“You’re not going to the speakeasy, Sofia, so stop asking,” Ricky said, his whisper rough and harsh, careful not to wake Ma and Papa who had long gone to bed. I frowned at him.
“I’m the one who’s doing all the work for you to sell the booze. Without me, you would have no product, you wouldn’t be make money. I should be able to go to the speakeasy too. I won’t even be in your way,” I protested.
I just wanted one night out. Ever since I started making the hard cider, I was getting no time to myself – especially not when I had a day job on top of this. Ricky was the one going out selling at night and he never took me along with him. He kept saying it “wasn’t my style,” but I thought it wasn’t his style to have his little sister with him.
“I ain’t takin’ you, Sof. So beat it,” said Ricky.
“If you don’t let me go I’ll tell Papa where you’re going.”
“Go ahead, then.” Ricky shrugged, running a hand through his thick, black, Italian hair, his face calm. “You’ll be doing yourself in, too.”
“Yeah, but I have a job. All you do is laze around all day and go out doing this” – I gestured towards the case of cider that sat on the hallway side table – “at night. You know how Papa is about work and Ma would be heartbroken if she found out this was how we were bringing in more money for them.”
Ricky sucked his teeth and bit the inside of his lip. I kept my hand on my hips, the tassels on my dress rubbing against my palms. He was quiet for what felt like hours. I rolled my eyes as my foot tapped against the wooden floor. The sound could cause a stir in the house. I half-hoped Ma or Papa would hear it.
“Make up your mind, Riccardo,” I said, no longer whispering. He brought a finger to his lips and shushed me. I pushed him back as I felt little beads of spit land on my face.
“Ugh.” I wiped the spittle of my cheek, careful not to mess up my rouge.
“Come on, Ricky,” I whined, “I already got my makeup on and I’m all dressed up.” The tassels of my red dress flailed, making soft thudding noises as I twisted my body back and forth. He scratched his head in thought, then rolled his eyes.
“Fine.” It was reluctant but he said it, “You can come. But since you’re coming, grab another case, would you?” I pushed passed him towards the back door and grabbed my purse off the coat rack hook.
“You grab the other case,” I said, “You’ve been carrying them all this time. You can keep carrying them.” I opened the door and sauntered off, not bothering to wait for him.
It was pretty quiet for a night in New York City. As we walked, I could hear the sounds of cars passing a few streets over.
Ricky took us to a joint that he’d been frequenting. People told him the cider has a nice tang to it. On the outside it looked like a regular closed storefront, the inside darkened with all the product – in this case, soaps – locked behind the bars in the windows.
We went around the back. He knocked on the back door four times in a rhythmic pattern, balancing the cases of cider against his side. The glasses clinked against each other. I imitated the knocking pattern by clicking my tongue. Ricky shushed me. Then, the door opened just a crack, creaking softly.
“What’s the password?” a lightly accented voice asked. Probably Irish.
The door swung open exposing the darkness. Ricky went in first after he shifted the cases back to both arms. I followed closely, hanging on to the end of his blazer like how I did with Papa in large crowds. The man shut the door softly. I heard his footsteps shuffle past in front of us. It was so dark that the tip of my shoes rammed into the side of the soap boxes, causing me to stumble. The only light came from the streetlamp outside. The shadows from the security bars loomed across the floor.
I heard the creak of another door opening ahead of us.
“Close that behind you, please,” the voice said.
I did as I was told, keeping a hand to Ricky’s blazer as we descended wooden stairs, the hollow sound of my heels hitting them felt loud in my ears. The stairs seemed to go on forever but I knew we were close to the bottom when I heard the muffled music. The man opened the door, revealing the dim light of the room.
The band was already up and jumping. Jazz music blared and through the film of smoke, there wasn’t a single body sitting down. The music – jeez, the music – just made you want to tap your foot or snap your fingers; it made you want to move! The rhythm was fast and buzzing. People were dancing, kicking their legs out and swinging their arms around, bursting with an erratic energy. The room only gave enough space for the dance floor, but so what if you bumped into a stranger from time to time?
Ricky was greeted with joyful calls of his name as he set the cases down near him. Just as I was about to make my way to get a better view of the band up in front, he caught my wrist.
“Listen, Sof. You stay out of the way, all right? I’ll do all the talking. All you have to do is sit there and look –”
“You don’t gotta worry about me, dear brother,” I assured him, patting his shoulder. He sucked his teeth and waved me off, moving back behind the bar to handle business. I glanced around.
There were so many different shades of people. From as pale as a piece of paper to dark as the night sky, everyone was dancing, laughing, and talking. It was so beautiful. All I could think was, “This is what America is supposed to be.” This feeling of unity warmed me and that in and of itself made me want to dance.
I started cutting a rug, observing the wild flailing around me, and it wasn’t long before another woman had joined me. She was a little tanner than me and wore a gorgeous navy blue dress. She and I danced as if we had been friends since we were toddlers, but it was a half an hour before I found out her name was Ava; her family was also from Italy, like mine. She told me that she went to a speakeasy once a week. I could see why.
The night was full of music and drinking and freedom. I would do it every night if I could. Ava and I stopped dancing from time to time to grab some booze or listen to the soulful voice of the dark-skinned girl on stage. Her voice filled the room with its richness. She was quite talented, reminded me of Bessie Smith, but she also slowed things down. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thankful when the band was back to playing upbeat music.
While Ava used that time to rest, I continued swinging my arms and legs in time with the music. Amongst all my erratic movements, I had hit a black boy in the arm; nearly knocked his harmonica out of his hand. Thank goodness he was quick to catch it. He turned, his brown eyes wider than the moon.
“Aw, sorry there,” I slurred, stepping back.
“Oh, uh, no harm done, see?” he said holding up his instrument. His smile was slight, barely showing his teeth. I liked how it showed off his dimples even though he wasn’t smiling wide. He turned back to watching the band and put his harmonica in his pocket. His eyes sparkled as the band played, I couldn’t seem to turn away from that spark. His smile grew wider and his foot tapped as the song changed. He was in his own world now. Watching him, I suddenly felt lonely. Ava was talking up some fella now and Ricky was still making business deals with the owner of the joint. He probably forgot all about me, but I shouldn’t feel cross since I forgot about him, too.
I turned back and looked at the smiling dark boy. Not thinking twice, I slung my arm over to grab his and said, “Dance with me.”
He looked back with those big brown eyes.
“I, uh, I don’t dance much,” he said gesturing towards his feet as if that was proof of anything.
“Aw, come on,” I said, trying to flash a winning smile, shimmying my shoulders, “Just one dance…or are you chicken?” I lifted an eyebrow. Something seemed to sit wrong with him after that. He twitched his mouth to the side and there was a certain set to his jaw that made him look determined to prove me wrong. He grabbed my free hand and just as he was about to show me his stuff, a loud bang erupted from above.
The music stopped instantly. Everyone froze a moment – and all at once, they scattered. The band took off with their instruments, the poor drummer leaving his behind, dashing through another door behind the makeshift stage. The boy, Sparkle-eyes, followed, dragging me along with him. I didn’t protest.
He and I ran past the set of drums – me tripping and hitting my foot against the bass – and into a hallway with three different ways to go: right, left, or straight ahead. My mind was still in a fog, but Sparkle-eyes seemed to know his way around. We made a left and then ran straight forward until we made another left and were out a door into an alleyway.
An orange hue emanated from the one streetlight as we ran. The night air was more refreshing than expected. I hadn’t realized how stuffy it was in that joint. The band kept running down the alley as the police light flashed. I was under the impression that we were going to follow them but the boy pulled us an even smaller alleyway. He and I could barely fit between the two buildings as it was. The space was as big as a single doorway.
“Hey, what’s the big idea?” I demanded, but he put his hand over my mouth and pressed a finger to his lips. I looked out the way we came and saw different people racing by. I swear I saw Ava and that fella she was chatting up running too, Ava carrying her heeled shoes in her hands. After a few seconds, policemen followed them with their clubs in their hands. I could hear the whirring sound of the police whistle.
When the crowd thinned, the boy removed his hand from my mouth. He exhaled as if he’d held his breath the entire time. It hit my face and I tensed up, expecting the stale smell of alcohol to follow, but to my surprise there was none. I could have sworn everyone was drinking there.
“Thanks,” I said, after I couldn’t take the silence anymore. I realized how close we were and tried to distance myself but only hit a brick wall. What would Ma say if she saw me this close to a boy?
“No problem.” His voice was low and soft.
“So, how long do we have to stay all cramped up here?” I asked. He pointed a thin finger towards the flashing lights.
“Until those stop,” he said. He rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. I noticed his heaving chest. Silence fell over us again, the police whistle much more faint than before.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Sofia.” We both said it as if we knew wouldn’t remember the names in the morning. I tried to bring my hand up for him to shake but it was difficult to do so considering the space. I dropped my hand back down.
“You know how to play that harmonica of yours?” Oscar looked down as if he could see his harmonica through his clothes.
“Yeah, I’d like to think so.”
“Why don’t you play a…” I stopped myself from finishing that thought. All he did was point up towards the lights. I sighed and fell back against the brick wall. Of course he couldn’t play in that moment. I blamed the booze for my lack of thought.
My eyes wandered around, first looking at nothing but brick wall, then at Oscar. He was pretty thin, his suspenders hanging off him ever so slightly. He was probably my age, if not older, but he was so quiet. I watched as he tapped his fingers against the brick wall behind him to a music that only he could hear. Maybe that was his way of dancing; just tapping his fingers and his feet. I followed the beat and realized it was the song that played earlier before police came. I could hear the drum beat in my head coming back to me.
“Dance with me,” I said again.
“Dance with me.”
“Th-there’s no room. There’s no music.”
“Sure there’s music.” I hummed the song that he tapped the beat to earlier. “But I guess if you’re chicken we don’t have to.”
“You know that’s the second time you’ve called me a chicken.”
“Well, you haven’t done anything to prove me wrong, now have you?” I taunted him with a smile. He twitched his mouth to the side before breaking out into a grin.
“You’re right about that, I guess.” I attempted to hold out my hands to him but because we were so close, it didn’t go smoothly. Oscar grabbed my hands, hesitating at first, and we moved awkwardly from side to side to our soft humming – it was all we could do in this tight space.
The position we were in felt unnatural as elbows kept bumping against the brick wall. He must have noticed since he let go of one hand and used his arm to pull me closer to him. I could practically feel his heart beat on my shoulder. I’d never been this close to a boy before, let alone a black boy, but my shock soon wore off and I continued to sway with him.
“You really like music, don’t you?” I asked, looking up at him.
“How could you tell?” There was a hint of sarcasm.
“Your face lights up when you’re listening to jazz. That’s part of what made me want to dance with you.”
“Well, I’ve always loved jazz. Ever since I was a youngin’. My mama couldn’t afford me a trumpet or a piano or anything like that, but she got me this harmonica here and I wanted to make that music that made me feel so warm inside.”
“Why weren’t you up there playing tonight, then?”
“Damned nerves. I’m just a roadie for them. I thought if I kept being a roadie and kept watching them up there, I’d eventually want to get on stage and show them what I’ve got. That night just hasn’t come yet.”
I rested my head on his chest as we swayed. My head was starting to kill me but the warmth from his body made it hurt less.
“I thought tonight might have been the night,” he said.
I bit the inside of my lip, remembering how I bumped into him and had almost knocked the harmonica out of his hand.
“Oh, jeez. I messed it up for you, didn’t I?” I frowned.
“No… Yeah, you kind of did,” he chuckled.
“Well,” I said after a while, “I hope you finally get that night to shine.” I smiled and he did the same.
“Sofia!” I looked up at the sound of my name. The two of us stopped our swaying and turned to look out into the alleyway.
“Sofia!” the voice called again and I realized it was Ricky. I hadn’t noticed it at first but the lights had stopped flashing. They couldn’t have left longer than 5 minutes ago. Moving out of the tight space, I stumbled into the alleyway right into Ricky, leaving Oscar in the dark. Ricky was sweating, his black hair plastered to his forehead. Beads of sweat glistened on his face. His expression was relieved, but shifted to annoyance in a snap.
“Come on, Sof. We gotta get out of here!” Ricky grabbed my wrist and started running. I looked back at Oscar and I felt my heart sink. Who knew if I’d ever see him again? He lifted up a hand as if to say goodbye and I reached a hand out to him. Ricky and I turned a corner and Oscar disappeared from my view but, as we ran, I heard the sounds of a harmonica playing in the night air. It was beautiful indeed.
Courtney Gilmore is a junior fiction writing major and vice president of Columbia’s genre writing club, Myth-Ink. She enjoys sleep and her main love is currently food. When not writing, she is most likely screaming her favorite songs in her room (when no one is home, of course).