This week, our story approaches a climax. (And so does Ellen.) In the Triton, a Philly jazz club, Ellen hears Hugh and the Bros. Julius sing a classic of the American songbook: “Glow-worm”. This song had its origins in a German operetta of 1901 and was titled “Das Glühwürmchen.” Johnny Mercer cleverly revised the lyrics for the Mills Brothers in 1952, and it was a huge hit.
Adult content this week.
32. The Truth About Hugh
It took Ellen most of Sunday to recover from the colossal hangover induced by Val’s execrable zombies. She was convinced that if she’d stuck with her usual martinis, the aftermath would have been less severe. And she wished to God she hadn’t agreed to be part of the sting. They were wrong about Hugh. They had to be. Now she felt torn between her friendships with the Belles, and her growing feelings for Hugh. They planned to expel him from the group. Did that mean she was expected to stop seeing him too? And if she continued to see him, how could she truthfully answer the questions he was bound to have?
Ellen spent the next two days thinking about the problem. After dinner on Tuesday, she prowled restlessly about her apartment, unable to focus on television or reading, knowing that Hugh was probably playing at the Triton. Finally she surrendered to the inevitable. She bathed, and dressed herself carefully in an outfit bought the week before from Lloyd’s, an expensive Philly department store, and Trousseau, which specialized in lingerie. It consisted of a ladylike dress in navy, with delicate cream lace trim on the collar and cap sleeves, and tiny covered buttons down the front. The skirt fit snugly over her hips and upper thighs, but flared slightly as it fell just below the knee. With this she wore three-inch navy heels. Her legs were covered in real silk stockings with a seam up the back, and the stockings themselves were secured by a delicate cream-colored garter belt with four clasps that hung from ribbons in front and back, leaving an expanse of bare thigh between her panties and stockings. The panties, and her bra, were matching cream satin with lace insets.
Ellen had never before spent money on beautiful clothes, but now, as she looked in the mirror, she felt that the cost was justified.
Due to her wavering about whether to visit the Triton, and the extra time it took her to get ready, the band’s first set was nearly over by the time she arrived. As before, there was a scattering of customers, including a few dressed in self-consciously old-fashioned clothing. As she made her way to the table she had chosen on her first visit, she noticed admiring looks cast her way by a couple of solitary male patrons. Hugh’s eyes widened when he caught sight of her. Lily wasn’t singing tonight, and the band was in the middle of an instrumental version of “Love Me or Leave Me.”
Ellen settled herself at her table and gratefully ordered a drink; the martinis served at the Triton were satisfyingly dry and served in frosted glasses. When the set was over, she applauded with the rest and had the pleasure of seeing Hugh make a beeline for her. “You look beautiful,” he told her, and she felt the thrilling sensation she always experienced when he spoke to her intimately, or touched her.
“Thanks. I came to hear you play again.” She waved at the Bros. Julius and Jimmy the Greek, who were grinning at her from the bar.
“Ellen,” he said cautiously, “how much do you remember from Saturday night?”
Hugh blinked a couple of times, which for him was an expression of surprise. “But you came anyway.”
“Yes. I came anyway.” Her martini arrived, along with Hugh’s usual rye on the rocks. They clinked their glasses and drank, chatting lightly about the music in the set she had missed, and the latest doings of the Bros. Julius, who had won a good deal of money the previous week in a craps game at the Sugarhouse on North Delaware. Finally, seeing that the other bandmembers were returning, she said, “Don’t you need to go out for a smoke?”
“I’m trying to quit, as of Monday. I just turned forty-eight.” Hugh made his way back to the bandstand, and conferred quietly with the others. Malcolm shot Ellen an amused smile, and nodded at Hugh, who took the microphone usually reserved for Lily and tilted it, so that Malcolm could sing while playing the piano. Jimmy the Greek pulled another microphone from the flotsam behind the bandstand, and set it up. Then, as the other three began to play, Hugh leaned over to share Malcolm’s mike.
Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Lead us lest too far we wander;
Love’s sweet voice is calling yonder.
Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Hey there, don’t get dimmer, dimmer
Light the path below, above
And lead us on to love.
The three men achieved a respectable harmony, with Hugh providing the bass. He picked up the melody on his clarinet, closing his eyes, and Ellen felt an arrow of joy pierce her heart. She couldn’t stop smiling as Malcolm sang,
Glow little glow-worm, fly of fire,
Glow like an incandescent wire.
Glow for the female of the species
Turn on the AC and the DC.
This night could use a little brightnin’
Light up, you little ol’ bug of lightnin’
I got a gal that I love so,
Glow little glow-worm, glow.
The set continued with Malcolm singing “Paper Doll” and “Dinah.” Next there was an instrumental version of “Tiger Rag,” followed by “All of Me,” “Deep Purple,” and “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen.” When it was over, the band parked themselves at Ellen’s table, pulling up extra chairs.
“You’re amazing!” she told them. “My grandfather and father were Mills Brothers fans, and when you sang Glow Worm and Paper Doll, I remembered sitting on the back porch of our house in Dayton, listening to Dad play their records. They were from Piqua, a little town outside Dayton.”
“That’s a high compliment, Ellen!” said Marcus. “It so happens that my brother here idolizes Mr. Donald Mills.” Ellen exchanged a smile with Malcolm.
“My Mom probably still has some 78s of the Mills Brothers. But mostly I remember their LP’s, from the sixties. Her favorite was the one I liked the least, Hymns We Love.”
“Oh yes indeed, from 1964,” said Malcolm. “‘The Old Rugged Cross’! That one wouldn’t go over so well in this gin-joint.”
“I don’t think you ever told me the name of your band,” said Ellen.
“We call ourselves Mood Indigo. That was Orange’s bright idea.”
“At the moment, Orange has another bright idea,” said Hugh. “And it doesn’t involve any of you chumps.”
“Don’t let us interfere with your cogitations, my brother,” answered Malcolm, raising both palms before him in mock conciliation. The Bros. Julius and Jimmy the Greek drifted off in separate directions, leaving Hugh and Ellen alone together. He turned to face her, and for a time, simply bent his gaze on her. She saw his artist’s eyes moving over her cheeks, her lips, up to her hair. Then, just as before, he looked down at the table and extended his open hand, palm up. As before, she took it, and his fingers closed over hers. They understood each other perfectly. “I’ll be ready to leave in a minute,” she said, gesturing toward the ladies’ room.
When she returned, Hugh was waiting with his clarinet case. Once they were outside and walking north, he let go of her hand and put an arm about her waist. “You’re wearing stockings.”
“Yes. Just for you.” The big hand on her waist dipped briefly to caress her rear end, and she felt herself heating up, igniting under his touch. When they entered his apartment, Hugh paused only long enough to remove his jacket and loosen his tie before leading her to the bedroom and taking her in his arms. As they kissed, she felt the thrill running up and down her limbs, like a ray from a heat lamp. Hugh put both hands on her behind and lifted her up against him as his tongue caressed hers. Her knees began to dissolve. Finally they broke the kiss.
“Hello doll,” said Hugh.
“Do I need to ask if I can touch your johnson?” said Ellen, smiling. “Or do I have blanket permission now?”
“Any time. You know that… mmmm.”
“Mr. Johnson seems as eager to renew the acquaintance as I am,” she said, loosing the button of his trousers. “Why don’t you undress and lie down?” As he did, she opened the zipper on her dress, stepping out of it and standing before him in her underwear and heels. Naked now and lying back on his elbows, he whistled. “Jesus, Ellen! Let me see you from behind.”
She turned slowly, giving him a long look at her ass and legs in the panties, garter belt and seamed stockings. “Gorgeous gams. Where’s my sketchbook?”
“Oh no. You can do that later.” She climbed onto the bed. “It’s time for my clarinet lesson.” Finding that her high heels impeded her movement, she kicked them off and kneeled beside him, her face close to Mr. Johnson. She’d only given Derek oral sex a few times, at her own suggestion, and although it was said that men liked nothing better, he had always seemed reluctant, and fearful that her teeth might graze him. Perhaps she’d been doing it wrong?
“If you don’t like it, you’ll tell me?” she asked.
“I’ll like it.”
She began by kissing him lightly. On the underside of his penis she observed a round, pigmented spot about the size of a dime, something she hadn’t noticed the first time they made love. She opened her mouth around the tip, pretending that it was his tongue and she was enjoying a long French kiss. He was silent, and she wondered whether her efforts were meeting success. Careful not to touch him with her teeth, she took him fully into her mouth like a popsicle. She heard his breathing quicken. After a little longer he said, “Doll, I’m going to come if you don’t stop now.” You’re going to come? That had never happened with Derek. She wanted to witness this mystery, to give him this gift, so she continued with the same motions, making sure that she didn’t deviate from the successful formula. Soon she sensed that his hips were tensing, and his erection seemed to tense too, becoming even more rigid. She heard a low grunt from Hugh, and felt the semen emerging in a series of quick contractions. Not that different from what happens to me.
Hugh put one hand lightly on her hair, which she took as a signal to stop. She lifted her head, wide-eyed, and with her mouth still full of Hugh. She must have looked comical, because he emitted his low rumble of a laugh and plucked a tissue from the box on the nightstand. “Here. Spit it out.”
For want of a place to put it, she handed the tissue back and he set it on the nightstand, then opened his arms. “Come here. You’re a natural, Ellen. You don’t need any lessons.”
“Maybe not, but I still feel the need for practice. After all, I’ve got to maintain my embouchure.” He cuddled her for a while, stroking her hair, and she felt supremely happy.
“How can you know you’re going to come, well before it happens?” she asked him. “I can feel it arriving when I do, but I’m never sure until it actually starts. Almost anything can throw it off track.”
“Men are different that way. I suppose it’s because we have a job to do. At a certain point, the hydraulics take over. You could scream fire or hit me with a club, and I’d still come.”
“Maybe I should research this. I’ve never looked into sexology and its history. To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure why women have orgasms at all, since they aren’t necessary for reproduction.”
She felt Hugh give a shrug. “Same reason men have nipples, probably.” She ran a fond thumb over his small, useless left nipple, pondering the distinct possibility that the female orgasm was simply a serendipitous byproduct of evolution.
Suddenly Hugh said, “Ellen, why did you drink so much on Saturday? You didn’t even like that mess Val cooked up, but you forced yourself to drink it.” His arms tightened about her. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”
Ellen’s happiness quickly dissipated as it all came back to her. What they thought of Hugh, and how wrong it was. “I’m fine, Hugh, but I appreciate that you noticed.”
There was silence while he digested this unsatisfactory half-answer. Then he said bluntly, “That night at your place. What happened to Tina?”
Ellen tensed. “Why do you think something happened?”
“I may be a big lug, Ellen, but I’m not a fool. You called me the next morning with a tale about cash being stolen from a neighbor’s open hallway. I contacted the police to ask if a crime was reported at that address, and they failed to confirm your story.”
“Oh.” It hadn’t occurred to her that he would check up.
“Your main concern was finding out who went down the hallway between twelve and one, wasn’t it? That was after Tina collapsed, and her room was past the bathroom, down that hallway. So I’m guessing that something happened to Tina while she was in that room.”
Ellen didn’t answer.
“Why didn’t she report it to the police? Why didn’t you? It’s your condo,” he said, almost savagely. This was too much for her. “Tina made me promise not to,” she blurted. “I couldn’t go back on that promise. It had to be her choice.”
“That little fool.” He gently removed himself from Ellen’s grasp and got up, the motion reminding her of a Kodiak bear rising to its hind feet. She watched as he moved deliberately out of the room, and returned in a moment with his phone. He tapped through a few screens and then showed her an image. “Two days after your party, someone sent me this.”
The picture showed the naked torso of a woman lying on a horizontal surface, taken from the perspective of someone standing between her legs. The room was dark, but her body was illuminated by the camera’s flash. Her large breasts, flattened by gravity, sagged to the left and right over her upper arms.
“It’s Tina,” he said, and there was no doubt in his voice.
“How can you know that?”
“How can I know it unless I did it? Is that what you’re asking?” He glared at her. She met his gaze calmly. “Hugh, if I thought you did it, I wouldn’t be here. But how do you know?”
“Her nipples look a little different than before the surgery, so I wasn’t sure at first. But see this mole? Tina has one in the same place.” Seeing Ellen’s questioning look, he said, “Yes, I slept with Tina. When I first joined the group. She was still mourning Bryan, and she was very needy. I felt like a cad, taking advantage of her grief. There was no second time, but I have a good visual memory.”
That’s true enough, thought Ellen. Hugh viewed the world as though he was about to record it in his sketchbook. He noticed things.
“And look,” he continued. “There’s a scar just visible under this breast, where she had the implant.” Ellen took the phone from him and scrutinized the picture closely. Suddenly she made out the partial image of a rose on the fabric beneath the woman.
“My God. That’s my guestroom bedspread! It has roses on it. And I see a patch of white fabric under her. That’s the top she was wearing.” Ellen felt sick at the idea that the rapist had shared this photograph. For all they knew, it might be on the web.
“Who sent you this?” She looked at the address: email@example.com. Something about it jogged her memory.
“I don’t know,” replied Hugh. “I thought at first that it might be Owen, because hic is a Latin word. Then Owen himself asked me whether I’d received anything strange in my mail. He got the same picture and suspected it was Tina. This wasn’t the first time photos were sent to us. The sender is bragging of his conquests.”
Ellen’s heart began to race. “I received a photo too. But it wasn’t of Tina.” She retrieved her handbag and dug through until she found her phone. She had wisely ignored Kim’s advice to delete the picture. Sure enough, it had been sent from the same address. “Look at this.”
“Ugh.” Hugh grimaced, but Ellen kept staring at the photo. “I wondered… it’s definitely not you,” she said. “You have that spot on the underside of your… your penis and this man doesn’t.”
“Of course that isn’t me,” said Hugh disgustedly. He seemed more offended at the idea that his equipment might be mistaken for the appendage on the screen, than at the suggestion that he could be the culprit.
Ellen took a deep breath. “Hugh, I’m sorry, but the rest of them think you’re the rapist. Saturday night was a sting, and I was supposed to be the bait. They said you lurked outside the door for the rest of the night, waiting for a chance to sneak in.”
She watched as the lines in Hugh’s face seemed to grow deeper, and his eyes kindled with anger. “Jesus Christ, Ellen. How could you do such a thing? What if I hadn’t been there to watch over you, to make sure nobody set foot in that room?”
So Hugh had “lurked” there in order to ensure that what had happened to Tina would not happen to her. She pictured him grimly standing guard in the kitchen while she lay drunk and helpless in the guestroom, and her heart swelled with the joyful knowledge that he cared for her. “Emily was in the closet. She would have come out.”
“Emily?!” he cried, even more upset now. “Do you think Emily could protect you against this sack of shit, whoever he is? Did the two of you even consider what he might do if he was cornered?”
“Emily had pepper spray,” she argued. But she herself had placed little faith in Emily’s ability to use it to good effect. And if they had caught the rapist… what then? Would he not have good reason to accost them later, when they were alone? To scare them into silence, or worse? A chill ran through her as she contemplated her own foolishness.
Hugh was shaking his head. “Ellen,” he said urgently, taking her hand in both of his. “Promise me you’ll never do something like that again. Promise.” His eyes were gazing intently into hers now, and she saw them fill, then overflow. A tear trickled down his face, and then another.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, touching his cheek with a finger and bringing the salty tear to her lips. Then, seeing his expression, she said hastily, “I promise. Never again. But what is it?”
He lay back heavily, his head on the pillow, and took a halting breath, rubbing his eyes. With his gaze focused on the ceiling, he said, “Remember I said I had a sister who died? Katy. Someone raped her, and then… strangled her… and threw her body in a dumpster.”
“Oh Hugh.” Ellen put her hand over his heart. It was pounding, hard and fast. She knew without asking that he had more to tell.
“I was the eldest of seven.” He laughed bitterly. “We’re Catholics, and my parents didn’t believe in contraception. Our mother died when I was fourteen and my youngest brother Stanny was still a baby. My old man was a doctor, and he worked long hours, and drank when he wasn’t working.”
“So you were in charge,” she said, thinking of the way Hugh had managed Val’s cut hand.
“Katy wanted me to drive her to a movie that night, and I said to forget it. She didn’t have her license yet, but I probably wouldn’t have let her take the car anyway. The last thing she said to me was ‘Fuck you, Hughie.’” Another tear fell vertically from the corner of his eye to the pillow. “Fuck you, Hughie.” He chuckled. “She used to say that a lot.”
“Did she try to hitchhike?”
“Probably. She marched out the door with her Mickey Mouse purse and never came back. It was found in another dumpster, a few blocks away from her body. They didn’t catch him.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Hugh. You know that, don’t you?”
“Many therapists have assured me of that. I know it intellectually, but my heart has never known it. After Katy died, that’s when the cloud first settled on me.” He transferred his gaze from the ceiling to Ellen’s face. “There were some bad times. I got to the point where I didn’t care to get out of bed, ever again. After my divorce, my sisters found me lying in my own piss and shit, and they had me committed.”
“That was years ago. You’ve been better since then.”
“Yes. I wanted you to know the worst, and now you do. I don’t have control over it, Ellen. It could come back.”
“If you want to drive me away, Hugh Barry, you’re going to have to do a lot better than that.”
He gathered her into his arms again and kissed the top of her head. They rested, not speaking. After a time, Ellen felt Hugh’s heartbeat return to its slow, steady rhythm. Then she said, “Tina told me she didn’t understand why it happened, since she would have slept with him, if he asked. Why did he do it?”
Hugh sighed. “I don’t know. But if you had any idea of the things that go through men’s minds, you’d never talk to any of us again.”
It was probably true, thought Ellen. Men were so similar to women, and yet so different. The difference was what made them attractive. But it also made them dangerous. “I was assigned to research you as a suspect,” she said. “I’ve seen every one of your Playboy cartoons. And your illustrations for Fanny Hill.”
“And what did you conclude?”
“That you’re sweet, and manly, and very sexy.” Her hand slid down to caress the shaft of his penis, which was already stirring.
“Is that so, Ms. Bartlett? I wonder if you’d consent to unhook your stockings long enough for me to slide those panties off you.”
“I might, Mr. Barry. I’m very tempted. Tell you what. I’ll consent if you let me know in advance what you have in mind. With all the details.”
“Fair enough.” He sat up and pulled Ellen across his lap, supporting her back with his right arm. “First I’ll slide off these lacy panties, and take your brassiere too, because I want to see you in your garter belt and stockings, with not a stitch on otherwise. Then I’ll ask you to put on your shoes again, and lean over the valet chair while I draw you.” He gave her his little ghost smile. “If you consent, that is.”
“I’m all ears.”
“Actually, doll, you’re all legs. And then, I’ll lay you on the bed, put my face between those gorgeous thighs, and improvise a solo. And if you don’t want to come that way, I’ll lift your legs so that I have one neat little ankle against each of my shoulders, and…”
“Fuck me silly,” she said, already loosening the tabs on her stockings.
Ellen arranged to meet the others at Susie Xing’s for lunch on Thursday. As soon as the tea was served, she told them, “I went to see Hugh’s band again, and I had a talk with him.”
“I hope you didn’t confess all,” said Kim disapprovingly.
“You need to understand that Hugh already knew something had happened to Tina.” She explained about the photo received by Hugh and Owen. There were groans of horror around the table, and she went on, “Hugh figured it was some kind of sexual assault, and he was angry at me for not calling the police.”
Tina put her head in her hands. “God. I can’t stand this. How bad was the picture?”
Ellen hesitated. “It showed your torso. Your face couldn’t be seen, but he recognized you anyway. I confirmed it was you, because I could tell that you were lying on the bedspread in my guest room.”
“All this proves nothing,” said Val impatiently. “Hugh could have taken both pictures himself and then pretended that someone else sent them.”
“Except that the man in the photo I received isn’t Hugh. He has… an identifying mark on his body.”
“That’s true,” said Tina, looking up. She had an odd expression on her face. “He does have a birthmark or something. I had forgotten about that.”
“Then what about the lurking?” asked Emily. “I know! He’s sweet on Ellen. I bet he was making sure nobody messed with her.”
“That’s what he told me,” said Ellen, grateful that Emily had figured it out and voiced it, so she didn’t have to push the theory herself. “You all think I’m in love with him and can’t be objective. It’s true. I do love him.” At this, she saw Emily’s eyes widen and begin to sparkle. “But the evidence doesn’t point to Hugh.” She surveyed the faces around the table. Tina and Emily were clearly supportive, Val looked unconvinced, and Kim’s expression was unreadable.
“Does that mean we’re back at square one?” asked Emily.
“Actually, we’re worse off than before,” said Tina. “I told Charlie about what happened.” In the stunned silence that followed this announcement, she explained, “I needed a shoulder to cry on. A male shoulder. Charlie was furious, and he said he was going to kick the ass of whoever did it, even if it was Hugh.”
Ellen pictured a small, feisty Yorkie snapping at the heels of a calmly indifferent Mastiff, and shook her head to banish the image before she laughed.
“And if Hugh was innocent, Charlie wanted him to have his back when he went after the rapist,” Tina tellingly went on. “It took me a half hour to calm him down. Anyway, he told me that we were wrong to rule out Gerry, because he came back after midnight. Charlie was just coming out of the bathroom, and saw Gerry opening the front door. He claimed he’d forgotten a shopping bag that he set down in the entryway.”
“This is ridiculous,” said Val. “What would be the point of leaving and then coming back?”
“To make sure you saw him leaving,” said Emily. “To create an alibi.”
“It’s not Gerry,” said Val tightly. “Charlie’s just making this up. He’s always been jealous of him.” Tina and Val, once the best of friends, now stared daggers at each other.
“That’s enough,” said Kim decisively. “This is tearing us apart. I’m suspending the meetups for now. We could all use some time off for reflection.”
“What are you going to do then?” asked Ellen.
“I don’t know.” Kim shrugged. “I could start from scratch with a new group of men. But much as I hate to admit it, maybe the whole thing has run its course.”
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: I often quote song lyrics in my stories, but the effect probably only works if the reader knows the song. When writing romantic or sexy scenes, I usually have a soundtrack in my mind, and it shapes the scene for me. This time, “Glow-worm” is Hugh’s little tribute to Ellen, because she loved the fireflies in the back yard of Tina’s house, the night of the “sting.” A man who would remember that, and show it with the gift of a song, is a man worth keeping.