Matthew Licht

Alice in Roseland

All the old guys’ heads swiveled when Alice entered the old Roseland Ballroom. Since the men who showed up for afternoon dances were few, the crowd of elderly ladies noticed the swivel, and followed with their gazes. Unlike their habitual squires, they weren’t pleased by what they saw. 

Fresh Blood. New Meat. 

Despite their failing eyesight and the ballroom’s all-forgiving lighting scheme, the old fellows detected a dearth of wrinkles on the stranger lady’s face. The old women spotted this instantly, and did not approve.

Alice stopped at the border of the hardwood parquet and looked around. This wasn’t her first time at Roseland, but decades had passed since her last visit. 

The War was still on, then, and her son was in Europe, in uniform. She wanted to keep her mind off the appalling things that can happen to young men in combat. Whisky helped, somewhat, but dance music and unfamiliar male company was better.

Alice was a divorcée. She was also a widow, a mother, lonely, and an artist. She still dressed like one.

An old girl whom she passed on her way to the bar had whispered, “What a slob.”

Another muttered, “Whore.”

Alice was just about to pull a dollar from her purse for her first belt since lunch-break when a stranger intervened. 

“Her money’s no good here, Max,” the old fellow said, to the approaching barkeep. “Whatever she wants to drink, I’m buying it.”

Instead of saying, thanks, or telling the man, “I’ll pay for my own cocktails, if you don’t mind,” Alice looked him over, top to middle to bottom. “Turn around, please,” she said.

The man did so, slowly. He half-expected a kick in the pants. When he’d gone through 360 degrees, Alice was looking straight at him. Whatever test she’d just administered, he seemed to have passed it. She reached for the shotglass on the counter and drained it.

“My name’s Fred,” the man said, and stuck out a hand.

Alice looked down, and divided Fred’s gnurled mitt into rectangles and cylinders to form an asymmetrical pentagon.

Fred felt he was about to be lightly dismissed. He acted fast. “Would you care to dance with me?” he said, and, after a pause, added, “Please?”

He was aware of the multitude of rheumy eyes focused on them at the bar. His reputation as a lady-killer was at stake. 

Alice, on the other hand, had nothing to lose. She let poor Fred dangle in the air-conditioning while a slow number wheezed by. “I’m a lousy dancer,” she said, finally. “But hey, it’s your shins and toes.”

She let herself be led out onto the dance-floor, which felt marvelous.

Alice really wasn’t such a terrible dancer. Another drink or two would loosen her up into an even better one, and the late afternoon was young. 

She still had beautiful hands. They fit well into Fred’s. 

One old hit song rolled over and faded into another. The codgers who’d been too slow on the draw watched wistfully as the new couple turned and glided past them. Eventually, they’d recover, and get back into the usual swing of things. They’d ask the familiar single senior ladies to trip the light fantastic with them, again. 

Couples occasionally showed up together for matinee dances, but they were a great rarity. 

Alice and her ex-husband used to go on dates at the Roseland before they were married. Dances, and other forms of evenings out shadowed into the past after their son was born. 

She listened to the radio while she did housework and mothered. She knew she hadn’t done enough of either. Her interests had always lain elsewhere, and this still preyed on her conscience.

“How about some more refreshment,” Fred whispered into her ear, while Louis Armstrong told them they had all the time in the world.

Alice surmised he wanted to show off in front of the other regulars. Still a suave character, still a sheikh.

“Why don’t we go to my place instead,” she said, and lit a cigarette. She wasn’t really a smoker, but she liked what tobacco did to her voice, and she used it well. “I’ve got a bottle there, and there’s something I want you to do for me.”

Fred couldn’t believe his ears, or his good luck. He was specialized in a certain service for which lonely older women are often nostalgic. He’d been known as “Frenchy” in high school, even in the yearbook, although he’d taken Spanish instead of French. There were more Hispanic girls around, at Kefauver High.

“Anything you want, lady,” he said.

“Not so fast. What I meant was, I’d like to do some sketches of your head.” Alice tilted hers, for a better perspective, then looked down, although not quite as far as he hoped. “And your hands.”

“Oh,” Fred said. “Sure. That’d be great, I guess.”

So they exited Roseland together and went to her place, which didn’t, as Fred half-imagined, smell of cats, or the low tide at Coney Island, or spilled bargain liquor. Alice didn’t offer him a drink, but there’d be time for that later. He asked if he could use the bathroom while she searched around for her sketchpad and pencil.

Panties and brassieres were hung on the shower curtain rod to dry. Fred considered them as he relieved himself, avoiding the center of the pot. The wall in front of him had been painted yellow. That was strange, but she was an artist, after all. When he was done, he carefully wiped the droplets on the rim with a square of tissue, and inspected himself in the mirror while he washed his hands. Definitely not looking his best, but that was as good as it was gonna get, that evening.

She was ready for him when he came back out. She’d set a wooden chair in the middle of the room after she’d shoved the ugly little sofa off against the wall where the window wasn’t. 

No TV, he noticed. Not even black-and-white.

“Sit relaxed,” she said. “With your hands on your thighs. Like you’re lost in thought.”

“What sorta thoughts should I be lost in?”

“That’s up to you.”

Fred arranged himself as he’d been told to do, and thought of June, his first wife.

Alice scratched out exploratory strokes with a carpenter’s pencil, which made an artistic sound. ‘I really should draw more,’ she thought. She didn’t have much time for it, though. She was always dead tired when she got home from her job grinding lenses at an optics factory way the hell up in the Bronx. All she wanted to do was sit in her chair, look at the wall, drink, and think about a man she’d been in love with, who’d long ago been killed in a motorcycle accident. Not his fault. Taken out of existence by a drunk driver, who got off with manslaughter and never spent a minute at Sing Sing.

‘The best thing about art,’ she thought, ‘is that while you’re doing it you don’t have to think about anything else.’

Fred had never posed before. He wanted action, and was used to getting plenty. Ladies his age usually knew when their half-hour of pleasant preliminary conversation was up, and were well-aware that the next half-hour or so might be their last chance. This arty lady was paying attention—no one could say she wasn’t—but not the kind he wanted. The silence, broken only by the skritch-skratch of pencil on paper, also bothered him.

He gently cleared his throat. “Hey, what’s your name, anyway?”

“Oh, sorry, didn’t I tell you? It’s Alice. That is, I’m Alice.”

“Pleez ta meetcha. I’m Fred.”

“Hi, Fred. Let’s change.”

“Out of our clothes?” He chortled at his own bon mot.

“Let’s have you sit with your left leg crossed over your right knee, and your left hand supporting your left cheek. Look out the window over there like you’re thinking of something. Something different, for a change, buster.”

The little apartment’s lone window opened onto a brick wall, which must once’ve been visible from the street. A giant hand-painted Osram lightbulb had been concealed but not obliterated when the building Alice lived in went up. 

“So what’m I supposed to think about? I’m not good at this. When it’s my turn, I’d like to draw you naked, like Venice de Mille.”

“You mean, Venus de Milo.” Alice had lived in Paris for a while, after her divorce, and had dutifully visited the museums to copy old masterpieces.

“Nah. Venice de Mille’s a stripper at Crawfy’s. She’s famous cuz she’s the only one who goes all the way.”

“Is that right? Well listen, I draw, but I don’t strip, and I stopped posing a long time ago. You can leave now, if you want.”

Fred held up his hands in surrender. “Just a suggestion. But when you’re done we could, y’know, get to know each other a bit. I got a feeling when we were out there dancing together.”

“Oh yeah? What kinda feeling?” Alice had never really taken charge with a man before. Her sudden fit of boldness must’ve had something to do with drawing. This Fred person at least knew how to sit still. Something good might yet come out of their encounter. Maybe a painting.

“This is kinda embarrassing to admit,” Fred said, after a while. “But I got a feeling we sorta belong together. Did you feel that way too?”

“No I didn’t,” Alice said, because it was true. She’d only gone into Roseland because she’d heard music float out onto the street from inside the place when she walked by, and was surprised the old dancehall was still standing, still open. “It’s been a long, long time since I felt like I belonged with anyone. My own son doesn’t even write me letters anymore. Just a card for my birthday and Christmas.”

“That’s too bad. You divorced? A widow?”

“Both. With three different men. Do you have children?”

“Not me. Never been married, neither.”

“Oh? Why not?”

Fred had to think about it, but knew he’d better be quick. She’d think maybe there were too many reasons, or that maybe he’d tried to get married but had been turned down for some fault within himself that she hadn’t become aware of, yet. He decided Alice was the kind of woman with whom it’s better to play straight. “Just never found the woman with the right taste,” he said.

Alice’s well-shaped ears perked up. The guy’d come out with something unexpected. She thought he’d say he just liked playing the field, didn’t want to be tied down, had to live free or die. 

“Do you mean,” she said, “the right taste in clothes? Furniture?”

Either way, she would’ve found that interesting.

“You know what I mean, Alice.” Fred thanked Heaven that he’d remembered her name, at the right moment. He broke from his pose, rose from the chair without making himself too big or tall or menacing, and went down on his knees before her. Guys who hesitate, he knew, never get none. He’d never been one of those shy guys, not even in high school.

Alice contained her confusion. Was this what’d really moved her back into the old Roseland? Was this old lounge lizard what she’d been unconsciously looking for when she heard the music of yesteryear? Had she taken a shower that morning?

She wasn’t dreaming, wasn’t really asking herself those useless questions. Fred was more than direct, he was also strangely gentle, despite those stevedore mitts of his which were the first thing her artist’s gaze had picked up. She still had it, the discerning eye. She scooted forward on her chair. 

Fred closed his eyes, which he didn’t usually do, under such circumstances. Some of those old Roseland dames, former gangster molls, he was afraid they’d konk him on the head with a bottle if he didn’t do it the way they liked. That’s why he always took it real slow, at first. But this Alice was an artist, so she probably looked at things differently, saw them in a way other women didn’t. She must be looking at him right now, he thought, because maybe she’d want to paint a picture about what it’d looked like, later. Besides, he thought further, she was just right, like the girl in the story who breaks into the bears’ place. Best porridge he ever tasted, only it wasn’t porridge. He didn’t even like porridge, whatever it was. Alice was much better than porridge. In fact, she was a whole ‘nother world.

The couch would be more comfortable, Alice thought, for both of us. We’ll get to the bed later. Oh wait, the couch was the bed, in this room. She’d moved around too often, lately. This guy Fred moved her around like he knew what he was doing, like he knew how she wanted it just before it became clear what the next move oughta be. The other stuff about him, Alice thought further, might be a bit corny, but he’s at least got this right. In her mind, dreamily, she went over how he was dressed, what kind of shoes he wore. His breath was not unpleasant, a quality that grew steadily more important and more unusual among the men she either met or ran into, as the years raced ever more uneventfully by. 

Then the thing happened which hadn’t happened often enough lately, especially not with company around. Alice let the tide take her, or, better, released it. Whatever happened would happen.

Fred took the flood, and got the feeling that comes from having done a job exactly right, and you were the only one who could do it that way. In this case, it wasn’t just a feeling. 

***

Fred and Alice didn’t always get along as well as they did that first night they spent together, but if nothing else, they had the warm memories. And they both worked hard to make things work, together. Until Alice woke up one morning feeling all blocked up inside. After a few days with no improvement, Fred escorted her to the nearest hospital. 

Alice didn’t come out of there alive. 

Fred stayed in her apartment for a few weeks after she died, since they’d already paid the rent for the month, but he never went back to Roseland.

He might’ve been over the legal blood/alcohol limit when he fell in front of an A train headed up to West 125th Street. No one checked. There wasn’t much to check, and anyway it didn’t matter.

The building’s superintendent put Alice’s life’s work out in the street. ‘All these crazy pictures,’ he thought. ‘Who wants ’em?’

No one who walked by the building did. A girl who’d just moved to town held up a framed drawing of an old man’s hands, knotted in a gesture of resignation. The frame was gilt, and she thought it might look nice on the freshly painted walls of her new apartment. Then she thought of urinating dogs, cockroaches and dormant bedbugs and put it back on the pile, more or less where it’d been when it’d caught her eye.

The garbagemen who worked in that part of town enjoyed the glassy tinkle and tender crunch the frames made as they disappeared into the grinder at the back of their truck.

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