William took a cigarette to his lips and said, “Come on,” and the three boys moved away from The Flamingo and into the London night.
They were quiet, and then Pat said, “He didn’t have the guts to say that to your face, pimply twerp.”
Puffing, William added softly, “They ain’t usually like that, Stanley.”
Stanley stuck in the silence. He was a fool to think a different place, a darker room, a different girl, and things would be different. The same. The same.