If I had to choose my favorite song of all time, it would be “Stardust,” the Hoagy Carmichael/Mitchell Parris classic from the late 1920s. And for me, the most unforgettable of the many great covers is Artie Shaw’s 1940 version. It begins with a heartbreaking trumpet solo by Billy Butterfield, moves on to Shaw’s sublime clarinet, and then to the sensuous trombone of Jack Jenney. It’s a song that seems heaven sent, as though mere mortals could not have produced it, the kind of song that inspires joy and sadness simultaneously. And it’s also one of the sexiest songs I know.
Artie Shaw lived a long life, with lots of ups and downs. He was married eight times. Among his wives were Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, Jerome Kern’s daughter Betty Kern, and the author of Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor. By all accounts, including his own, he was a total shit of a husband. But he never seems to have lacked female company.
This week’s chapter is a long one, and includes explicit content.
23. Consenting Adults
Ellen dressed for her Tuesday evening visit to the Triton with extra care, choosing a midcalf crêpe tulip skirt and a check-patterned, button-front blouse to go with her chunky-heeled shoes. The outfit had a retro feel, and she applied more makeup than usual, including a dark lipstick.
The Triton was a couple of blocks east of Rittenhouse Square, and when she arrived a few minutes before nine, the main lounge was only thinly populated. It was a long, narrow room full of small, linen-covered tables with bentwood chairs. At one end of the room was the bar, and in the center lay a platform on which sat a piano, a drum set and a microphone on a stand. Among the other patrons, she noticed a few who wore vintage-style clothing, like Hugh and Lily. She chose a table with a good view, slightly to the left of center, and ordered a dry martini with a twist.
Soon a tall, pale man with a pencil mustache ambled out to the bandstand carrying a bass, and began to tune his instrument. Then two black men arrived, and one seated himself at the piano while the other took the drums. Both were attractive in their stylish suits. They had hair cut close to their heads, and goatees with mustaches; they could have been twins except that the piano player had a sprinkling of grey in his hair and beard. He gave her an appreciative look, and she returned his smile, enjoying the attention.
Finally Hugh emerged, clarinet in hand and without his suit jacket. An old-fashioned set of braces held up his trousers, and the muscles of his chest and shoulders revealed themselves beneath his shirt as he moved. When he saw her, his eyes widened and he smiled, just enough to light up his face. “Ellen. You came,” he said, leaning over to kiss her on the cheek.
“I can’t wait to hear you,” she told him.
He shook his head as though warning her not to expect too much, and stepped onto the podium just as her martini arrived. After a moment, the quartet began to play “Tiger Rag,” and followed it up with “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Each song included solos by one or two of the band members, and the sparse audience applauded whenever a solo concluded. Her attention was drawn to the light motions of Hugh’s fingers on the keys of the clarinet, and the way he casually removed it from his mouth, then replaced it just before it was time for his part. He looked relaxed, especially during his solos, when he shut his eyes.
Then Lily, dressed in a shimmering backless gown, stepped onto the platform and began to sing “More Than You Know.” She had a fine contralto voice, and her phrasing of the lyrics was precise and rather formal, like that of singers from the thirties. Soon she spotted Ellen in the audience and smiled in acknowledgment. Next came “Body and Soul,” an extended version during which each band member had a chance to improvise. Finally she sang “My Melancholy Baby,” took a bow, and left the stage to sit at the bar. The band continued with “Sweet Lorraine,” and the set was finished.
Ellen stepped over to the platform. “That was great! You sound just like the Benny Goodman Quartet.”
“You hear that, Orange?” said one of the black men, smiling broadly at Hugh. “She thinks you the Professor.” Turning to Ellen, he said, “No, we ain’t like the quartet. They had Lionel Hampton on vibes, and we don’t have vibes.”
“Ellen, these are the Brothers Julius,” said Hugh. “Marcus,” —he pointed to the younger, drum-playing brother— “and Malcolm. And on the bass is our pal Jimmy Kostopoulos.”
“Jimmy the Greek,” put in Marcus. Ellen shook hands with each of them.
“Orange says you a ‘Soul Train’ fan,” remarked Malcolm.
“Yes, but I suppose that’s not your thing, if you only listen to records before 1949,” she replied.
Malcolm waved a deprecatory hand in Hugh’s direction. “Oh, that’s Orange and Lily. They purists. But Marcus and me, we like to get down. Besides, some of the greats were on ‘Soul Train’— Etta James, Al Green, James Brown.”
Ellen was amused by their nickname for Hugh. “Why do you call him Orange?”
“’Cause he the third Julius brother,” answered Malcolm slyly, as Hugh rolled his eyes. Apparently this was a well-worn joke. Malcolm pulled a hand-rolled cigarette from his vest pocket. “Now, I’m going to step outside and have myself a smoke. You want to partake, Ellen?”
“No thanks,” she said. “I don’t smoke.” He chuckled and headed for the back door, followed closely by Jimmy the Greek. Marcus diplomatically wandered over to the bar to talk to Lily, leaving Ellen with Hugh.
“I loved your music,” she said. “How long have you been playing?”
“On and off since high school. I finally decided I needed to be in a band to stay in practice. If I stop playing, it’s difficult to recover my embouchure.” He guided her back to her table, and signaled the server.
“Embouchure? What’s that?”
“When you play a woodwind or a horn, you have to develop the muscles around your mouth, your chops.”
“Oh.” She leaned forward a little, examining his mouth. “What does that accomplish?”
“It lets me hold the reed properly. See?” He pointed to what looked like a thin sliver of wood on the mouthpiece. “This is what makes the sound. I form a seal around it with my lips, and when I blow over it, it vibrates. The goal is to make it vibrate… in full.” He raised his eyes to hers, and a familiar, tiny smile appeared on his face. She caught her breath, and felt it waver slightly as she let it out.
“And then once the note is established,” he continued, “I touch the reed lightly with the tip of my tongue. That ends one note and lets me move to another. And then I alternate, with the breath, and the tongue.”
Ellen was hypnotized, unable to look away from his eyes, and his lips. Was she reading more meaning into his words than he intended? The erotic spell was broken as the server brought Hugh a glass of amber fluid, on the rocks. Ellen’s throat felt dry. “Could I have another of these?” she asked, pointing to her empty martini glass.
Hugh stood up and carefully set his clarinet on the piano, then picked up his drink. “I’m going to step outside before the next set. You’ll stay, then?”
As if I could leave. “Oh yes,” she told him, and satisfied, he headed for the back door. As her martini was arriving, she noticed Lily crossing to the ladies’ room, and suddenly remembered her mission here. She followed, and found Lily fixing her makeup and hair. “You were fantastic,” said Ellen. “I’m not musical at all, so I’m in awe of people who can sing or play.”
“Thanks,” said Lily. “But would I be right in thinking that Hugh’s the real attraction?”
“You wouldn’t be wrong,” said Ellen after a moment. “But I only just met him. Is there… anything I should know about?”
Lily considered this, leaning toward the mirror as she applied mascara. “He’s not like most other men,” she finally said. “He’s different.”
“Different? In a good way, or a bad way?”
“That all depends on you, Ellen.” Lily’s expression indicated that she knew Ellen was fishing, and she didn’t plan to take the bait. Ellen nodded her understanding, and gave up the effort.
As she sat down at her table, Malcolm and Jimmy reappeared, bringing with them a distinctly herbal aroma, and the band took their places once again. The second set was more lush and romantic, starting with “Moonglow” and moving on to “Lady Be Good.” Lily returned to sing “After You’ve Gone,” “I Thought About You,” and “The Man I Love.” The final tune was a long version of “Stardust” that held Ellen spellbound. It began with Lily singing:
Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights
Dreaming of a song.
The melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you.
Then Hugh’s clarinet picked up the melody, and the wistful sadness of his playing drew tears to Ellen’s eyes. She blinked them back, feeling foolish.
More patrons had come in during the break, and there was enthusiastic applause when the set ended, though the room was still half empty. The other band members lounged at the bar with a few friends, but Hugh returned to her table and sat down wordlessly. He kept his gaze fixed on the clarinet in his hands.
“That last song, Hugh. It was ravishing.” She spoke the first words that came to her mind, and then bit her tongue. He was still under suspicion, after all. The thought sobered her. But she couldn’t mistake the note of vulnerability in his voice when he said, “Ellen?” and extended one large hand across the table, palm upward and open. He waited, still looking down.
She willingly placed her hand in his, and his fingers closed over it. I must be dreaming, she thought. I can’t believe I’m doing this. “Let’s go,” said Hugh. He led her to a back room, where he broke down his clarinet and replaced the parts in a small, velvet-lined case. Donning his suit jacket, he picked up his fedora and clapped it on his head. “This way.” They stepped out into the fresh night air, and began to walk. He carried the case in one hand, and kept hold of her right hand with the other.
Several blocks north, Hugh stopped at a building that had a Subway sandwich shop on the first floor. They entered and climbed the stairs to his door. His apartment was small, not quite a studio, but most of the space was divided between an eat-in kitchen and a large drafting table surrounded by bookshelves. What remained was taken up by a couple of Hugh-sized armchairs, beside which sat a sound system with a turntable and a large collection of vinyl, almost all 78s. There was no television. She could see one doorway, which presumably led to a bedroom and bath, and a half-open coat closet. Hugh hung up his suit jacket and loosened his tie, allowing it to hang around his neck.
“Can I get you a drink?” he asked. Suddenly she felt awkward. What am I doing here? “Just some water, thanks,” she said, surveying his workspace, which was well-lighted and full of neatly arranged pencils, pens, and drawing papers. Under the table she could see metal boxes for his paints and other heavy-duty supplies. He set down her water and plucked a book from the shelf, offering it with a half-smile. “My etchings.” It was the volume of Moby Dick she’d seen online.
“Why didn’t you tell me you’d done this?” she asked, flipping through the book to admire the historical detail on the whaling ships, and the gripping images of the leviathan himself. “I’ve been wondering since that night how you knew about Chapter Thirty-Two.”
“It was an interesting conversation,” said Hugh. “I didn’t want to interrupt the flow.”
“I first read Moby Dick in college,” said Ellen. “Have you ever noticed how different a book can be when you open it again years later?”
“Yes. I couldn’t get through it in college, but when I got the chance to illustrate it, I read it twice in six weeks. Where did you go to college?” he asked.
“Antioch. It’s a tiny private school near Dayton, Ohio,” she said. “It’s known for being progressive, which didn’t match my parents’ views, but we had family connections with Antioch through the Church of Christ.”
“Antioch… weren’t they at the center of some national controversy in the nineties?”
“Yes, right after I graduated. They created a policy on sexual consent that drew a lot of ridicule— it was even satirized on Saturday Night Live. The rules said that the party initiating a sexual act has to ask for consent, and not just once, but with each level of physical contact.”
“Ah, now I remember.” He looked amused, and Ellen caught his eye. Maybe she could draw him out on the subject of consent. “What’s your opinion? Do you think it’s silly?”
“As a matter of fact, no. All the critics missed the inherent sexiness of it.” This surprised her. Every man with whom she had ever discussed the policy, and most of the women, had thought it absurd. She remembered one female friend in particular who confessed that she often told men “no” when she really meant “yes,” and was disappointed if they took her refusals seriously.
“The sexiness?” she repeated, as Hugh took the book from her and laid it on the table. He nodded. “For example, what if I was to say to you: Ellen. Would you like it if I kissed your neck?”
The sound of his deep voice, and the import of his words, magnified her pulse so that it echoed in her ears. “I would consent to that,” she managed to say.
He leaned toward her and gently brushed the hair from her neck, touching the tender skin below her earlobe with his lips, and then with his tongue. She stood motionless, thinking of his lips on the mouthpiece of the clarinet.
Now Hugh spoke softly into her ear. “And what if I was to say: Ms. Bartlett, I would like to give you a lingering kiss on the mouth, while I unhook your brassiere… Would you enjoy that?” He drew back to gauge her expression, and she swallowed. His eyes were smiling, but he kept his face serious.
“Yes, Mr. Barry, I believe I would.”
His kiss thrilled her. As their lips met, her fingers moved over his neck and the black, baby-soft hair on his head. After a moment he slid a warm hand beneath her blouse. She felt the clasp of her bra spring open, and the hand moved up and down her back, exploring the contours of her spine and shoulder blades. Instead of touching her breasts, as she longed for him to do, he kept both hands on her back.
“And now, Ms. Bartlett, I want to relieve us both of some clothing, and feast my eyes and hands on your luscious tits for the very first time. If you consent, you may proceed me into the bedchamber.”
As she went through the door, she said, “How do you know they’re luscious?”
“I know,” replied Hugh firmly. The room contained a mirrored bureau, an old fashioned valet chair, and a queen-sized bed that was certainly too short to accommodate his full height. He sat on the chair and removed his shoes, braces, tie and shirt, watching intently as she unbuckled her heels and slipped them off. “Are you wearing stockings?” he asked.
“No.” A thought occurred to her. “I bet you like the kind with the seam up the back, don’t you?”
“Of course. If a woman has great gams, like you do, there’s nothing more sexy.”
“Why, thank you, Mr. Barry. I find myself curious about the appearance of your legs. Do you use those old-fashioned sock garters? I don’t think that would be sexy,” she teased him.
“Socks these days hold up all by themselves, so the garters would be superfluous,” he answered.
“Like a garter belt on a woman.”
“No, Ms. Bartlett. That particular piece of clothing still serves a very useful function.” He pulled off his undershirt and remained seated on the valet chair in his trousers. Dark hair covered his chest out to the nipples, situated not in the center, as on a woman’s breasts, but at the extreme lower and outer edge of each pectoral muscle. A black trail of hair narrowed until it disappeared beneath his waistband. “I’d like you to come here and sit on my lap. Would you like that too?”
“Oh yes,” said Ellen. He steadied her over his thighs, and she helped as he unbuttoned her blouse and pulled off her bra. Her breasts were aching to be handled now. “Luscious,” he repeated, and ran his fingers over them, tracing their contours, then pressed and squeezed them more firmly as she lowered her head to kiss him. Breathing harder now, and anxious to move things along, she reached down to fondle his erection.
“Ah-ah,” said Hugh, catching her questing hand. “You didn’t ask for permission.” He gave her a sly look. “Well?”
“May I… touch it? Would you like that?” she asked shyly. She wasn’t used to this kind of conversation.
“Hmm. I suspect that I would like it very much, but first I have to know exactly what you want to touch.” He waited, still holding her by the wrist.
She had been married for more than twenty years, and had never referred to the part in question by name when in bed with Derek. “I don’t know what to call it,” she confessed. “In college we were afraid to say it. We called it ‘the P-word’ and giggled hysterically. Pretty silly for a middle-aged historian of science, isn’t it?”
“Are you afraid now?” he asked, eyes sparkling in amusement.
“I think so. And I don’t like the P-word anyway. It sounds so clinical.”
He rubbed his thumb over her right nipple, causing her to squirm in his lap. “Well, then, you could call it my piece. My pecker. My johnson.”
“Johnson? I like that. Can I touch your johnson?” She decided to try out the P-word at long last. “Your… penis.”
“Mmm-hmm. Any time,” said Hugh, and a small groan of pleasure escaped him as she touched him through his trousers, pressing her palm firmly against the tip of his johnson, which if not of Carolingian proportions, was still sizable.
“I’d like to divest you of the rest of your clothes now, and blow on your reed until it starts to vibrate,” he said. “What do you think of that, doll?”
“I think my reed is already well on its way to a high note,” said Ellen, feeling the muscles in her vaginal wall contract pleasurably. And then she added, impishly, as they lay on the bed disrobing, “I never expected you to be such a talker in bed. Have you found your tongue at last?”
“You tell me,” he said, easing her legs apart. He pressed his lower face snugly against her crotch, his lips sealed over her clitoris, his tongue moving lightly but rhythmically. Oh yes. Hugh’s embouchure was unquestionably well-developed. As she felt a climax approaching, she found herself wanting his weight on her, needing to feel him inside her. But by now she was almost beyond words.
“Hugh, please,” she panted, leaning forward to grab his shoulders and pull him onto her.
“Please, what, Ellen?” He supported his weight on his forearms as he looked down at her. Locks of black hair fell over his forehead.
“For God’s sake, Hugh, do it now.” He looked at her quizzically, and finally, desperate with need, she said, “Come inside me.”
Hugh made a low noise that was somewhere between a laugh and a growl. “I’m shooting blanks these days. Do you want a condom anyway?” Ellen shook her head; in her passion she’d forgotten about everything else, even contraception. Now he positioned himself and pressed slowly forward, filling her, uniting with her. She gasped, and heard herself moaning, something she’d never before done in bed. He reacted too, drawing in his breath sharply and moving his body forward to cover her, so that her head was under his shoulder. He began to thrust more powerfully, receding in long, slow strokes and then quickly impaling her, over and over, until she arched her body and clasped her legs about him in a furious rush of pleasure. Then he shuddered and buried himself in her, finally and completely.
Afterward they lay quietly, embracing, yet thinking separate thoughts. Her head was against his shoulder, and his arms were about her. Finally she said, “I’ve never felt anything like that before. I don’t have much experience with men, Hugh. There was only my ex-husband, and then—”
“And then there was Hernandez,” he interrupted her.
“Yes. Yes, I went home with Hector,” she agreed. “Though I wanted it to be you.”
“I know,” he said. “I let you down that night.” He lapsed into silence. Ellen wanted to object, to tell him that he hadn’t let her down. But in her heart, she had been disappointed that Hugh didn’t pursue her more aggressively.
She said, “My ex-husband Derek and I used to have a code word for sex: going to Paris. That’s what it was like with Hector. I went to Paris. But with you, it was like going from Paris to the moon.”
“Fly me to the moon?” he said, and she heard the pleasing rumble of his laugh.
“Maybe I should go,” she said. Her sexual euphoria was draining away now, as reality intruded itself. “I have to work tomorrow.” What am I going to tell Kim and Emily?
“Is your car parked near the Triton?”
“Yes, a couple of blocks in the other direction.”
“Stay. You’re not walking to your car at this hour. Or if that’s your plan, I’ll get dressed and walk with you. But I’d like you to stay.”
She hesitated. Would it be awkward in the morning? With Hector, she would not have dreamed of staying, even had she been invited. But with Hugh, things were different. She admitted to herself that she wanted him to hold her all night, and even to make love to her again. “All right. If you promise to wake me before seven.”
“I will,” said Hugh, and gathered her in closer.
The next morning, she woke on her own, her mind slowly rising to the conscious awareness that she was not in her own bed, but with Hugh. Morning light already illuminated the room, though she could tell that it was still early. She raised her head and rolled over. Hugh was watching her, sketchbook and pen in hand. He was naked and stretched full length on the bed. Sitting up, she allowed herself a momentary glance at his body, which was as satisfyingly solid and manly as she remembered. Only then did she focus on his face. “Hello doll,” said Hugh.
“Good morning. What are you drawing?” Rubbing her eyes, she slid over to look at his work. She saw the sinuous figure of a slender woman lying on her side, facing away from the viewer. Her pose emphasized the curves of her waist, hips, and long legs. After a moment, she realized that it was herself. Another image on the page showed her lying in three-quarter view, right forearm beneath her breasts, left hand cradling her cheek. Though she recognized her own features, this version was more like a cartoon. Hugh had supplied her with a small tiara and surrounded her face and upper body with blooming roses. Sleeping Beauty.
“Oh!” Ellen was flattered. And yet, the idea of him watching her as she slept was slightly unnerving. Had her mouth hung open? Had she drooled? Another thought occurred to her. “Umm, Hugh… you didn’t take any pictures of me while I was asleep, did you? With your phone?”
“Of course not. Do you object to these?”
“No. They’re lovely. Though you make me much more attractive than I really am.”
“Not true. I draw what I see.”
“Through rose-colored glasses?” she teased. “Where are all those flowers?”
“In my mind’s eye.” He lifted the page and showed her another image, of herself seated at a table during the show at the Triton. Her head was tilted, and the retro elements of her clothing were emphasized, as were her arched eyebrows and dark lipstick. With her shoulder-length, wavy hair parted in the middle, and ten years shaved off her appearance, she bore a striking resemblance to Hedy Lamarr.
“Do we all look like movie stars to you?” she asked him, leaning against his shoulder to watch as he made some small adjustments to the picture.
“Not always. Emily reminds me of Judy Garland, but also of my sister Katy. She’s dead.”
“I’m sorry. Was it recent?”
“No. I was almost eighteen, and she’d just turned sixteen. She was the next oldest after me.”
Ellen was silent, thinking of the sixteen-year old Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, and Hugh’s drawing of Emily as Dorothy. If she reminded him of his dead sister, it was no wonder he didn’t want to bed her. But what about the other women in the group?
“How come you go to the meetups, even though you never sleep with any of them?”
“Your information isn’t correct.”
“Oh really? Who then?”
“I don’t kiss and tell, Ellen. But you’re right, it’s… not something that happens often. I don’t go to the meetups for sex.” Hugh paused, as though weighing his words. “I have a tendency toward depression. I’ve found that it helps to be around other people on a regular basis. And I like the group. Most of them, anyway. Kim’s good at what she does.”
“And the band?”
“The Brothers Julius and I have similar tastes. We get together, listen to some sides, maybe swap a few. And we play every week, if we have a gig, or rehearse, if we don’t.” He turned to face her. “That’s my social life. Exciting, isn’t it?”
“More exciting than mine,” she said. “That is, until last night.”
He chuckled, looking pleased. “I put some coffee on. It should be ready by now. You’ll find a new toothbrush in the medicine chest, if you want it.”
Ellen made herself presentable and got dressed, glad that her attire could pass for day wear when she walked to her car. In the kitchen, she found Hugh in a pair of boxers and a T-shirt, eating a bowl of Froot Loops. “I have Shredded Wheat too,” he said. “In case you’re feeling virtuous.” They sat companionably, eating the neon-colored cereal, until he suddenly said, “Ellen. That business with the stolen money. Tell me what that’s really about.”
Ellen froze. After a long moment, she said, “No. I would be breaking a confidence.” She couldn’t bear to tell him another lie, but she couldn’t tell him the truth, either. Why had he returned to the subject? It seemed suspicious.
Hugh gave her a dark look, compressing his lips in dissatisfaction, but he didn’t comment further.
“I’d better get going,” she said miserably. He walked her to the door and gave her a brief hug before releasing her, his face inscrutable now.
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: The “embouchure” joke was borrowed from a favorite show, the miniseries Political Animals, in which Ellen Burstyn reminisces about a musician lover.
“Orange Julius,” the Julius Brothers’ name for Hugh, is my own joke. It comes from a chain of stores that offer a creamy orange juice smoothie known as the Orange Julius. It tastes a bit like a frozen orange creamsicle. The Orange Julius company goes back to the 1920s and I have fond memories of drinking them as a little girl in the 1970s.
The sexual consent policy at Antioch was widely ridiculed in its time, but with the epidemic of date rape on college campuses, it looks visionary today. It gave me the idea to demonstrate just how sexy following these rules might be! Founded in 1856 with the educational reformer Horace Mann as its first president, Antioch College was closed for three years due to financial problems, but has survived to continue its progressive legacy.