Selma & Patty at The Little Club: an excerpt
Selma could hear Patty’s breath slow, and then heard her begin to cry again. Finally, she felt her friend’s pain, could imagine it as if it were her own. What would I want to hear a friend say, Selma thought to herself. At the same instant, she thought to herself, I’m not ever going to make that kind of mistake.
She reached over and ran her hand across Patty’s back.
“Don’t worry, sweetie. We’ll figure out what to do.”
The two women didn’t talk about the small thing growing in Patty’s stomach again. In fact, even before the movie ended, Patty took Selma’s hand and led her out of the theater to go in search of one of Tommy’s runners. Then they got themselves invited down to The Little Club.
The club was rocking with energy when Selma and Patty arrived. In the corner by the door, a big man with a thick face and wide, rounded belly sat surrounded by a gaggle of young girls, all wearing trim little shift-dresses and sporting wide, painted mouths.
“That’s Babe Ruth, Selma,” Patty whispered excitedly.
“I know!” Selma shot back, pulling her back straight and pushing out her chest as they walked on, seeing the dark gaze of the baseball star run over her.
Next to Ruth was his running mate, George Dugan, a wiry little man who sat a little off to the side, digging into a plate of beans. A blank-faced thin girl clutched at Dugan’s thigh.
Deeper in the club, the spirits rose. By the long bar, a short, broad-shouldered man was stripped down to the waist and held his hands up in a boxer’s stance. He skipped around in a circle, bobbing and swinging, narrating each blow with a quick grunt, saying “Like this, then swing like that, then up here, quick like so that the doesn’t know what’s coming, then hammer his ear like this.” The crowd began to cheer him on, as if he were beating on a real opponent. “Come on Benny, hammer him Benny, knock him out, Benny,” and the women’s voices became shrill and piercing, like the Furies in myth, and the man threw his punches faster and faster, and then finally, one wild uppercut threw him off his feet and into the arms of the women. Patty let loose a peel of laughter and thew herself into the scrum, grabbing for the man’s hand and then pulling herself up to his face, where she locked her lips on his and kissed for all she was worth.
The crowd fell away and Patty lay arm in arm with the sweaty man, her lips just inches from his. He pushed himself up on his elbow with a broad smile.
“Well, hey there missy. I’m Benny Leonard. Light-heavyweight champion of the world. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Patty jumped up and smoothed down her skirt.
“I know who you are, you big lug. Now get up off the floor and make honest women out of me and my friend. We’re thirsty and hoping for something to drink.”
Benny looked up at Selma. She could see the shadow pass over his face. That was the way it was when a man first looked at her. They glossed over the welcoming shine in her eyes, the open span of her smile, and registered the hot mess of her features, the awkward turn of her nose, the flat line of her lips. The moment of disinterest that followed was like a challenge to Selma, a test of her significance, of whether she could draw the attention of a man away from women with more natural gifts, with more native allure, with a softer self.
“Come on then, you two, let’s get something to wet our whistles.”
At the bar, the young man held his shirt in his hands, flexing his muscles and wiping at the sweat dripping down his arms.
Patty took two quick slugs of gin and held her glass out for another. The thrill of the fight had faded and a dark film was closing in over her. Benny tried to beat it back, but Selma knew that he didn’t have a chance against this opponent, a specter of uncertainty and danger that Patty would try to ignore, but that she couldn’t discount.
“You liked that, didja doll?” Benny said to Patty, leaning in over her shoulder to catch her eyes. “That was nothing that. Im’ma wrecked when I get up in that ring. Shoulda seen me take out Lew Tendler in the Garden, didja? That dirty sonofabitch didn’t know what was coming at him when I let it all go. That’s right.”
Patty was impenetrable. She downed another gin and then another. Selma sipped at her glass. She watched the young man’s eyes get confused. She could feel him losing interest. Patty just stared down at the bar, quiet.
“We thought you were just fascinating, Mr. Leonard,” Selma simpered. She cast her voice a pitch higher, the thin tone cutting through the clamor. “Just fascinating.”
Benny stared at Patty.
“That why your friend here smacked a big one on me?”
“Oh yes, that’s why. You’re nothing but temptation to good girls like us. We just want to eat you up, that’s what we want.”
Benny leaned back on the bar on both elbows and faced Selma. His torso was shining with the residue of his sweat, the water evaporating into the heat of the club, the salt tracks forming around the shapes of his muscles. His nipples were small and red.
Selma leaned forward. She felt dizzy and heady. Patty was oblivious. Selma experienced a moment of abandon.
She licked her lips and reached out her finger. She ran her finger down from Benny’s shoulder along his chest and came to rest just above his nipple.
The man froze.
“It’s everything we can do not to eat you up,” Selma said. “Everything we can do.”
At the same moment that Benny pushed himself off the bar, his teeth bared, his eyes narrowed, as if he were going to pull Selma in to him and begin to chew away at her bone, Patty twisted from the bar, again grabbed Selma’s arm, and said, “We’re going now, Selma,” hurrying her friend out from the club, past where Babe Ruth was engulfed in the arms of two sinuous women, out of reach of the cries of the tough they left hanging at the bar who yelled after them, “Hey where you girls going? We was just getting acquainted!”
In the street, Patty pulled Selma from the theater, ignoring that taxis that waited outside and walking away from Broadway with brisk steps.
“What kind of trouble do you think you’re getting yourself into, Selma?” she snapped.
“What are you talking about? You were a drip in there. And throwing yourself at him like that.”
“I lost my head for a second. But you were literally going to push your hands down his pants right there at the bar! You don’t know what you are doing.”
“Don’t you treat me like a little girl. I know what I’m doing.”
“Selma, I tell you that I’m pregnant and you don’t have the sense to watch yourself with a man like that? What are you thinking?”
“You getting pregnant doesn’t have anything to do with me talking to that boy,” Selma snarled. “You’re just jealous that he was paying me a little attention. If you’d done something other than stare down at the floor maybe he’d have paid some attention to you. He liked you better anyway. Boys always do.”
Selma stopped. Patty kept walking up the dark street. After a few steps, she turned back to Selma.
“Come on. Let’s go home. And Selma, I need you to come with me to the doctor. I don’t know who else to ask.”
Excerpted from One Fierce Yearning, a novel in progress.