This story, 'Ladies Man,' is an excerpt from Philip's novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues.
I’d never had much luck with the girls in my neighborhood, so on my eighteenth birthday I decided to try elsewhere. To say I was nowhere near what you’d call a ladies man would be an under-statement; I had all the yearnings, but none of the success.
With me that summer night was Johnnie Jay, my best friend of my teenage years. Taller than me, dark hair longer and curlier, ever-present sly grin, mischief running rampant in his eyes. He was already a sophomore at Fordham where I would be going in the fall.
Where we lived, a middle-class housing project in the Bronx, the girls preferred a more run-of-the-mill, conformist kind of guy: clean-cut, crewcut fraternity types who wore the requisite blue blazers, grey slacks, and buttoned-down shirts to complement their buttoned-down minds. Johnnie Jay and I were on the bohemian fringe. We read the Beats, recited lines verbatim from Eliot, Pound and Hart Crane, let our hair grow over our ears, favored faded and worn-looking blue jeans and black Tee’s, always wore shades outdoors, and the only movies we watched were the foreign ones that played in small art-houses in the Village.
Above all, we valued experience—with a capital E, as we liked to say. New places, new situations, new people. It was what we lived for, in whatever limited way it came to us. So we drove six miles north to the Ship Ahoy, a bar on the backstreets of New Rochelle—this our miniaturized road trip, a humble version of Kerouac’s wild cross-country ventures but still exotic in its own way, at least to our way of thinking. From what we’d heard around the neighborhood, the girls at the Ship Ahoy—among them the Irish domestics who sat at small tables near the bar waiting to be noticed—would give us what we were looking for, or so we hoped.
Right away I saw it was an odd place that attracted all types, young and old, a rough and tumble place—that was the feel of it at least: murky with shadows, the scarred wood of the ancient bar testament to the scarred and damaged lives of the older men who hung out there, smoking Chesterfields and Camels and Lucky Strikes, hoisting their beers to wash away the burn of the Four Roses whiskey they downed, shot after determined shot. The walls, what you could see of them, were adorned with fishnets, ship wheels and other maritime accessories.
I sidled up to the bar and ordered a Rheingold—my first legal drink—slapping a dollar down, telling the bartender to keep the change. Standing tall, I lifted the mug to my lips, that first taste of foam and beer accompanied by a sense of accomplishment, similar to the way I felt the first time my Uncle Frank came to the house and shook my hand instead of patting my back or roughing up my hair.
Meanwhile Johnnie Jay was already at work, his plan focused on building up some confidence with the domestics, before approaching what we thought were the more desirable college girls who hung out in the back room where there was a jukebox and a dance floor with tables on either side. Without wasting any time, he asked one of the domestics to dance. She was thin with short, straight hair and a pretty face. His shoulders thrust upward, he winked at me as he passed the bar, leaning close to say, “God helps those who etcetera, etcetera, etcetera,” before following her with his uneven walk through a wide archway into the back room.
Though we were only months from the Beatles’ arrival in the States, though we had already been exposed to the likes of Elvis, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, the music that drifted through the archway was—for some odd reason—mostly from the 40s, big bands like Benny Goodman and the Dorseys and Glenn Miller, the kind of music my parents liked.
Beside me at the bar, an old man asked if I had a light. When I said no, he shook his head and said, “You kids,” as if I was to blame for something.
When Johnnie Jay returned from the dance floor, he looked flushed and excited. “I’m ready.”
“The coeds in back.” He gave me his characteristic sly grin. “I’ll do all the work. Just follow me.”
He lurched into the back room, with me a few wary steps behind. No hesitation, though, on his part. He went right for the nearest table of five girls. Cute faces, white blouses, plaid skirts. Definitely older than us, upperclassmen maybe at the College of New Rochelle. He asked the one at the end of the table to dance. She said, “No, thank you, I’m here with my girlfriends.”
That sent me skidding into defensive mode. I had half-turned back toward the bar but Johnnie Jay, undeterred, rallied to the cause. “Well, then, how about a group thing?” He pulled her out of her chair, her eyes looking back in panic to her schoolmates who, in sympathy, got up one by one and joined her on the dimly-lit dance floor.
So there we were, dancing with five college girls to In the Mood, taking turns swinging them out and reeling them in, the girls giddy as they twirled, skirts rising. What Johnnie Jay lacked in finesse, he made up for with enthusiasm, and I of course was in my element, fast-dancing being my one claim to fame. When the song ended, the girls were red-cheeked and breathless and I was thinking you’d have to be dead not to feel good when In the Mood was playing, outdated though it might be.
Johnnie Jay asked the girls if we could join them but one of them said loudly and firmly, “We’re expecting our boyfriends any minute now,” so I led the way promptly back to the bar and the comfort of a second round of beers.
Now Johnnie Jay’s strategy was to concentrate exclusively on the domestics. We’d been turned down so publicly in the back we wouldn’t have a chance in hell with the other college girls who’d witnessed our downfall. First rule of the game, he would remind me again and again: you had to operate from a position of strength. Defeat begat defeat.
While I tried to look cool standing at the bar, telling myself I possessed the courage to press on, he danced with one domestic after another. Most seemed to be in their early twenties. They wore little or no make-up, plain cotton dresses; their hair hung straight to their shoulders or curled in at the ends below their jaw lines. By contrast, the girls in our neighborhood wore bangs and pony tails and when they went on dates they had their hair curled or waved and wore a lot of make-up. They would never be caught dead in a place like this. They had their status-conscious sights set on bigger things.
What intrigued me about these Irish girls was that I imagined their lives would turn out so different than mine. Instead of going to college, they cleaned houses or took care of someone else’s kids. Their lives were laid out for them in what I thought of, at the time, as a particularly dreary example of pre-destination. They would go from one domestic situation to another until, presumably, they’d become their own domestic in their own household. On the other hand, my life would be rich with adventure and opportunity. College would open doors to worlds I could not yet imagine. I wouldn’t be tied down to the dull routine of family life the way my parents seemed to be—my father enduring a job he didn’t like, my mother working her fingers to the bone to care for my brothers and sisters, to keep the house in order. The way I imagined these girls had to do.
I drank my beer, studying them. From what I could hear they all spoke, to a greater or lesser degree, with an Irish brogue. And unlike the girls in my neighborhood, they seemed rarely to turn down an offer to dance. Even one from the grizzled guys at the bar. They were polite and agreeable and would dance close without much coaxing.
Johnnie Jay was beside me now, urging me to make a move. “You know what they say, don’t you? It’s a great life, if you don’t weaken.” It was one of his father’s favorite lines.
So I asked the thin girl with the pretty face to dance. When I approached her she didn’t even say yes. She simply stood up and followed me to the back room where she slipped without hesitation into my arms, dancing close without any encouragement.
Every person whose path you cross teaches you something. I’d read that somewhere and I reminded myself of it.
Her name was Mary and she worked at a large estate that faced onto a golf course. Three other domestics worked there, as well. It was, she said proudly, considered to be the best house to work for in all of Westchester County.
“Why is that?”
“Oh,” she said, “it’s grand. Marble staircases, lovely gardens, folks coming to and fro.”
I asked her what she did there.
“Tidy up, this and that. Being I’m the youngest, the newest, I do what the others have no mind to. Bathrooms, kitchen. Sometimes they let me be nanny to one of the wee ones. I love the wee ones. That’s really what I fancy, being a nanny. It takes time, though, you see. Till they trust you.”
“Yes, I said, but I couldn’t think of a follow-up question so I moved slowly with her in silence, listening to the words of the song, I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You. I liked the phrase, ghost of a chance. The sound of it and the implication. The way I felt with most girls I talked to.
My mind sought distraction in the décor of the place: framed paintings of sailing ships, fishnets strung across the walls, buoys and anchors hanging from the ceiling. It didn’t make sense, really. There were no sailors here. We were nowhere near dockside, miles from any marina.
Finally I said, “Does all this stuff make you think of the Irish Sea?”
“The nets and buoys. The anchors.”
“Oh, that. I pay it no mind.”
The song ended. The piano version of Misty came over the jukebox, painfully soft and tender with yearning.
Mary made no attempt to move away, staying close, moving even closer, pressing her head firmly against mine so that I could smell her lavender perfume. Through my shirt, I could feel the muted—fragile—beating of her heart. She was so thin and delicate I thought she might break if I held her too tight or if I moved too quickly.
For a moment I felt light-headed, carefree, floating across the floor with a girl in my arms holding me close. I would protect her and she, in turn, would protect me, offering a comfort I hadn’t yet known. But the fantasy was short-lived. I thought of my parents, how the most they could afford was a movie on a Saturday night and even then, more likely than not, my mother was too tired to go.
It’s a sad world, I was thinking, but somehow I must have spoken the words aloud because she said, “Not so much. I’m happy all right. I miss my mum but I fancy it here in America. Worst of it is how it gets to one’s knees.” When she saw I didn’t understand, she added: “The floors. Scrubbing ‘em.”
“I fancy it here better than in Ireland. More than a wee bit better.”
“That’s good,” I said. But I didn’t understand how this girl thin as air, so far from home, on her knees in some strange family’s bathroom could be happy with her life—what seemed to me such a small life. The song didn’t help, either. It was like all the loneliness in the world was locked in the notes of the piano, straining to be released.
The song ended and she still held me. It seemed she didn’t want to let go.
I considered the possibilities.
After a moment, though, I disengaged myself gently, said, “It was a pleasure dancing with you, Mary.”
She stood there waiting for something. I took her hand, walked her back to her table and excused myself, taking my position again among the shadows at the bar, watching as she rejoined her girlfriends at the table.
“What’s the matter with you?” Johnnie Jay, suddenly standing beside me, wanted to know. “Ask her to dance again. She digs you, man. You’re on your way.”
Right then, being a ladies man seemed not as exciting as I’d imagined it would be. And experience, with a capital E, appeared more complicated than it was in the books I read.
I went outside to wait for him, watching through the window as he wrote down the number of one of his dance partners. At her table, Mary was smiling and joking with her girlfriends as they passed around a pitcher of beer.