Johnny St. James packed a suitcase, grabbed his guitar and drove away from his house and his wife and his life.
He drove across the George Washington Bridge and down the West Side Highway. He was driving to his new mistress, 69½ Jane.
Johnny remembered when 69 was a sweet languid flowing of body & soul and he was a tanned troubadour in the long-lost labia of California and 69 Jane was a brown-nippled girl with a big heart and he was inside it listening to America.
He exited at West Fourteenth Street, drove across to Fifth Avenue, down to Washington Square and up Greenwich Street. At Jane Street he hung a quick left when he spotted a parking spot near the corner, practically in front of the apartment building. He couldn’t believe his luck.
The building at 69 Jane Street was a brownstone that had been divided in two. The ½ contained the apartment he had rented. It was a good thing he was on the lean side.
The apartment was on the second floor. He carried his suitcase and guitar up the stairs and went inside. Hardwood floor, sofa, double bed, two bedside tables, a chest of drawers, walk-in closet, kitchenette with counter and stool, and a tiny bathroom with a shower stall. He sat on the bed and looked out the window. What the hell was he doing here!
From the inside pocket of his leather jacket he removed a prescription pill bottle and a silver flask. He popped four Xanax into his mouth and swallowed them with a shot of whiskey. Got to keep moving. He unpacked his clothes and put them in the chest of drawers. He hung his jackets in the closet.
He showered and changed, donning a black silk shirt, a bluish, strangely iridescent Giorgio Armani suit and black cowboy boots. On a full head of graying hair he secured a black Stetson.
He went outside and walked west on Jane Street. He raised his hat to the first beautiful woman he saw, a long-legged girl who looked like she was on her way to a fashion shoot. She gave him a smile. He was surrounded by young, beautiful women. At the end of Jane Street he came upon a hotel called The Jane, like it was the only name in the world.
The thing about 69 Jane, she was one thing. He could deal with 69 Jane. He had loved her and he hadn’t loved her. She had been his and she hadn’t been his. He missed her and he didn’t miss her. He had sex with her and—okay, that was the same.
Veronika V. was another matter.
A green-eyed Ukrainian fashion model, nineteen to his thirty-three when they met. Every man he knew wanted her. At a party on the Upper West Side a fashion designer told him, “You’ve got the prettiest girl in New York.” At a shindig in South Beach a record producer warned him, “It’s hard to hold onto a girl like that.” A friend advised, “That girl will break your heart.” She was always the “girl.” Auburn hair, cut short, green eyes, full lips, small breasts, tiny waist, long ballet-trained legs, and, as yet unknown to her admirers, a luxuriant thatch. Don’t forget her elegant feet. How could he? He was tied to her sandal straps for five years.
Every night he was in town, in his apartment or hers, her legs wrapped around him, locked in orgasm, both of them stoned and moving rhythmically to the endless twang of Bob Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.”
Her youth and beauty guaranteed her success. He, on the other hand, seemed to be on a road between Somewhere and Nowhere. They talked about that. “Don’t think like that,” she told him, “you’ll get there. You’re a late bloomer.”
He was also an asshole. During gigs in cities and towns across America he cheated on her (a bronze Amazon in a rock star’s house that reeked of marijuana and reverberated with the sound of Guns N’ Roses; a black backup singer, thin and sexy like she jumped out of a Motown song, the contrast between their bodies astonishing in the half-light of his hotel room; a teenage hitchhiker in a motel on the Pacific Coast Highway), always on the road, finally to be caught out and assailed by his Ukrainian beauty.
“Are you out of your fucking mind,” she screamed. “I’m the love of your life. If you want to blow that, you might as well blow your fucking brains out.”
Such a tongue lashing, yet ending in cunnus lingere and fellare and a pact of eternal love and loyalty and a deposit on a hugely expensive diamond ring at Tiffany’s, he not having the rest of it, of course, a struggling guitarist, a strolling player, not much more than a vagabond, but what the hell, fame and fortune just around the corner and all that jazz, her eyes so trusting, can’t imagine living without you, she said, yeah me too about you and all that jazz.
But then. A gig out in L.A. Small time actress. Big time mistake. A gossip column picked it up. This time, that was it. He couldn’t say he was surprised by her rage. But the outcome. He should’ve blown his fucking brains out.
When he got back from L.A. she wasn’t in the apartment. Her clothes were gone. He called everyone they knew and told them or left messages that he had to see her, for her to call him. She never did. He walked the streets, bitterly cold and crazed. He checked out their usual haunts and talked to mutual friends. Nothing.
He asked her best girlfriend to get her to call him. “It’s a matter of life and death,” he told her. Desperate days and nights he walked the streets of Manhattan looking for her, not sleeping, not eating, swallowing Xanax and drinking whiskey from a flask.
Finally, on the afternoon of December 31, her girlfriend called and said V. would meet him at the corner of Third Avenue and Sixtieth Street at five o’clock.
He got there early and stood outside Bloomingdale’s men’s store, the collar of his coat turned up against the wind. He hadn’t eaten for days. He was trembling with cold. She came walking toward him, red cashmere coat blowing open in the wind, long ballerina legs striding forward with confidence, all style and sensuality.
“Can’t you leave me alone?” she said.
“I had to see you.” His voice was raw with whiskey. “We have to be together tonight.”
“Are you kidding.”
“It’s New Year’s Eve.”
“I’ll be with someone else tonight. I’m staying with him. That’s why I didn’t call you back. I had to interrupt my day with him to meet you because you kept calling my friends and leaving embarrassing messages.”
“Who is he?”
“None of your business.”
“What’s he do for a living?”
“He’s in advertising.”
“Makes a lot of money, I suppose.”
“Quite a bit.”
“Is that the reason?”
“The reason for what?”
“Why you don’t want to be with me.”
She stood there studying him, the wind opening and closing her coat, showing those legs that had spent many Jack of Hearts nights wrapped around his body. Then she said, almost sympathetically, “You really don’t get it, do you?”
“Just tell me,” he said, nodding his head up and down like a crazed marionette, sick from a week without food or sleep, nothing but booze, pills and panic, “what’s so great about this guy?”
She didn’t even have to think about it. “He knows where he’s going in life.”
“I know where I’m going. I’m working on a new song.”
“Good for you,” she said, unimpressed or unbelieving.
He put his hand on her arm. She pulled away. He had to get her back. She had genuinely loved him. Couldn’t imagine being with anyone else, she had said. He told her, “Things are going to start happening—”
“Forget it,” she interrupted. “You don’t control me anymore. You dangled me on a string for too long while you wandered off, counting on my fidelity, pretending to make record deals or whatever bullshit you could come up with.” Her sexy mouth curled down. “All those gigs in other cities. You were fucking around on me, you bastard.”
She looked at her watch and then at him. “Don’t you see what’s happened? I’m no longer the naive little girl who fell in love with you. I’ve grown up. I’ve become one of those women you say you always hated. I’ve become a strutting bitch.”
She stepped to the curb and looked down Third Avenue for a taxi. She turned and faced him. “Forget about me. Leave New York. Go back to California and write that song.”
As she flagged down a taxi he told her insanely, “I’ll follow you and kill that advertising son of a bitch.”
“Go ahead,” she said, as the taxicab pulled over. “Kill him. And kill me and kill all the sluts you slept with for all I care.”
Turning away, cashmere coat blowing open, cab door opening, long legs disappearing, cab door closing, taxi lurching into traffic, speeding away.
He spent New Year’s Eve alone in his agent’s basement, drinking himself into a screaming stupor. The next day his agent suggested that he should get on with his life. It was ten degrees in New York when he took a redeye to the furthermost shore. For five hours he drank himself into oblivion. Happy New Year, asshole.
He ended up in a motel on the Pacific Coast Highway. The rear window of his cabin had a view of the Snake Pit, a shambles of tar paper shacks and broken trailers inhabited by drug addicts, thieves, drunks and a jailbait named Angel Love.
Going down, going down into the angel loves and the devil hates, all the time outside Bloomingdale’s, red coat blowing open, long legs turning, yellow taxi coming, over and over, long legs going, going down into Tiffany’s, the love of your life, legs locked in orgasm, red coat blowing, long legs turning, over and over, not enough tequila and weed and whiskey and women and uppers and downers and gin and Xanax in the world to stop it, red coat turning, long legs going, yellow taxi leaving, over and over.
Then came 69 Jane. She was a roadie for Eddie Rabbitt. When she wasn’t on the road she lived in a pad in Venice Beach. They met on the beach and got stoned and drunk and lived together and he wrote a song for Eddie and they all went down to Nashville and he and Eddie did a show together and he bought a Mercedes-Benz and the years flashed by like sunflowers and then Eddie died of cancer, looking for a better way, and 69 Jane went crazy and went to India.
There was no way Johnny was going to India. He drove the Mercedes back east, driving his life away, looking for a better way. He stopped in a village outside New York City and rented a house on the Hudson. He did a couple of shows at the Tarrytown Music Hall and caught a break and opened for Bon Jovi at the Meadowlands and married an entertainment reporter and tried to write songs but it was hard because his mind was in disarray from the drugs and the booze and his marriage was going sour and he read in the New York Times that V. had become a big shot in the fashion business in New York City and had gone through a couple of busted marriages and her last marriage was to a “general contractor.”
General contractor, that killed him. She could’ve had a drugged up, dragged out creative musician but she went the other way. How dull was that. How rich was that. The article said they lived in a multi-million-dollar townhouse in Greenwich Village. There was a picture of her, as extraordinarily beautiful—and young—as ever, but no picture of the dude.
More recently he read in a gossip column that the marriage was on the rocks and maybe going the way of her other two which hadn’t produced any children which she said in the article she regretted but that was life and all that jazz and he cut out the picture and stuck it in his pocket.
He thought if he could just see her again. Maybe walking through the Village. What would he do? Drop to the pavement and kiss her feet? Beg her Holy Thatch forgiveness? Give the vulva one last lick and strangle himself with her sandal straps?
He walked past the Jane Hotel and came to a swank hotel on Ninth Avenue called the Gansevoort. He went directly to the lobby bar and ordered a bourbon. Immediately, he knew he had wandered into dangerous territory. This was the kind of place V. would walk into, a strutting bitch from hell outside Bloomingdale’s on the arm of a general goddamn contractor. He wasn’t ready for it. He downed his bourbon and left.
On West Thirteenth Street in the Meatpacking District he tipped his hat to a young woman who wasn’t 69 Jane and who wasn’t V. She was someone else. Blond hair piled in a bun on top of her head, blue silk dress with big green flowers draped lightly on a willowy frame, stiletto heels click, click, clicking on the dirty sidewalk. They clicked on down to his place.
Her dress was draped on the sofa, along with her bra and panties. The stilettos were on the hardwood floor. Her purse was on the bedside table next to her side of the bed. She reached into the purse and took out a cigarette case and a lighter. She offered him a cigarette and they both lit up. Lying there smoking she said, “This is one tiny apartment.”
“It’s my pied-á-terre,” he told her.
She saw the guitar leaning against the wall and then studied his face. “It is you,” she said. “I wasn’t sure when I first saw you.”
“It was a long time ago,” he said.
He reached over his side of the bed for his jacket and came up with the picture he had clipped from the newspaper. He showed it to Someone Else. “Do you know her?”
She glanced quickly at the picture and then took a drag on her cigarette. “She’s well known in the neighborhood.”
“Where does she live?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“She’s a friend. I want to look her up.”
She stubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray on the bedside table. “Leave me out of it.” She slipped out of bed and walked naked to the bathroom. At the bathroom door she half turned and presented her right breast with pink nipple. “You don’t know who you’re messing with, Cowboy.” She went into the bathroom.
He pulled on his jeans and when she came out of the bathroom he asked her, “Will you meet me for a drink tomorrow?”
She put on her dress. “What’s your number? I’ll call you.”
He wrote down his cell phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to her. She opened her purse and dropped it inside.
She stepped into her stilettos and walked to the door. He followed her and opened the door. She gave him parting look.
“Remember what I said,” she said and walked down the narrow hallway to the staircase.
He watched her go, a slinky woman who generously gave to the cause of freedom and the end of tyranny. He closed the door and got into bed, submerged in the pungent marinade of Someone Else’s jus de vagin, a dreamer and a schemer in a bachelor pad in Greenwich Village, a pied-á-terre so perilously close to the love of his life that he could almost smell her tantalizing thatch.
The ringing of his cell phone woke him early next morning. He flipped it open, hoping it was Someone Else, but it wasn’t. A woman’s voice, much lower pitched than most women he had known, said, “Are you stalking me?”
He sat up in bed with such alarm that he almost fell on the floor. He dropped the cell phone and it skidded across the hardwood, hit the wall and snapped shut. Nakedly he scurried after it. He opened it but the call had ended. He sat on the floor, back against the wall, heart hammering, the cell phone in his hand. He pressed the “recent calls” button. The last call was listed as “unknown.” He sat there and waited for it to ring again.
It didn’t ring again and he walked resolutely to the bathroom and into the shower. Time to end this crazy shit.
Wearing a denim shirt, leather jacket, blue jeans, cowboy boots and the Stetson, he stepped from the apartment building onto the sidewalk and was immediately grabbed under the arms by two men in dark suits who shoved him against a black limousine idling at the curb. They patted him down and pushed him into the back seat. His hat fell onto the sidewalk. One of the men climbed in after him and the other got in behind the wheel.
The limousine moved stealthily west on the cobblestone street. No words were spoken. He looked out the tinted window as the limo turned off Jane and jogged around streets until it came to Fifth Avenue, headed south and turned right onto Washington Square, the same route he had taken the previous day. It stopped in front of a brownstone.
The bruiser sitting next to him dragged him out of the car, walked him up a flight of stone steps through a mahogany door into a foyer minimally favored by wealth and elegance and then went back outside.
A muscular guy in T-shirt and sweat pants appeared from inside and ushered him into a living room. He gestured toward a red leather armchair, said, “Sit down,” and left the room, closing the door behind him.
He sat in the armchair and rubbed his hand across his eyes. He was feeling light-headed. She was standing in front of him before he realized it. “What’s this all about?”
He stood up. A wave of dizziness rushed to his head. The blood must have visibly drained from his face because the next thing she said was, “Take it easy. Sit down.”
He sat back down. He looked up at the green eyes, high cheekbones, sensuous mouth, brown hair cut short. She was wearing a black tank top that outlined small breasts and accentuated slightly muscled biceps, a waist as thin as he remembered it, black tights hugging a firm ass and ballerina flats.
“Someone Else,” he said. “She gave you my phone number and address.”
“You don’t waste any time,” she said. “Your first night in the Village.”
“What’s with the goons?”
“They protect me from the psychos in this city.”
She sat on the edge of a red leather sofa opposite the matching armchair. “What are you doing in New York?”
“Looking for you.”
She looked at him intently. “So you found me.” Then she said, “Now what, Johnny?”
Hearing her say his name after all those years was a like a blow to the chest. The pain was immediate. He nodded toward a liquor cabinet. “Could I have a drink?”
She got up and went to the liquor cabinet, poured a shot of whiskey and brought it over to him. He raised the glass to her and downed the contents in one gulp.
She sat back down on the sofa. “Still knocking it back, huh?”
“Not as much.”
She held him with a steady gaze. “What’s going on in your life? Are you still performing?”
“More like writing. I need a hit.”
“You had a couple of hits when you were in California. I saw the TV show you did with Eddie Rabbitt. It was great.” She paused and added, “And then you dropped off the radar.”
He didn’t answer and she said, “My friend tells me you’re on your own again.”
“I don’t remember telling her that.”
“A man alone in a bachelor pad in the Village. Not hard to figure.”
He wanted to ask her how her marriage was going without being too blunt about it, so he said as nonchalantly as he could, “How’s it going with you?”
Bluntness didn’t bother her. “My marriage, you mean.” She looked at him from her comfortable space in the soft leather sofa. “If he knew you were stalking me…”
He finished the thought for her, “I’d become part of his new high-rise.”
“You always did push your luck.”
There was a knock on the door. It opened and the muscular guy who had shown him into the living room was standing there.
She turned toward the door. “What is it, Edgar?”
Edgar, he thought, what a name for a tough guy.
“The car’s waiting, Veronika.”
She kept looking at Edgar. “Let it wait.”
Edgar stepped back out and closed the door behind him.