The Writing Life

…a literary journey

…oldsters: chapter 2


When last we left, Eddie seemed to be intrigued by Lila’s move into the Avalon Independent Living facility, while Lila is dispirited at her current situation. Below is Chapter 2, which provides a bit of early background on her. While Eddie and Lila share the position of protagonist in Oldsters, I am excited to start introducing the other 3 main characters very soon. While I will probably only post one more full chapter here, I will continue to post progress updates on story developments.

Hope you enjoy – and as always I welcome any feedback!

Chapter 2

 Lila Plummer celebrated her 21st birthday and her move to Chicago in the same week of May, 1962. Tonight after work, she was making her first trip to a jazz club with friends to celebrate her birthday, so despite the biting chill this morning, she walked past Buckingham Fountain feeling invigorated and oblivious to the spray hitting her and other passerbyers.

It wasn’t just her birthday that had accounted for her cheerful mood today. Lila lucked into a job at Goldblatt’s department store and found a room to rent at a nearby boarding house only a few days after she arrived. Now, each morning she walked to the corner of Lawndale Avenue and 16th Street where she caught the trolleybus that dropped her next to the fountain, just a few blocks from Goldblatt’s. She spent the next eight hours of her day splitting her time between the confectionary counter and the small appliance department.

She was happier than she had ever been. While only a couple of hundred miles away, she had finally escaped Blue Mound and the life she led there. Here in Chicago, she was a part of something bigger, no longer the girl from the pitiful excuse for a town whose population had barely risen over 1,000 by the time she left.

Still smiling as she walked into Goldblatt’s, Lila made her way to the employee room to punch in. All around her people were hanging their sweaters up and putting their lunches in the refrigerator. Several noticed her come in and circled around her.

“Happy birthday Lila!” they sang.

“…and many more,” a few chimed together.

Lila blushed but was secretly tickled pink that her co-workers cared enough to make a fuss. They were a good lot, making her feel welcomed from her first day. Coming from such a rural environment, Lila had struggled the first few days; learning to work the appliances – some of which she had never seen – good enough to demonstrate for the well-to-do ladies who came in looking for the newest kitchen gadgets. And when she worked at the confectionary counter in the afternoons, she agonized over placing the delicate sweets into their trays properly – trying hard to please her manager, who was of the philosophy that presentation was everything. So Lila made sure the chocolates were lined up – mints with mints, nut-filled and cherry cordials all organized to encourage those same ladies to buy a boxful to take home to their family instead of just one to sample while they shopped.

And in the midst of all this newness, the people she worked with took her in and quickly became her friends, telling her which markets had the best deals, explaining how to navigate the city’s transportation – and tonight they would initiate her into the Chicago nightlife.

“Lilaaaaa,” a redhead with heavily lined lips called. “The goal for today is to get out of here on time, you hear? So no dallying around that candy counter. You have a party to get to!”

“Irene, you are so sweet for putting this together for me. I have no idea how to thank you,” Lila said as the two girls walked out to the store floor.

Irene turned to head toward the cosmetic counter. “You can thank me later,” she winked. “We’re going to make you look like a million dollars, so when you’re surrounded by a bunch of jazzies tonight, take pity on me and let me have the second cutest!”

Lila blushed for the second time that morning. Irene was loud, and wore more makeup than anyone she had ever met. They were complete opposites, but Lila saw through all the boisterous behavior for what it was. Irene was just a girl who wanted people to like her, and wanted everyone to have a good time. Lila knew Irene had spent all week planning tonight, and offering to do her hair and makeup was a sweet gesture – the girl had a heart of gold.

“Don’t worry,” Lila assured her. “We’ll be dancing by eight! See you at lunch.”

 #

 Thankfully, five o’clock came quicker than either Lila or Irene thought it would. The two girls walked out of the store together and started walking the few blocks to Irene’s apartment. As they approached the building, Lila was impressed to see that her friend lived in a building that was taller than anything they had in Blue Mound.

Noticing the look on her friend’s face, Irene laughed. “Don’t be too impressed honey. It’s a six story walk-up.”

“Walk-up?” Lila asked. “You mean… ”

“You got it, no elevator. There is an upside though,” she grinned.

“What?” Lila couldn’t imagine any positive to have to walk up and down six flights of stairs multiple times each day. How in the world did she get groceries? Even worse, Lila knew Irene was a girl who liked her night out at the club; she could just imagine her crawling up the stairs after a night of cocktails and jazz.

Irene stuck one of her legs out. “How do you think these gams stay in such good shape?”

Lila laughed and the girls went inside the building.

An hour later, the girls were back down on the street. Lila opened her compact, still not believing the transformation. Irene had teased her hair, applied lip and eye liner; the reflection staring back at her only showing a glimmer of the girl who woke up this morning.

“You’re gorgeous,” Irene said.

“Are you sure? You don’t think it’s too much?”

“How can it be too much honey? It’s your first time out in the city, going to a sexy smoke-filled jazz club – not to mention your birthday. Quit worrying, and let’s go show this town the new ‘it’ girl!”

 #

 Jazz clubs dotted the avenues of Hyde Park. Lila took everything in – couples on the steps kissing, groups of blacks and whites standing outside bars smoking and talking together, and the strains of saxophones and trumpets wafting out from the nightspots. The closest thing she could compare it to back home was when the carnival came through town. And even that was a weak comparison, but she couldn’t think of anything else that mimicked the sounds and crowds of people she now saw.

“Here we are,” Irene said, grabbing Lila’s hand. Climbing past two young men passing a cigarette between them, the girls opened the door to Ollie’s Hideaway – Lila looked up hesitantly, as the large pink neon O was dangling precariously over the doorway above her head. The place was small, and reeked of stale sweat and smoke. Irene pushed Lila towards the bar on the right and they grabbed two empty barstools. To the left of them was a small stage and in front of that, an even smaller dance floor.

“What’ll you have ladies?” asked the bartender.

Lila recognized him to be what the media called a beatnik; black turtleneck, black beret and black-rimmed eyeglasses. She noticed many of the boys here wore a similar look, some with small patches of hair on their chin. Most of the girls wore skirts and tights or Capri’s and the same black turtlenecks, their hair long and straight.

“We’ll have two greyhounds,” Irene replied pulling a few bills from her wallet and placing them on the bar. She turned to Lila once he stepped away to make the drinks. “He is adorable right?”

“Yes, cute…a lot of black though.”

Irene laughed, and then stopped, noticing a look that registered hurt on her friend’s face. “Honey, I’m not laughing at you. You’re right, the people that come to these bars are a little on the avant garde side, but you’ll get used to it.”

“What’s in a greyhound?” Lila asked.

“Nothing too lethal. Like a screwdriver, but tangier. Vodka and grapefruit juice.”

The bartender returned with their drinks and winked as he took the cash. “Thanks ladies, here by yourselves tonight?”

Irene jumped in. “No, it’s my friend here’s birthday – and her first week in the city.”

He smiled at Lila, pushing his hair away from his glasses. “Well, happy birthday-

“Lila,” Irene offered.

“Happy Birthday Lila,” he said. “Welcome to Chicago.”

Just then a group of people walked in the door and Lila saw the group from work. They sat down at a table close to the stage. Irene nudged her.

“Let’s go, we have a table reserved.” She turned to the bartender. “That’s us over there,” she pointed. “Keep the drinks coming my friend,” she grinned slyly.

“You got it,” he said.

When the two sat down with their friends, Lila whispered to Irene, “Thanks for helping me with my hair and makeup; I would have been totally out of place if it wasn’t for you.”

In fact, Lila fit right in. Irene had straightened her normally wavy light blonde hair and applied a thin dark line on her eyes. She had lent Lila a black mini skirt which she wore over tights with a white turtleneck. The clothes fit her lithe body perfectly, and the new look didn’t go unnoticed among their group.

“Happy birthday Lila, you look really choice!” said Robert, who sometimes worked with her in the appliance department.

“Thanks Robert, it’s all Irene’s doing.”

“Nonsense,” the redhead said. “I just added a touch here and there.”

A few minutes later, the lights in the bar dimmed and two blue spotlights the stage. A trio of musicians took their place and the crowd started to clap. The sax player sent a smooth, rich wail through the room, while another plucked a throbbing note on his bass, and the drummer sent a brush beat across his snare. The trio quickly fell into a rhythm and the crowd quieted down as they started their set.

Lila sipped her drink and watched excitedly; everything was just as she had imagined it would be. The music, the crowd – it was amazing. And I’m a part of it, she thought.  She grabbed Irene’s arm and instinctively hugged her. After playing a few slow songs, more people made their way to the dance floor, and the band picked up the tempo. Robert asked Lila to dance and after two dances with him, she took up a few other fellows on their invitations. Flushed, she finally returned to the table.

“Having fun sugar?” Irene asked.

Catching her breath, cheeks pinkened, she smiled at her friend. “The best!”

Soon, the music stopped and the sax player told the crowd they were taking a break. A few of Lila’s group went outside to get some fresh air; others went to the bar for a drink. Lila went to the ladies room to freshen her makeup and she was just putting her compact into her purse as she opened the door and walked right into a boy that looked familiar to her. Her compact dropped to the floor but before she could stoop down to recover it, he had scooped it up and was handing it to her, smiling.

Did she know him from work? She couldn’t place him, but she was sure she had seen him before. “Thank you,” she said taking the compact.

“No problem,” he replied. “Are you enjoying the music?”

“Hey Jack,” interrupted a striking brunette walking by. Lila heard the flirt in the girl’s voice.

He smiled at her, but not in a way that made her confident enough to linger – so she kept on walking, and he turned his attention back to Lila.

“So, you were saying?” he continued.

“Yes, they’re really good, don’t you think?”

He laughed. She was confused. Did she say something stupid? Was the music not good? No, she thought, that couldn’t be it. Her friends, the whole crowd seemed to love the music and the band.

“They’re pretty good,” he said. “They only have been playing together for a couple of months, but everyone seems to like them okay.”

Lila was just about to agree, when he said, “Well have a good night,” and made his way past her.

Her eyes followed his back as he walked, willing him to turn around. If he just turned around, she would flash an Irene-like smile, certain to lay claim to another conversation before the night was over. No luck. She saw him go as far as the bar, and then lost him as a small group of people blocked her view. When they passed, he was gone. She went back to her table and saw that a bottle of champagne had arrived.

“Where did this come from?” she asked.

“We all chipped in, let’s pour glasses and do a toast,” Robert said.

“Absolutely!” Irene agreed.

Everyone at the table held out their glasses and Robert poured. He saved Lila’s glass for last, and held her glance a bit longer than anyone else.

“I’ll do the toast,” Irene cried out. She turned to Lila, raised her glass and through eyes a tad blurry from the evening’s libations began. “Lila, you truly are a gem! You had the courage to come to the big city on your own, and you are one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. You make me laugh, and I know everyone here adores you…so happy, happy birthday. We love you!”

“Here, here!” Robert added.

Everyone at the table cheered and hugged Lila, and she was overwhelmed by the attention, but in a good way. She reached out and touched every person’s hand, or arm in appreciation that they had welcomed her into their group. At that moment, she knew she could make it on her own.

“Ahem, so uh, if the birthday girl is ready to uh, blow out her candles and get back to her champagne, the boys and I will get back to playing you fine people some music!”

Lila turned toward the stage, at first bewildered, then mortified. It was the drummer speaking, and he was talking about her. Everyone in the place was staring at her. She started to glare at him, but when she focused on his face, she stopped in her tracks. It was the fellow from the hallway. Damn, she thought. Not only was he calling her out in front of everyone right now, but she couldn’t help but replay the short conversation they had shared earlier. He probably thought she was an idiot – that she hadn’t even recognized him then. But then she got mad. Arrogant musician, she thought.

“Lila, what are you doing?” Irene asked, pulling on her arm.

Lila looked around; she was the only one still standing – staring up at the stage. He was smirking down at her, drumsticks in hand. As mad as she was in that moment, she couldn’t help notice the way his eyes twinkled and that made his smirk innocent and sexy at the same time.

Five weeks later, the same group of friends who had celebrated Lila’s twenty-first birthday at the club met again – this time at Buckingham Fountain to celebrate Lila and Jack’s wedding.

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