The bright tingle of a spoon against the inside of a tea glass was not an uncommon sound, in his line of work. Nor was the scrape of fork tines against porcelain, or the knock of a salt shaker hitting the countertop, half of the holes on the lid still taped over.
Even as the bell over the door jingled to signal a new arrival, he did not look up from his task of clearing away the plates and glasses from a booth near the corner of the dining car, sweeping grainy sugar off the countertop into his dish tub as he set to wiping down the table.
Her voice, however, is what had first struck him.
"Hello, I was wondering if you might be able to help me with directions?"
She wasn't addressing him, of course. She was talking to Edwina, at the counter. But even so, Peter found himself somehow, foolishly, enraptured with curiosity. The strange new woman looked too sophisticated, too composed, to be in his diner, her platinum blonde ringlets bouncy about the shoulders of her tan, double-breasted coat, and her dark red lips and dark eye makeup striking against her pale complexion, but in no way gaudy. This was a woman from the city, he could tell, and the way she gripped her black leather driving gloves told him that she was alone.
Peter slowly straitened, wiping his palms on the front of his grungy lap apron.
Something about her seemed out of place, and he could not put his finger on it.
Her voice was soft, but clear over the distant buzz of jazz on the kitchen radio, "I'm wondering where I can take the turn-on to get to the 76..."
"Oh, hun, the 76 is a few counties, from here," Edwina said apologetically, "But where are you headed?"
"Atlantic city," the stranger said with a wince, and Edwina's eyes rounded. The woman chuckled wryly "I'm lost, aren't I?"
"And then some. Take a seat, sweetheart, and I'll talk to Mill and see if we can't get you some proper directions to the 76."
"Thank you," the woman said. She slumped gracefully onto a seat at the counter with a sigh as Edwina hurried back to the kitchen.
Peter wiped his hands on his front again thoughtfully. At last he turned and shuffled down the aisle, dumping his tub into the waiter's station and throwing off his apron, fiddling with the front of his shirt for a few moments before slipping behind the counter to approach her, "What can I get you?" he questioned with a smile. He suddenly wished he'd shaved, that morning.
She looked up at him and blinked, "Oh. I won't be here long."
"'You sure? We have to best iced tea in Donniston."
She paused, "You're the only café in Donniston."
Peter gave her another smile.
She laughed, "Fine. I'll have an iced tea. But just a small one."
Peter watched her put sugar into her tea, and made for light conversation, "So I heard you're headed to Atlantic City. Are you in for a bit of gambling?"
"No," she answered.
"Well, I doubt you're going for the fruit cocktail."
She laughed. Peter stared. She gave him a mysterious smile that made his neck grow hot, and sipped her tea, "This is good, thank you."
They were silent for a few moments, and Peter chuckled quietly, "Fine. But here, listen…" he grabbed up a napkin and a plucked the pen out of his shirt pocket, beginning to sketch out a small map, "When you get down the main drag, take the turn off to Trenton street. If you follow it all the way to the end, all the way to the cul-de-sac, you can turn left onto Abney, take it a few miles onto Cherry Hill, and jump onto the 95. That should intersect with the 76 somewhere around Bellmawr." He finished the map, sliding it over to her.
"And this?" she questioned, touching the numbers on the corner.
"That's my phone number," Peter smiled as she glanced up at him, "in case you get lost again."
"Peter?" she questioned at his name scrawled above the number, and he nodded, "Thanks."
"Enjoy your tea," Peter murmured, sweeping away. He gathered the tub of dishes and carted them away, into the kitchen, and he could feel her eyes following him the entire way. He ignored Edwina and her husband arguing over the map in their native Polish as he selected another apron, trying it around his waist.
She was gone when he emerged again, but he found a substantial tip under a napkin with the name 'Olivia' written in longhand. He was smiling as he read it, until he saw the newspaper article she had left behind:
SIDE SHOW JAZZ CLUB DUO IMPRESSES NEW YORK CRITIC
The article had a black and white picture nestled in the newsprint, depicting an aging man with graying curls, seated at a piano, with a wide grin and a black eye, and a young singer with dark skin and bouncy curls balanced in his lap, smiling and sporting his fedora fetchingly. Peter glared at the photograph, "God damn it, Walter."
The bright tingle of silver against a martini glass was not an uncommon sound, in her line of work. It sounded like the distant, weak echo of the drum of piano keys, a tenor in the sounds that followed; the gentle rush of a brush against a symbol, the rasp of a saxophone, the quiet chatter of the very few patrons they had, tonight.
He took the solace of the low lighting and the haze of the cigar smoke, blue in the twilight, to address her quietly, "How've you been, love?"
"You've forgotten my name again, haven't you?" Astrid frowned, sitting on the other half of his bench with him, facing his opposite, away from the keys.
Walter played around with a b sharp for a few moments, and moved on with the song, smiling down at his hands, "I did that," he admitted.
Astrid sighed, brushing a stray curl from her eyes, "Its Astrid, Walter. Astrid. I don't think you can keep staying at my place if you keep forgetting."
"So-rry," he murmured in sing-song. He'd always had a unique ability to speak, with his music, and his notes told her another story; and a troublesome one, at that.
"You've got a black eye," Astrid's brows drew in concern as she graced her fingers around his eye to his cheek, "did someone come to see you, today?"
"A few… old friends," Walter answered moderately, "nothing to be concerned about. Nothing for you to be concerned about, that is."
"If someone is hurting you, I'm concerned," Astrid said, "How bad are you? How much did they get?"
"Nothing more than what I owed them, darlingheart. But… they did bruise my armpit, which is bothersome. Took my good cufflinks, too."
"Will you be able to do the show tonight?"
"Really, Walter. I don't want you doing it if you're in bad shape. I'm sure Amos won't mind."
Walter laughed quietly, "Amos doesn't mind you, m'dear. But he hates me- and who wouldn't? An old man kipping rent-free in his greenroom can't be enjoyable. I daresay, a great many people hate me. But it's fine, we'll carry on with tonight. Besides, I need the money. Arty, you're on fire," he softly called to the saxophone player, who winked back in thanks.
"You always need the money," Astrid chided gently, tipping up the brim of his fedora with a fond, though slightly sad, smile, "it'll be the death of you, Walt. Gambling."
"Not if it brings you grief, love."
"You bring me grief all around, Walter. But I adore you," she leaned across they keys, kissing him on the cheek, "I'm going to go and get ready. Tell Arty to grab his sheet music- Amos requested the Jersey Bounce, and I wrote it out for him."
"Knowing Arty, he already has it," Walter mused, "the man breathes through his sax."
"Better than on the dice, Walter. See you," and Astrid got to her feet, ducking behind the stage curtain to descend the darkened steps to head for the dressing rooms.
An oil lamp cast greasy light on her path, as she traversed obstacles of old stage props, echoes of a bygone era when the Domino club was one of the hottest nightclubs outside of Atlantic City. Back when her father worked here, before the war.
Astrid pushed open the door of her dressing room, silent on its spring hinges, and it waved shut behind her with a slight movement of the still air. Astrid reached up to switch on the makeup lights over her mirror, pausing a few moments to gently scrunch her hair and check her makeup, before reaching back to begin unhooking the clasps of her dress, at last slipping in off her shoulders to drift to her hips. She tugged at the hem, stepping out of the garment to stand in her undergarments and leggings as she sang over her lyrics softly. She stepped back behind her changing screen to reach for her sequin show dress.
"How are you?" someone asked, and she jumped slightly. The voice came from the small couch against the wall, opposite the screen. She recognized it immediately.
"I'm alright. How are you, September? Long time, no see. I thought you avoided this place like the plague."
"I don't avoid you."
"Of course not, sweetheart. I never lacked, when I was with you," Astrid emerged in her getup to see him sitting very stiffly in the corner, his black fedora on the seat beside him and his hands on his knees. His pale complexion and destitution of any kind of hair, on his bald head and barren face, made him seem an exotic and bizarre decoration, among the coats and feathery boas hanging against the wall. She smiled warmly, turning slightly, "Zip me up?" she asked.
His hands were smooth and hinted no sign of interest, as they brushed her skin and he tugged the thin zipper up the curves of her back. It was the same kind of disinterest he'd shown years before- an almost inhuman indifference that was his trademark. Astrid accepted September for what he was, and thanked him after he had finished, adjusting her bodice.
"Are you here for the show?" Astrid questioned, "We haven't seen you in ages- tell me you'll stay."
"I cannot. Walter- he is well?"
"Yes and no. Still gambling, still losing."
"You are…with him?"
Astrid laughed, and September only watched emotionlessly, his barren gaze nearly unnerving, "That's not how it works, September, you know that. Walter is never 'with' anybody. He's just staying at my place, is all."
September did not nod, but fully understood, "I see."
"And anyways, I'm sure he would love to see you, if you'd reconsider staying," Astrid critiqued her makeup and darkened her eyeliner into the mirror, sitting at the makeup counter.
"I cannot," September repeated, "but I am certain Peter will stay around."
"Who's Peter? A new beau?" Astrid joked.
"Walter Bishop's son."
"Walter has a son?" Astrid questioned cynically, penciling her eyebrows darker, "he never said anything-" But September had disappeared.