Chapter One: Loco-Motion
There’s some DJ out of London saying how the German acetate was nothing but a bad rumor trading on the memory of the King. Don’t you believe it. It exists all right, but you’ll never hear it. Nobody will. The most valuable record ever made has been played for the very last time. I know. I was there in the room.
If you ask the Teds where it started, maybe they’ll tell you something different. I don’t claim to know the beginning of things. But only last week I heard “Good Rockin’ Tonight”—the Wynonie Harris version at that—and where did it take me back to? Not Ellie. Not the Club Bop-a-Lula. Not even back to my gunmetal-gray flip-brim porkpie hat. It took me back to thirteen hours out of Hermosillo, when the off-front tire blew and the bus shimmy-flapped off the asphalt into the Mexican dust on a night so long it could only be New Year’s Eve…
I sat up and worked my neck sideways to ease the kinks. Third tire gone since sundown and no more spares aboard. My hand went automatically under the seat to check my bag. No question about it, I was going to be late. The Professor would not be happy. But then neither would I. I’d been aiming at L.A. for over a week now, and I was still bouncing my butt in slow motion across the Sonora desert.
A tobacco-stained peasant in a cowboy shirt leaned across the aisle, waving a bottle of Mezcal, and offered me the worm. We toasted the New Year—1984. Up in the front of the bus two kids started to whine and the driver put in another cassette—the one with the pig noises. I punched my jacket into the window ledge as a pillow and revisited the arguments for getting into another line of work.
It wasn’t like I had much to lose. I’d never been one for keepsakes, and the hotel fire in Copan had wiped out everything I carried except my passport pouch. Even my old roadie memorabilia had disappeared from McWiggins’ garage. He’d claimed theft, and I couldn’t dispute it, but I wasn’t talking to him anymore. I wasn’t talking to anybody. Dad’s ship might have been lost at sea for all I knew. There hadn’t even been a letter at my last two mail drops, but then I wasn’t writing much either. Rainer and T.J. had turned respectable. The women I’d known were all married or on the slide, and even if somebody new popped up it was even money whether or not I could muster the energy to make a move.
All I had left were my hustles, and these days for every one that juiced me there were three that played out as flat as any day job. I could still do the work; the question that had started bugging me was why.
I woke to a grim, distant sun and the unfamiliar feeling of movement. Wind blew through the windows, spraying grit across my teeth, while the peasant next door snored into his sleeve. An empty bottle of Mezcal rolled beneath the seats. Another morning after another night on another beat-along bus to a border. I discovered I’d been sleeping on my hat.
We hit Tijuana around midnight, but the Greyhound had already left. It was going to be one of those years. I grabbed my bag and the crushed straw hat that had looked so bandito in Veracruz, phoned the Professor in L.A., and let him stutter to a halt. We set up a meeting at the depot. Six sharp; cash in hand. To him it was a big deal—the last piece of a puzzle. To me it was another job with more problems than pay-off. Not that that was new.
I traded the last of my pesos for a five-dollar bill, pumped down a cup of coffee, and found a cheap Mex bus bound for San Diego. In the back seats a dozen sailors traded bottles and lies, hooting a bright-lights tale about Tijuana whores and hoping that nobody would call their bluff. I sat up in the front next to a small, frightened woman with a big-eyed child. After an indecent interval the driver boarded, belching over his supper.
We managed the crosstown run just fine, but at the border they wanted a closer look. Cold neon reflected off the windows of the customs office, saying more clearly than any sign that the United States Customs and Excise Department had business in hand. We filed off the bus into a chairless anteroom where two officials in green uniforms stood waiting with the terminal patience of career bureaucrats. I chose the nearest: a large, full-buttocked black woman whose left breast was labeled Luvella Green.
Right away there was trouble.
“Did I axe you to stand there?” A baleful stare.
“No,” I said.
“When I am ready to process you through, then you stand there. Understood?”
I moved back.
“Now,” said the woman, “we may begin.”
I moved back up. The ritual never changes.
“U.S. citizen?” she said. “Let me see some I.D.”
I handed over my passport.
She looked at the picture, then back at me. I tried to remember when I’d last had a shave.
“Dexter Doyle,” she said. She made it sound like a questionable decision. “Where is it this passport was issued?”
“Singapore,” I said.
Her eyes traced my outline, settling nowhere. She flipped the pages. “How long you been gone, Mr. Doyle?”
“You visit all these countries on this trip?”
“Pleasure,” I said. “Pure pleasure.”
One of the sailors in line behind me snickered.
“This all you got for luggage? Open it.”
She rummaged. “What is all this? You on a baseball team or something?” Her eyes came up with the question—large, liquid, and deceptively soft.
“Nothing serious. I’m a fan mostly.”
“But you got a uniform in here. And a ball. And…” She rummaged some more. “What’s in this packet?”
“Souvenirs,” I said. “Of my trip.”
Again the eyes. She opened the packet.
“You must be a Padres fan,” I said.
“A what?” She looked up from her search.
“A Padres fan. I figured since you live in San Diego, maybe you follow the team.”
“Who says I live in San Diego?” She shut the packet and set her left fist on her hip.
I gave her a goofy smile. “You never know, this could be their year.”
“Hey, man, hold the gab, will you? We want to catch us some shut-eye.” The sailors behind me were restless.
“I got duty at oh-six hundred,” said a man with a cigarette behind his ear. “Come on, sister. Give us a break.”
“Who you calling sister?” The lady arched her massive bosom forward and jabbed a finger at the man. “You get your shore pass over here and open up that ditty bag.”
“And I mean right now.” She slapped my packet down on my bag and turned her stare on the Navy.
I scooped up my gear and got going.
It’s not that I had anything illegal, just stuff that was hard to explain. The Professor had hired me to dig up traces of Sal “The Barber” Maglie’s baseball career in the Mexican League. Sal and a few other brave souls had bolted the fold in 1946 and signed up to play south of the border. The National League had not been pleased. They’d exerted pressure in the right circles, and within a year or two all the lost sheep had come home. End of story, for everybody except the extreme cases like the Professor, who’d spent twenty years writing the definitive history of obscure leagues and the social motivation behind the players who’d joined them.
The deal with the Professor was no tougher—and a hell of a lot less weird—than some of the gigs I’ve hustled. The trick is to hit on somebody who wants something real bad but is afraid to go looking for it themselves. Like Dad always said, “The world is full of two kinds of people—those who dare and those who don’t—and it’s the ones who don’t that keep us eating.” He’d had me running dodges since my kid days, and after my so-called big-time music career fell to bits, it was only natural to do what I knew. I’ve hunted ivory in the opium states beyond Burma, smuggled temple artifacts out of Guatemala, and attempted to corner the Moroccan market in goulamine beads. I’ve been a guide, a translator, a thief, and a social pariah, but I won’t turn a trick just for money. It’s the rush I do it for, the mainline kick of the chase. The search. Something I can connect with. Which is why I took on the gig for the Professor.
I’d gone down to Mexico posing as a Dodgers’ scout. Ever since Fernando, the fat kid from Navajoa, took his screwball north and introduced it to a million bucks per annum, gringos in Dodger caps have become personas mui gratas. So getting help was no problem. But getting hard information was. I made thirty-five separate bus journeys, got tips on at least a hundred can’t-miss prospects, and spent a week in the Guadalajara jail. What did I get? Besides stacks of anecdotes badly translated from the Spanish, I had a Danny Gardella uniform top, three photographs of Maglie posing in a photo studio, a baseball autographed by the 1948 Mexican League All-Star team, and the scorecard from a Maglie two-hitter—arguably his best performance south of the border.
All well and good, but by now I could see that under the terms of our deal I didn’t stand to clear much more than expenses, and most of those had been paid up front. By the time we hit L.A., I’d started scuffling in my mind for new employment.
I was still toying with the sordid remains of a bus-depot breakfast when the Professor walked in. He’s something big in Military History, but he looks like Bozo the Clown—which is to say, right at home in the depot diner.
He shuffled over with a cup of coffee and sat down grimacing. “Wh-what’s that smell?”
“My eggs, I think.” I flipped a piece onto the floor and watched it bounce.
“N-n-not that. It’s m-more like…”
The old crust at the next table dragged himself up and out, trailing an aroma of urine behind him like a pet cloud.
“More like that?” I said. I put down my knife and fork for good.
The Professor distended his nostrils and pushed his glasses up further on his nose. “N-never mind,” he said. “Let’s see the m-material you promised.” He leaned forward and sloshed coffee onto my plate.
I handed over the bag.
“Outstanding,” he said.
“And the money?”
“S-s-sure. Right here.” He patted at his pockets, discovered an envelope, and tossed it across the table.
I peeked inside. “No bonus.”
His smile was meant to be apologetic. “We had a d-deal.”
“The Gardella stuff is an extra.”
“M-maybe if the scorecard had b-b-been authenticated.”
“Authenticated? We’re talking about the frigging Mexican League here, not the U.S. Office of Patents. You’re lucky it exists at all.”
“I know, I know. B-but what can I do? I’m a p-poor man.” The Professor’s calf-eyes stared at me over his coffee.
Suddenly I was tired of it all. My clothes stank, my beard itched, and the eggs were hitting my stomach. I hadn’t had a shower in a week, and the last bed I’d seen had been occupied by a family of goats on the market fringe outside Hermosillo. I had needs to fulfill.
“Fine, Prof. Whatever you say.” I grabbed a toothpick and the straw hat and stood up.
“W-wait a minute. What about the other stuff in the b-b-bag? Don’t you want it?”
“All yours, pal. Trade you for the breakfast. Your tab, all right?” And I was gone.
I stood outside the depot for a moment, playing with my toothpick and letting my eyes adjust to the downtown air. Across the street a fizzled neon flickered: RAN HOT…RAN HOT… a dozen times in succession before my brain registered Grand Hotel.
I could smell it already, but after three days of a window-ledge pillow, anything flat would serve. I crossed over and pushed open the door to the lobby, loosing the mingled odors of old socks and unmade beds onto the street. The clerk sat propped up in a mesh cage, dozing behind a bottle of Thunderbird. A TV babbled in the corner.
I rattled on the cage. The clerk’s head jerked forward and back, and after a loud, juicy snort he sat up, blinking against the light.
“A bed,” I said.
He shuffled over to a rack of keys, selected one, and led me through a back entrance to a stairwell sticky with residue. We climbed to the third floor east. The room overlooked the street. There were four empty beer cans and a copy of yesterday’s Times on the bureau. An ashtray lay upside down on the floor.
I took the key, bolted the door, and fell crossways on the bed.
It was after dark when I woke, and for a long moment I didn’t know where I was. The stale sweat on the sheets, the lumpy sag of the mattress, a gray smear of window with the honk and rattle of traffic outside… It could have been anywhere from Penang to Port of Spain. For one instant I thought I smelled ship’s diesel, sweet as palm wine on the ocean wind, and Dad’s face floated up from nowhere, saying, “Second watch. Rise and shine, boyo.” Then the dark came back.
I felt for my passport pouch and sat up, still groggy and groping for the light. A harsh flash of fluorescence seared my eyes shut. When I opened them, I was looking at the newspaper on the bureau and Limbo had been replaced by Los Angeles. I wasn’t sure I was grateful.
With an effort I moved to the window and wrenched it open, letting the rush of street noise wash me clean of withdrawal. After a bit I picked up the paper, with an eye to checking on the bowl games, but when the classifieds fell out I had a better idea. Freelance adventuring is all very well, but where do you find your work?
It was a message in the South China Post that had first put me onto the “Personals” column, and I’d used it with success several times since. Fact is, I’d hit on the Professor via these very same LA Times Personals. The trick is to pick out the genuine oddball offer from all the would-be adventurers in the skin trade. I scanned my way down the column, slowly at first and then picking up speed.
I was halfway through and yawning when one sentence stopped my jawline dead in its recoil: “68 but we try harder: Hiawatha call Minnehaha at 874-2600 if you’re back from Heartbreak Hotel. Payoff immediate.”
What that would look like to anyone else I couldn’t say, but I knew that message begged to be answered by me. How many people could there be in L.A. who had graduated Class of ’68 (“But we try harder” had been the underground motto) from a school that called their Homecoming royalty Hiawatha and Minnehaha? It had been a never-ending source of amusement to surrounding schools. Add in the Academy’s size—less than a hundred students in my senior class—and there was no doubt in my mind that I’d know whoever answered that phone.
“Payoff immediate.” I liked that.
I went back over to the bus depot, found a pay phone, and dialed 874-2600.
A woman’s voice said hello.
“Hey, Minnehaha. Hiawatha here. I just woke up in Heartbreak Hotel.”
“Splendid. And where might you be now?”
“Uh, the bus depot. Downtown.”
“Perchance a meeting on the morrow would be convenient?”
I hesitated. Only one person I had ever known talked like that. “Is this Elvina Abercrombie?”
There was silence on the other end.
“Ellie?” I said.
“To whom, may I ask, am I speaking?”
“Dexter. Dexter Doyle. Look, I—”
The phone went dead.
I sat there listening to the dial tone, with the first faint whistle of curiosity coming on the boil. Tomorrow, I told myself. I’ll try her again tomorrow.
A gray, dusty light and the coughing next door woke me far too early in the morning. I dragged myself out of bed and down to street level. I was still tired, still dirty, and still sore from riding. No question about it, I needed a new hat.
I chucked my straw one at the first dude to spare-change me and cut over to Main Street. Downtown L.A. ain’t nothing like the movies. It’s winos and weasels and women weaving on their feet. Broken bottles on the sidewalks, bag ladies turning up the trash, and a smog that hangs like a pallor of death, gray on the horizon. The bars are full all day: clip joints for the poor sandwiched between greasy taco stands and all-night movies that smell like Parisian urinals.
The only legitimate businesses within a mile of the Greyhound Depot are the hat shops. There are four or five of them right there—no better selection in the city. I even have a favorite. I stepped around a sleeping Mexican on the corner of 5th and Main and walked into Jaime’s Hats.
One of the kids was minding the store—a twelve-year-old with grown-up eyes and a persistent line of chatter. It took a minute to shake him, and when I did I found myself in a back aisle, staring at the sweetest piece of headgear I’d seen in quite some time. It was a gunmetal-gray flip-brim modified porkpie, and once I had it on my head, I knew it had come to stay. There was just the question of tilt. I went to look for a mirror.
A guy in a shabby brown suit stood in front of the nearest one, wearing a purple pimp’s hat trimmed in squirrel fur and holding a battered fedora. But he was staring out the window. When he heard me behind him, he jumped, and something in the twitching of his limbs brought the years back in a rush.
“Gruber?” I said, still not certain.
He looked scared for a moment, then confused. “Doyle?”
These coincidences were getting to me. Crossing paths with a second old classmate in less than twenty-four hours stretched my credulity thinner than a Vegas g-string. But it was him all right. Same spotty nose and dirty fingernails. All arms and legs—we’d called him Spiderman at the Academy. I hadn’t seen him since.
“That’s me,” I said. “What’re you doing in L.A., Milt?”
“Whoa, hey. I…” He flicked another glance out the window. “Not much. How long’s it been, hey?”
“Fifteen years,” I said.
“Is that right?” He didn’t look too interested.
We edged away from the mirror, and Gruber handed me his old hat. “Hold that a sec, will you? I got to try me something different.” He grabbed a green Tyrolean job half a size too small and jammed it on his head. “How’s that, hey?”
All the time he was watching the window, the mirror, the aisle behind me. It didn’t take much to see that Gruber had something on. Even back in school he had always been the fixer: the guy who could score anything for a price. He used to do liquor runs as a regular deal, Friday nights. We’d never hung out together or anything like that, but I figured for old time’s sake I could risk a tease.
“I think she’ll like it, Milt.”
“She’ll what?” Another twitch of the spider limbs, another glance out the window. “Who will? That a joke, hey? Or what?”
“No—I mean yes. Look, who’d you take to Homecoming our Senior year?”
“What in the hell? Nobody. What’s it to you?”
I couldn’t resist. “Not Elvina Abercrombie?”
A quick cut of emotions slashed across his face. His right hand flexed and cocked.
I cut off my smile in mid-move.
“What is this, Doyle? A hustle?”
From the look he gave me, I knew I wanted no part of it. “Take it easy, man. Just kidding. No harm.”
“Yeah?” He jammed the Tyrolean number on tighter. “Well, it threw me, see. I’m supposed to meet—ah—a broad down here—”
“You? I mean, that’s great.”
“Is it?” He peeked up at the front counter. “Trouble is, we said the hat store on the corner of Main, and I don’t know if she’ll go to this one or that place across the street. Damn women, anyhow.”
“Better hope it’s not the one down the block.”
“Down the block?”
“Sure, look over there.” We moved to the window, and I pointed down the street. “It’s just out of sight around that corner. And if you—hey!”
Just like that, he was gone. Down the aisle and out of the store so fast, the kid on duty never even saw him go.
My first thought was that he was doing a bunk for a free hat. Then I figured he’d spotted the “broad” he was talking about. Either way it was none of my business. Gruber was always up to something, and, like I said, we’d never hung out together. He’d been just another dude sneaking smokes in the third-floor can. If he didn’t want to say good-bye, that was fine with me.
A final glance in the mirror, and I was ready to head out myself. That’s when I realized I was still holding Gruber’s old hat. It was tempting to drop it right there, but considering the fit of the one he’d exited in, I thought he might want it back. Besides, in the back of my mind I had a real curiosity to see what type of woman would be meeting old Gruber on Main Street, L.A. I settled up with the kid at the counter (ignoring his rhapsodic exclamations over my choice of headgear) and stepped onto the street.
Straight off, I got sidetracked by an aggressive vet on crutches who wanted reparations for services in Vietnam. After a bit of shuffle, he settled for two bits and a Mexican peso. Figuring Gruber had followed my hint, I cut down the street and around the corner to the hat shop I’d pointed out through the window. When I reached it, a small crowd was gathering on the sidewalk. An old black man in a hooded sweatshirt stopped me as I approached. “Weren’t me,” he said. “I weren’t nowhere in sight.”
I started to move around him when I saw a hat rolling wind-blown down the gutter. It was a green Tyrolean job with the insides all ripped out. That stopped me.
I inched my way up through the curious to where a body lay at an awkward angle against the curb, with a spreading pool of blood beneath it. Even before I saw the face, I knew I was looking at the body of Milton Gruber.
My novel, DANCE TO KEEP FROM CRYING, uses the subcultures of rock ‘n’ roll to explore some of the most deep-seated mythic elements of post-war Anglo-American culture.
It’s 1984. Dexter Doyle, a freelance adventurer, has just finished up a job in Mexico when he crosses paths with two high-school classmates in L.A. The first is Ellie Abercrombie, who Dexter remembers best for the sharp-tongued arguments they used to have. The second is Milton Gruber, a small-time hustler who is obviously on a caper. In short order, Milton is dead in the gutter while Dexter and Ellie—and a flight bag full of rare records—are on a bus to Mississippi, where they hook up with Ellie’s best friend, Lillian, a blind woman who is both a record collector and a distant relative of Elvis Presley.
As Dexter and his cohorts seek the elusive (yet historically based) German demo recorded by The Beatles, they find themselves sweet-talking Mississippi hicks, battling skinheads in London, and attempting to infiltrate the rockabilly-mad Teddy Boy empire of a boss man known only as the Welshman. With Ellie Abercrombie, an overweight iconoclast with a penchant for classic Soul; Steady, the frantic, dance-mad street hustler they meet in London; and blind Lillian, who holds evidence of a chance meeting between the Beatles and Elvis himself, you have a rich vein of cultural commentary begging to be mined.
Dexter’s struggles to come to terms with his detachment from his father and his budding interest in Ellie and Lillian—even while he finds himself at an emotional crossroads—bring him new insights and an unexpected understanding of his past, his present, and his future. By the time Dexter learns to see Ellie the way Lillian does—beneath the skin—we can watch the three of them finally play that precious demo, even as the crumbling acetate powders under the needle slicing through it. The most valuable record in the world has been played for the very last time.
Daniel Gabriel lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His published work includes three novels (Twice a False Messiah, Paradiso Park, and Season on the Edge), two story collections (Wrestling with Angels and Tales from the Tinker’s Dam), and hundreds of nonfiction articles on immersion travel, baseball, rock ‘n’ roll, and the like. He is a lifelong vagabond traveler who has ridden camels, tramp freighters, and third-class trains through more than a hundred countries. For further information, please see his website at danielgabriel.us.
Embark, Issue 13, October 2020