Jagged Sophistication: How Could Red Riding Hood Have Been So Very Good?

img266-1Hollywood, 1933

Tommy, Timothy, and I were propping up the bar at Tom’s, our usual Tuesday night spot. Tuesdays had the twin pluses of a piano player and no crowd, which meant that we could put in requests and actually hear the music. For the most part we favored singing along to our own requests over conversation.

I had put in a request for “How Could Red Riding Hood?” to the chagrin of everyone in the joint.

“Listen, Petey, this is the last time,” the piano player growled.

“It’s my signature tune,” I said calmly, if a bit slurrily. Adopting a pose—one hand curled under my chin, eyes wide—I hit my cue.

“Your friend has a great voice,” I heard someone say to Tommy as I finished.

“No, he doesn’t,” I said. “But he has great hearing.” 

He grinned. “So tell me, how could Little Red Riding Hood be so very good?”

“I believe that goodness had nothing to do with it.”

“Much experience in that area?”

“Some. I suspect I’m due for more.”

“Jack.”

“Peter.”

“Musician.”

“Then I and my voice apologize. We are but mere writers.”

“Can I buy Little Red a drink?”

“I’m supposed to go visit my poor granny, but…” I looked over at Timothy and Tommy, who were staring unabashadley at us. They waved.

“I think she can wait.”

“She might be dead, you know. In which case that would be a wasted trip.”

Jack had to pound me on the back after that.

We had a few drinks at Tom’s—enough to impair our judgment but not enough for us to call it quits.

“Let’s go back to the bungalows,” Tommy exclaimed. He looked at Jack. “You too. Peter won’t come without you.”

“Is that true, Peter? Do you require my presence?”

“I believe I do.”

“Then OK.” Jack slapped his thighs and stood. “Where are these bungalows?”

A short, blurry drive later, we all trooped into Tommy and Timothy’s bungalow.

“I should explain,” I said as Tommy began mixing drinks and Timothy flipped through their records. “I live just next door.”

“Ah. I was wondering what this night had in store for us.”

“I said I live next door. I did not say that you were invited to see my dwelling.”

“As long as wherever we go it’s just the two of us. I’m not sure I’m up for all three of you.”

“If Petey doesn’t want you, I’m sure Timothy and I can put you up for the night,” Tommy said from behind a pitcher of martinis. “Drink up!”

After we had each finished one wholly unnecessary martini, I took Jack’s glass out of his hands and put it firmly on the table in front of us. “Come on, Jack,” I said, pulling him to his feet. “Let’s go somewhere a little less crowded.”

Tommy and Timothy waved goodbye happily from the middle of the living room, where they had rolled up the rug and were doing a more enthusiastic than accomplished black bottom.

“If you’ll just step this way, good sir, we can offer you a sight-seeing tour the likes of which has remained unseen since the ancient Egyptians—” Jack pulled me to a stop.

“You know,” he said, “you should really figure out when to stop talking.” After that, it was a stumble into my bungalow, and then door shut, lights out, curtain down.

Memory is an odd thing. I can remember almost every minute of that whole evening, and yet at the time it seemed unremarkable. There’s never a sign that your life is about to undergo a sea change; I’ve certainly never been able to sense it.

“So what’s your story?” Jack asked me after passing me a lit cigarette.

I grimaced and he laughed.

“What, now you want to stop talking?”

“I just don’t want to talk about my past,” I said. “Mostly because I don’t want to start off lying to you.”

He was silent for a moment.

“I won’t lie to you if you won’t lie to me,” he said finally. I sat up on one elbow.

“Oh? Are you implying that we will have opportunities in the future to dissemble with one another?”

He laughed. “Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m saying. See? I’m already starting.” We crushed out our cigarettes and stopped talking again.

In the years that I would know Jack, he never again asked me about my past and, as far as I know, never told me a deliberate lie. Jack was a better person than I.

The next morning, I foolishly woke up with the vague notion of making some sort of hearty meal. Standing naked in the kitchen, squinting against the smoke from my cigarette, I stared at my cupboard.

“What are you looking for?” Jack asked, walking into the room in just his boxers.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “I don’t have eggs. What breakfast items don’t require eggs? I can only think of ones that do.”

Jack yawned. “Black coffee and toast.”

I sighed in relief. “I have it.”

We sat together in companionable silence, dropping crumbs and ash.

“I’m off work at six,” I said, taking a bite of toast.

“Oh?”

“If you wanted to have dinner.”

“Oh.”

“Only if you wanted to.”

“I do. I’ll pick you up? Where do you work.”

“MGM.”

“Oh.”

“Good oh or bad oh?”

“Surprised oh. I didn’t realize.” Jack coughed. “I work in the music department.” We both laughed. I looked at the clock.

“Let’s go back to bed.”

At work that morning, Allan knew exactly what I had been up to the night before.

“My dear boy!” he whispered during a story conference. “Old or new?”

“Borrowed and blue,” I whispered back.

“Better than black and blue,” Allan replied and then we both froze. He opened his mouth but I shook my head.

At 5:59 p.m., Jack stood in my doorway, hat in hand. “Hello Mister,” he said pitifully. “Can you give a poor man an honest meal?”

“Of course, of course,” I said jovially, rising. “Tis the burden of the rich: the care for the poor.”

I saw Allan approaching behind Jack. “We’re not buying.” I snapped with a wink to Jack.

He nodded dejectedly and turned to go.

“Sir, sir!” he implored Allan. “Are you interested in buying some pencils?” Allan eyed Jack.

“Oh my, yes,” he said. “Why don’t you come to my office and I can pay you for your pencil right now?”

“Hands off, Allan,” I said, laughing. “This one’s taking me to dinner.”

“I’m taking you?” Jack looked beseechingly at Allan. “Do you hear this? I thought I was being treated.”

“I would treat you,” Allan said sadly.

“Next time, Allan. But tonight, Jack is coming with me.”

“Lucky boy.”

“Goodnight, Allan.”

“Goodnight, boys.”

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