Peter Stephen Benton
Beyond the Blue Seranade
Al Stewart (A. Stewart & P. White)
Barry Parker heard the glass door of the restaurant thump closed behind him, muting the noise of the crowd. It was late April, and the night air was brisk and clear, just as he had guessed it would be when he selected his evening wardrobe: a navy-blue blazer, a tattersall oxford long-sleeve button-down open at the neck…no tie, cuffed English tan gabardine slacks, argyle socks, and black Bass Weejun penny loafers.
Amid the backdrop of the drone of midtown Manhattan and its
swirling, random sights and sounds and smells, he had momentarily found refuge from the revelry inside. It may have appeared peculiar to the others, when his absence became obvious, that he had stolen away into the night anonymously, as if to escape or hide: that would be understandable or even expected if the man were an introvert. But Barry Parker was not. He was also not a loner, but there were times
that he desperately needed to be alone.
Behind him the cheerful sounds resonated—the murmur of
muffled conversations, random outbursts of laughter, and clinking of rock-hard ice cubes in crystalline glasses. The fingertips of his right hand touched one of the thin, cylindrical objects that were held loosely in his jacket pocket. Grasping the object carefully with two fingers, he brought the filter of a cigarette to his mouth and placed it between his lips. He was a casual smoker; a cigar or cigarette was an infrequent indulgence. Suddenly a yellow cab raced by with a shadowy
fare silhouetted in the back-seat. Barry watched its red tail-lights grow smaller in the distance and then blend in with the shimmering kaleidoscope that was Second Avenue. He became aware of the invisible odor of exhaust fumes that trailed behind the taxi like the tail of a streaking comet. Glancing across the street, he stared blankly at the reflections in the front windows of the street-level shops and offices, now dark inside, tidily tucked in for the evening. His thoughts were distant.
Barry fished around in the left pocket of his coat and retrieved
the matchbook earlier plucked from a small dish on the bar of the restaurant. He held the matchbook up in the sparse light and read Caterina’s, East 53rd Street, New York City embossed in black on the silver cover. He tore one of the cardboard matchsticks away from the others– standing at attention like so many helmeted soldiers – and then tucked the cover back under the flap. As he dragged the red bulbous head across the dark emery strip, a spray of tiny sparks exploded. The match flared, briefly illuminating his face in a yellow pallor. A blue cloud of smoke reeking of burnt sulfur and tobacco drifted skyward as he held the flame to the end of the cigarette and
drew in shallowly and then exhaled. He rapidly shook the spent
match to extinguish the dying flame and flipped it into the street with his index finger. From within the restaurant behind him, a loud cheer erupted as the amplified sound of the evening’s entertainment overcame the din.
Stocky, hairless, and pasty-skinned Billy Hunter launched into
his own campy and ribald rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” accompanying himself on piano. Billy was a storied lounge singer who was no stranger to many in this crowd, including Barry Parker. Billy’s weekly gigs were live karaoke shows with him on piano and several notebooks full of lyrics. But it was his outrageous costumes and props, as well as his transgender frolicking that endeared him to the throngs and kept the laughter spiking.
Barry turned away from the slight breeze that had kicked up.
Then he took a final drag of the cigarette and flicked the glowing remnants into the gutter. He quickly retrieved another from among several that were loose in the pocket of his sport coat and, after lighting it, held it in his right hand at his side.
Looking up Fifty-Third Street, he could see the amber glare of the streetlights washing over the scene of cars, mostly yellow taxis, darting across Second Avenue, making their way to somewhere uptown or downtown. Suddenly the music, singing, and laughter burst forth from Caterina’s onto the street and echoed cavernously behind him to his right. He swung around and saw that the double glass front doors of the restaurant had been opened, spewing the music and noise onto the sidewalk like an upended barrel of water. He began walking quickly up the street, away from Caterina’s. When he reached Second
Avenue, winded, he scurried around the corner, but not before hesitating and quickly glancing over his shoulder.
A few doors down on Second Avenue, he reached his destination: Chianti. As he entered the restaurant lobby, he veered to the right. He knew the layout—he had been there before. As he passed the hostess, Barry pointed to the lounge. She nodded familiarly and faintly smiled without speaking. The smell of cooked garlic permeated the Italian restaurant, and the lounge had a vague whisper of stale cigarette smoke. Hundreds of tiny white lights strung around plants and small trees provided ambient lighting in the room, which was not unlike
hundreds of other similar establishments in the five boroughs.
Barry spotted an empty booth in the corner at the back of the
lounge. The dark wooden bench seats were covered with red vinyl cushions. Dark wainscoting rose from the black-carpeted floor to a chair rail that was even with the tops of the booths. From the chair rail to the ceiling, red-and-black-patterned wallpaper adorned the walls.
Pictures of Italy and gilt-framed mirrors were interspersed throughout the room. On the opposite side of the room from the booths, bottles stood on tiers in front of a mirror that ran the entire length of the mahogany bar. The barstools matched the booth seats. Barry walked toward the last booth and slid swiftly across the seat, which made a squeaky flatulent sound. He chuckled to himself and grinned, thinking that had his brothers or sons been there, they would have welcomed
the opportunity to exploit the sophomoric humor.
Barry faced the open room and surveyed the premises. There
were only a few groups of patrons, most standing. No one was at the bar. It was early for a Saturday night. Except for the usual bar sounds, the room was conversationally quiet. He glimpsed over at the jukebox next to the bar, knowing that it had one of the best selections he had ever seen, anywhere. And he had seen many, being somewhat of a jukebox connoisseur. He waited. A slender brunette waitress in a tight-fitting black sweater and skirt approached his booth as other
patrons began filtering in.
Within minutes, it seemed, the lounge was crowded. Barry Parker shot out his left arm and glanced at his wristwatch. It was not an expensive timepiece: a Timex. He fished around in his jacket pocket and retrieved another cigarette and lit it. He flipped the spent match toward the small, clear glass ashtray in the middle of the table. It missed. He reached across, picked it up, and dropped it onto the pile of ashes, crushed butts, and other matches that he had accumulated in his short tenure. He had planned accordingly and, despite being an infrequent smoker, had plenty of smokes: the anticipation always
made him inexplicably nervous. The anticipation.
Barry wriggled out from behind the table and stood, one steadying hand, knuckles only, remaining planted firmly on the table. A tumbler covered with condensation containing the remnants of ice, gin, and tonic remained perched upon a small paper napkin. A red swizzle stick—one of a group of three—lay on the table just above the glass. He had ordered another, which the pretty little brunette waitress
would soon deliver.
Laughter and loud conversation enveloped him as he adroitly
threaded through the faceless multitude, through the smoky blue haze, and approached the jukebox tucked in near the end of the mahogany bar. Here he could indulge himself publicly while safely ensconced in the anonymity of the crowd. No one would really pay attention to him and would soon forget that he was the one responsible if they did notice.
An ashtray conveniently waited there for him to extinguish the
only slightly smoked Winston. Reaching into his right pants pocket, he carefully removed the five twenty-dollar bills he had earlier straightened and folded—this was premeditated and deliberate: they were prepared for just this. He carefully peeled and threaded them one by one into the waiting maw of the hungry machine. The first two bills quickly disappeared into the shiny, thin slot on the initial try; the third bill finally worked after three frustrated attempts and desperate smoothing of the corners. He feared that the last two would be regurgitated as well, rejected as excessive, selfish—even ridiculous.
He gently coaxed them along—to his delight and relief, they slithered in, flapping like a lizard’s tongue.
For the next ten minutes, he searched. He fervently punched at
buttons, sequences of four-digit numbers that, together, must have had some deeper meaning and represented something—but he was not sure what that was. He tried to hurry…this was not his first experience with this particular machine…it had a fantastic and seemingly unlimited repertoire. That figured—this was New York. Where else would anyone expect to find one of the greatest jukeboxes on the
When he had finally exhausted his selections, sixty of them, Barry carefully placed the palms of his hands on either side of the chrome edges that encased the glass on the top of the jukebox. He tenderly yet firmly stroked both sides of the smooth, shimmering metal, as if they were the arms of a lover: a lover who he knew would soon make him happy, sad, passionate, angry, romantic, and melancholy. It was a
lover who knew no boundaries of time and space, a lover who would selfishly steal away with his emotions, the very lows as well as the very highs, without consideration for the now or the then—they were one and the same, luring him like the seductive siren’s song enticed
He slowly hunched forward and stared at his vague reflection
in the glass encasement, just as he had done countless times before: in the glass with its smudged fingerprints and dried circles of glass bottoms from others before him, he could see tiny beads of perspiration glistening on his brow. Suddenly he was aware that the last selection before his, someone else’s, had finished, and number 3027 would begin momentarily. It was always 3027: the overture. Then, softly, the distinctive first harpsichord notes of Al Stewart’s “Time Passages” chimed into the other sounds in the room, blending and becoming part of the fabric: it would be background to most. Barry Parker straightened, then turned and faced the crowd, his eyes darting
from side to side as if he expected to see someone that he knew, and he headed back toward the booth.