- SpeakEasy is the 2013 Community Novel Project of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. Read more about the project including the premise, behind the scenes, and the book launch party.
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Downloading SpeakEasy Chapter 2 by C R Kennedy
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Read Online: SpeakEasy Chapter 2 by C R Kennedy
Ronni stared into the woman’s face for several moments, taking advantage of the opportunity to fully explore the deep lines, the soft white hair, and the cloudy blue eyes. Mrs. Julia Stanford was currently engrossed in the youthful dialogue of Pete O’Neill, oblivious to Ronni’s subtle investigation.
Julia insisted that Pete take a store-bought cookie off the silver tray resting on the coffee table between Julia’s light blue wing chair and the floral print sofa that Ronni and Pete shared. Pete indulged her, and as he took a bite, Ronni jumped in to begin her interview. “Julia, I read a little bit about your past—that you were married to a bootlegger and an innkeeper. And about the night club …”
Julia’s smile grew with each word Ronni spoke until she erupted with laughter. But it wasn’t a I’ve had a great life and I can’t wait to tell you about it kind of chuckle, but more of a you poor, silly girl kind of laugh. “Don’t believe everything you read, Miss Long. Or everything you hear.”
Ronni shuffled through the files on her lap. “But I found that in a magazine …”
“Yes, probably from an article printed in 1984 without my permission, consent, or knowledge.” Julia brought her right hand slowly up to her face. Her hand shook rapidly during its ascent. “A friend of mine submitted the picture of me,” she divulged, “and probably the legend. Those weren’t my words.”
Pete jumped into the conversation with a bit of cookie still in his mouth. “Did you sue the filthy rag?”
“Pete …” Ronni hoped her expression of embarrassment was soft enough that Julia wouldn’t hear. “I’m sorry, Julia, I thought—.”
Julia uncovered her face and smiled over to Pete the sweetest, sincerest, gentlest countenance Ronni had ever witnessed. “I certainly didn’t want to give them any publicity at my expense. Besides, people believe what they want to believe; the truth becomes unimportant and lost in the haze.” She began to laugh again. “It’s kind of like my eyesight. I rarely wear my glasses … guess I’d rather see what I want to see, especially when I look in the mirror.”
“You’re lovely,” Pete said softly. Julia’s faded blue eyes welled up, and Ronni swore her own heart sank an inch, recalling him using that word earlier. Then she glanced to her watch, thinking that when she set up this interview the nurse had mentioned something about a time limit, maybe until five o’clock. They’d arrived 10 minutes late and now seemed to be wasting time. Julia set her voice recorder down next to the tray of cookies. “How about if you tell me your story … in your own words.”
The old woman’s face became grave. “You’re assuming I can remember.”
“We’ll help you,” Pete said. “Tell us about the speakeasy you were involved with.”
“We never called it that, of course,” Julia began. “To us it was Mike’s Mirage. Mike … what the heck was his last name?” It seemed to take her forever to say the next word. Ronni wondered if she was actually trying to remember a name or if Julia’s mind was flooding with memories that she was sorting through, maybe attempting to pull out the best nuggets. “Michael Ward,” she whispered. “We didn’t see him much; he was behind the scenes. The whole place was behind the scenes, hidden away somewhere on 4th Street, or was it on 2nd … ?”
“Did you work there, Julia, or just hang out?” Pete asked. Ronni picked up a shortbread cookie and bit down hard, crunching loud enough to get Pete’s attention. He winked at her and fire surged through her veins.
“I’m not sure when Mike took over, but I remember it was some sort of blind tiger in the early twenties. I worked there, played there, and during the early years of the depression, I lived there. No exaggeration,” she emphasized, “I lived there.”
The cookie went soft in Ronni’s mouth, but she couldn’t swallow it.
“My great-grandmother lived in a box car,” Pete said. “I’d much rather live in a bar.”
“I thanked God every day,” she said. “I was blessed beyond words.” Julia fumbled her hands, one over the other, and Ronni noticed that the woman wore no rings. “I’m sorry, miss,” she said in Ronni’s direction, “this isn’t the interview you were looking for.”
“No … ” Ronni said quickly, but didn’t know what to say next, because honestly, this was not at all what she had imagined. “Please continue,” she finally said.
“I guess, during the six or seven years that Mike was the boss, I served drinks, swept the floor, and cleaned the only toilet—another blessing. I often ran to the market for food items and … ” she leaned back in the tall wing chair, tipped her head, and closed her eyes, “ahhh … to be young again.”
Julia was quiet for a moment, and Pete and Ronni looked at each other. Pete came forward in his chair and Ronni mimicked him, not wanting him to pounce in again and steer the conversation away from this possible bombshell of a revelation. Ronni was about to ask her what she meant when Julia started humming. Pete mouthed something to Ronni, and she was pretty sure he was saying, “I know that tune.” Ronni swiped her level hand in front of her mouth several times, hoping that he’d pick up that she was saying, “Keep quiet!”
Julia resumed. “I guess you could say I did a little bit of entertaining in my day. I wasn’t really that good, but I was cheap. It was mostly for room and board.”
Ronni’s eyes opened wide. Pete’s mouth gaped, and his lips silently said whoa!
Ronni imagined this would go down as either the best or absolute worst interview of her career. She knew she needed to say something to keep things rolling along, but didn’t want to insult or make a fool of anyone. She finally mouthed to Pete, What do I do?
He smiled, and she instantly regretted her query.
“Did you play a little horn in your day?” he asked out loud.
“I thought you were eyeing that earlier,” Julia said. “Will you get it for me?”
He sprang from the sofa, and Ronni leaned from side to side hoping to get a glimpse of whatever object was beyond Julia’s chair.
“Just pull it straight off its mounting on the wall,” Julia continued. “I have it cleaned and re-padded and re-corked as necessary, even though no one plays it anymore except the guy at Manning Music when he does the maintenance.”
Pete walked along the tiny kitchenette located directly behind Julia and then entered a short hallway. Ronni couldn’t see him for a moment, but then he popped out carrying what she thought was a clarinet.
“So you played with a band?” Ronni asked the woman.
“With a band, without a band … it didn’t really matter. I wasn’t there to draw in crowds. The crowds came for the booze. My part was to keep the party going. Well … before October, 1929, it was to keep the party going. After that, we were honestly just trying to get a party started again.”
Pete gently placed the black instrument in Julia’s palms, but his hands hovered over it for a minute. “It’s so beautiful,” he said.
Julia’s index finger slowly circled what Ronni assumed was chrome surrounding the finger holes. “I got this one for a dollar back in 1930,” she said. “My dollar fed a family of four that day, but this clarinet fed me for about seven years.”
Ronni noticed out of the corner of her eye that Pete was brushing his cheek. “Did you learn to play the clarinet as a child?” Ronni asked quickly. “At school … or through private lessons?”
“I wish I had a reed,” Julia said, as if speaking to a small child nestled on her lap. “But my nurse won’t let me have one. The foolish woman thinks I’ll splinter it with my tongue and choke on the pieces.”
Pete was digging around inside his jacket. “Mrs. Stanford … ” He pulled out a handful of plastic and dumped it on the coffee table near the silver tray. His fingers riffled through an assortment of small, long, thin, clear plastic cases. “I ran a few errands after lunch.” Pete pinched the smallest case. “Here we are …” He opened it and presented a thin piece of shaved wood to Julia.
She smiled sweetly at him, but it quickly grew to a happy frown. “My mouth’s too dry,” she admitted.
“No worries — I’ve got it.” Pete put the object half way in his mouth, wrapped his lips tight around it, and winked again at Ronni. She took this as a green light opportunity.
“You mentioned you also served drinks at the speakeasy — at Mike’s Mirage. Do you remember the exact time frame? Was that when you were married to a bootlegger?” Julia’s recent comment about “her legend” surfaced in Ronni’s mind. “Did you actually have a husband who was a bootlegger?”
Julia’s fingers grazed smoothly over the instrument, a silky black cat that had possibly brought her good luck instead of bad. “Mike left the day-to-day operations of the speakeasy — as you called it — to a handful of us while he managed his other more lucrative and above-the-board ventures. We kept the entertainment drifting in, the booze flowing, and the cops at bay. There were no schedules, no specials, no bookkeeping tasks, no hours of operation — there was no governing body telling us what we had to do. Guess that’s the upside to illegal activities. The law can’t tell you how to do it.”
Julia’s eyelids appeared to get very heavy, but her fingertips continued their exploration of the intricate details of the clarinet. She seemed to sing the word “troubles,” hummed for a moment and then sang “get happy.” Ronni glanced over to Pete who had his eyes closed and was wiggling his fingers in quick, sharp motions. What sounded like “judgment day” escaped Julia’s pale pink lips, and then the song must have died because her voice returned to monotone. “I clearly remember standing inside and locking the heavy iron gate that protected the front door,” she began, “because I watched the Senator and a woman that was not his wife walk away arm in arm so she wouldn’t slip on the ice in her T-straps. I think they kissed before they crossed the street, and the romance of the moment must have distracted my thought pattern. I shut the heavy walnut door, but I’ve never for the life of me been able to remember if I slid the little iron arm over the back of metal peek-a-boo door – that’s what Hal, the bouncer, fondly called it. There was no one left in the joint but me and Rosie — I guess she’d become my roommate at that point. I washed up the two cocktail glasses that were left sitting on the bar – we’d done all the other clean-up while waiting for the Senator and his date to leave — then I headed to bed. There was a small mattress that we laid down next to the furnace in the storage room, and it was my turn to use it that night. Most comfortable bed I ever had … ”
Julia suddenly gripped the clarinet and the violence of her shaking hands transferred to the instrument, the vibrations reflecting the sudden racing of Ronni’s heart. “I …” She released the clarinet, and Pete was suddenly on the edge of chair as if he had wanted to catch the instrument. Or maybe he wanted to catch Julia. But the clarinet landed softly on her legs and her voice seemed clearer now. “I’ve never told this story … not to anyone … not even to Rosie.”
She fell against the back of the wing chair again. “I awoke after only a few hours of sleep that night, and as I rolled to my side, I suddenly realized my mistake. I ran to the front door and threw it open to witness gently falling snow that glittered in the street light. The iron gate was swung open all the way, flush with the brick facing on the building. I slapped my hand over my heart and could feel the hard outline of the gate key still in the pocket of my night gown. I know I stood there for a moment, the cold wind cutting into the overly-worn cotton fabric that barely covered me. There seemed to be no explanation for how that gate got unlocked. Mike had the only other key, and he was in Kansas City for the week. So I shut the gate but didn’t lock it, knowing the weather would have made travel extremely slow all day — and all that night — and that our midnight delivery could well occur at four a.m.” Julia’s eyes began to float around the room — she was searching for something. “So I headed back to bed, but the storage room seemed exceptionally cold. I touched the furnace and it was hot, so I turned around… and noticed a thin vertical sliver of dim light. It was a glimpse of the snow in the alleyway.The back door was opened a crack — but that seemed impossible. It bolted from the inside. So I re-locked it and tried to wrap my mind around the situation. But before I … well … I must have panicked, because I unbolted the door and opened it fully, and there he was. No truck, no gin or whiskey crates, no shotgun, no blood. Just Billy — Billy the Bootlegger, as Rosie called him — face down in the alley, his body still warm, but covered in a dusting of cold snow.”
Julia appeared to be looking Pete dead in the eyes. “He was my friend, and I knew him well — too well — so I did exactly what I was sure he would have wanted. I did it alone and finished before dawn. It’s funny, but I remember thinking that Rosie should have gotten the bed that night, because I sure as hell didn’t need it.” She blinked several times. “Is the reed ready, Mr. O’Neill?”
Pete glanced in Ronni’s direction and Ronni shook her head rapidly mouthing “no” over and over.
“You know,” Julia said, “I’m a hundred and eight years old — I could go at any second. I’d really like to hear that horn again.”
“Uhh …” came from Pete.
Ronni glanced to her watch. It was ten till five. She began to panic and started shaking her head, but her heart was winning out. She looked away and felt the couch move as Pete got up.
“What are you going to play for us?” Pete asked Julia.
Pete secured the reed onto one end of the clarinet. “All right,” he said. He played a quick string of notes and then twisted the instrument slightly. “There’s a tune I have bouncing around in my head for some reason.” He laughed softly. “Let’s see if I can bring it to life.”
Music exploded, and Julia’s face lit up, and Ronni felt a surge of heat rush through her body. Pete was swaying, and Julia was singing the words “get happy” again, and Ronni was staring at the voice recorder. Pete’s fingers danced, Julia’s hand bounced on her thigh, and Ronni watched the seconds tick away on her watch – a slow, even, continuous rhythm on her watch that she couldn’t manipulate, couldn’t sing to, and couldn’t stop. She wasn’t part of the party going on around her. She suddenly felt as if she was at work behind her bar on Mass Street, watching the party go on all around her, not really being a part of it, but just an onlooker. Funny… she spent a lot of her bartending time glancing at her watch, also.
The front door of Julia’s apartment opened without a knock, and a tall woman in burgundy scrubs with silver-streaked hair walked in. She glared at Pete until he stopped playing. Ronni stood up to make her plea. “It’s eight minutes till,” she said quickly to the nurse, “I still have eight more minutes.”
The nurse, whose plastic name plate only said “Lydia,” held a very even face. “No,” she said, “Mrs. Stanford needs her medicine at five. I’m sorry, but you need to be out of here, and she needs to be lying down. Those eight minutes belong to me. I think I explained that on the phone.”
Ronni was sure she hadn’t, but the wheels were in motion. While Pete re-mounted the clarinet on the wall, Lydia eased Julia up from her chair, and Ronni found herself packing up her files and voice recorder. Pete ushered her to the door, but Ronni’s mind ran through a mental list of the items she’d brought into the room. Something seemed unaccounted for. As she stepped over the threshold, Ronni realized what she’d left in the apartment was her opportunity to realize a sense of accomplishment.
“I had a lot of fun,” Julia said behind them. Ronni turned around, and Julia was standing now with the aid of the nurse. Julia’s sharp gaze was fixated on Pete. “Please come back and see me.”
“Love to,” Pete said, pushing Ronni through the doorway.
Ronni didn’t speak a word to him as they walked down the long hall and through the lobby of Lakeview Manor. As they approached the automatic glass door, Ronni was astonished by how dark it was outside, especially considering it was only a few minutes before five o’clock. All on its own, the door slid open to an ominous world. Pete pulled the back of his jacket up and over his head and then offered his arm to her for support, but Ronni resisted, opting instead to position her bag over her head and run toward his car. As she approached the general area, she saw the headlights flash on a car just twenty feet from her and thought maybe she heard a horn honk, but the pounding rain made it impossible to be sure. She opened the passenger door and satisfied herself that it was the right car only a moment before Pete hopped into the driver’s seat.
“Wow,” he said while catching his breath. He began to laugh.
“Wow is right,” she snapped. “How could you do that to me?”
“That was supposed to be my interview. You stole it, and now I have nothing.”
“Are you kidding me? That was amazing. She bared her soul to us.”
Ronni shook her head rapidly. “Are you crazy? Other than some generalities, I really only heard about one night of her life, and I can’t even write about it. Outside of that single event, I’ve got no facts, no dates, no locations, no —.”
“I’m pretty sure I could write at least 10 pages on what just happened in there,” Pete said, “and it’s not even my report.”
“Dissertation,” she barked. “It’s not a ‘report’. And you’re right — it’s my dissertation. I was supposed to steer the interview. I … ” she slapped her hands over her wet hair. “I know absolutely nothing about the men in her life. Husbands, lovers … nothing!”
“Billy the bootlegger was her lover.”
“She never said that.”
“It was obvious. And why can’t you write about him?”
“She possibly covered up a murder, hid evidence …”
“It was 80 years ago.”
“Are you a law student?” Ronni snapped.
He didn’t answer. The sad thing was, her boyfriend was a law student, but she didn’t dare mention this to Charles. He’d probably have Julia arrested.
“Look,” Pete offered. “She said we could come back—.”
“You! She was talking to you.”
“She meant both of us.”
“Maybe, but all the rapport was with you. She bonded with you.” And maybe that was the bottom line in Ronni’s anger: she had expected to find in Julia a kindred spirit. She’d expected to leave having made a friend. All she felt was defeat. “Just take me home.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“What do you mean?”
“Can’t you see what’s going on around us?” He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a cell phone. “It’s rush hour, and it’s like a typhoon out there. We might even be in a tornado watch. We’re not getting on I-70 in this.”
“Look, Dorothy, I seriously doubt this car is going to get picked up and whisked away by a tornado—.”
“Warning,” he interjected, flipping around on his phone. “Shawnee and Douglas counties are currently under a tornado warning. Hold on…” His thumbs were quickly thumping around on his phone screen, and he was intensely focused. “The radar shows the hook echo is south of Topeka, heading east towards Lawrence. I didn’t hear any sirens. If I can see through the buckets of rain, we should be okay in town, but we’re not leaving Topeka.”
Ronni exhaled very slowly and loudly. He was right, but it was difficult for her to admit it. She had so much anger she needed to vent. Between the failed interview and her car problem and Charles — yes, the thought of Charles was triggering negative energy. Amid these three issues, she was sure she could sit in that parking lot and yell at Pete for an hour or two. But the truth was that Pete had nothing to do with her problems.
“What do you propose we do?” she asked with all the calmness she could muster.
“Well,” he slid the key into the ignition, “I know a little place in town with decent food. Sometimes they have live music — we played there a few months ago. I’ll buy you a beer and we can eat and maybe talk about Julia and what we each picked up on from her this afternoon.”
“Okay … just drive,” she replied, looking at the blur of water streaming over the windshield. “And once we get there — if we do make it there alive — let’s discuss something unrelated to the interview, my car, or my …” What could she say? She didn’t want to say boyfriend even though he knew she had one. “Just drive,” she finally said. “And I’ll pray.”
Chapter 3 will be published next week at https://tscpl.org/community-novel