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  • Pablo Lacalle Castillo

New Babylon

Content Warning: Racist language


It was Tuesday on a sluggish June afternoon in 1956, and Samuel Cohn sat and smoked a cigarette, waiting for a dead man to enter the room. Of course, the man in question was not truly deceased, yet nevertheless he was dead in that peculiar and nigh irreversible fashion unique only to the clients that Mr. Cohn dealt with on a day-to-day basis.


Samuel gave his watch a cursory glance and clicked his tongue softly. His right foot, squeezed into an oily Oxford wingtip, swung back and forth like a metronome as his leg bounced gently up and down from where he had crossed it to rest atop his thigh. A daintily manicured finger sprinkled a fine rain of ash to the bottom of a grimy ashtray. His eyes trailed their gaze across the room apathetically, flickering now and then with the smug condescension particular to a man who knew full well he would have never graced such a backwater dive on his own volition, and silently reminding anyone who cared to take note that they would do well to remember this fact.


But of course, Andy had insisted. It would be impolite to neglect the wishes of the recently departed.


Cohn sucked on his cigarette, its orange embers a beacon amidst the heavy fog of tobacco- smoke. A patina of sap had accumulated on the surface of the battered tables and scuffed floorboards, years of spilled drinks, spit, sweat and food scraps congealing into a cocktail that sucked hungrily at the soles of wayward shoes. The place Andy had chosen had the quaint name of New Babylon. A title undoubtedly chosen by a Greenwich entrepreneur desperately trying to conjure what they must have thought was an atmosphere of hedonism. As far as hushed suggestions of debauchery went, the most Cohn could see was the odd couple giggling by the restrooms (this was the Village after all). Apart from that, the dive was all but empty. A group of young black teens were clustered in a dimly lit corner, joking and trading banter as they slid pennies into the ailing jukebox.


Cohn shifted nervously. Not that he disliked that kind of people (Samuel’s eyes darted imperceptibly from side to side, in the manner of those who think private thoughts yet still fear their message is somehow being broadcast aloud for all to hear) he had even managed a fair hand of coloured acts. He just preferred them more when they were making the effort to wear a nice suit and stand behind a microphone.

He took a quick sip of his drink, making a face as the cheap whiskey crawled its caustic trail down to his stomach. After five minutes in a place like this, Cohn usually began to feel the urge to peel his own skin off in sheets and run them under a tap. For God’s sake, he’d been having dinner at the Four Seasons a month ago......


With a start, he noticed the figure of Andy Prescott, picking his way through the forest of spindly chairs and patrons. The miasma eventually disgorged the poor traveller, who hurriedly pulled aside a seat opposite Cohn and sat down. Samuel let smoke hiss from between his teeth. He’d been made to wait for ten more minutes than scheduled in this dump, and he wanted Prescott to feel every second twist by, tight as thumbscrews.


Andy fidgeted in place. He had been blessed with handsome, kind features that gave him a reassuring look of honesty, dark brown eyes and hair that could have been ripped straight from a magazine article on What Kind of Boy To Bring Back To Papa. Only the hints of a five-o-clock shadow and the tight, puffy skin beneath his eyes betrayed the portrait of stolid respectability. That and the slight furrows in his cheeks. He had lost weight since the last time they had met.


If his face told a story, his clothes could have been a feature-length picture produced by MGM. A tatty brown single-breasted suit cut with three buttons that may have once been wildly expensive now draped itself on Andy’s frame like dirty clothes strewn over a chair by the side of the bed. A threadbare tie with a hideous polka dot pattern completed the sorry image, vainly attempting to suggest that its wearer was disposed of a cheery personality. Death had not been kind to Andy Prescott.


The ensemble may have once been costly, but a protracted assault by time had whittled it down to something even Willy Loman would have been embarrassed to be seen in. Not that this had deterred Andy in any way: backed by the seemingly endless supply of optimism God had seen fit to curse the man with, he had contrived to act like that his bankruptcy was just a day in the life of good ole Andy. Sitting opposite the man, Samuel felt like the first peasant to notice that the Emperor had left his drawers at home, and wondered briefly if he should shout it out loud. Samuel held his tongue. There was a disturbingly frail air to Andy, the tentative silence of a morgue. Cohn struggled to hide the feeling that if he broke it, Andy would burst.


“You’re late,” he said slowly, stubbing out his cigarette. Andy winced, scratching at the back of his head nervously.

“Sorry about that Sam,” he said sheepishly, trying for a smile.

“It’s just-you know, no chauffeur or anything no more, I sort of lost track of time, and I still don’t know the subway that well or the Village-”

“That’s alright Andy,” sighed Samuel. He ordered a drink from the fat black waiter that was ambling by. He could tell that Andy needed it. “Some place you picked out for us,” noted Samuel.

Andy licked his lips, chuckling weakly. “I know it’s not like the usual joints Sam, but you know I’m not exactly a Rockefeller at the moment,” he joked, snatching the glass that was placed in front of him and greedily throwing back its contents. Samuel raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t the drinking that caught him off guard (Andy could outperform Dean Martin in that department) it was the slight change in Andy’s voice. A tinge of an old Polish accent had crept in towards the end of his sentence, and Andy only slipped when he was very angry or very nervous. Hearing Andy’s New Jersey tones, so carefully polished from a childhood spent scrounging in the Ironbound sections of Newark, beginning to disintegrate worried Samuel a lot more than any ratty tie or poorly shaven chin could ever have.


Andy’s career was on the rocks, he had always known that. He had seen Andnej Popowicz, a shy Polish immigrant, transform into a suave swing sensation overnight. He had supervised the radio shows, the concert hall performances, the Christmas specials, meticulously managed his marriage to a bubbly and beautiful Hollywood starlet with more breasts than sense (Cohn’s decision, one he had been quite proud of) dressed up his singing doll in crisp suits to croon ballads about young love and meetings by moonlight. But it was a flash in the pan, and disasters had lined up one behind the other, dominoes waiting to splatter Andy in rapid and terrible succession. There had been the ponies, the exorbitant loans borrowed to afford a small palace on Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side (that was what America was all about, Andy had insisted, as his ledger dripped with red ink) and another for his ailing Babcia. Then the utter fiasco of a divorce from his wife, who had picked Andy clean with an efficiency to rival even the most dedicated vulture. And then there had been the simple, ugly fact that, though his music was passionate, loud and bombastic, Andy had just.... stagnated.


His natural charisma had been unable to prop up increasingly vapid albums (Swing Summers! New York Nights! The Sweet Sounds of Swing!) which had only served to leave Columbia records with a gaping lack of sales, and Samuel Cohn with a bitter hatred of alliteration. Andy hadn’t been as creative as Sinatra, with his obscene success on the silver screen and his record-breaking run with Capitol. Andy had cried during From Here to Eternity and listening to In The Wee Small Hours, but for all his tears had never been able to replicate his idol’s success. The final nail in the coffin had been his wild idea for a Hanukkah album, Andy’s reasoning being that it was a popular holiday as well as Christmas, wasn’t it, and surely there were enough Jews around to turn a profit? A Catholic Polack singing songs about dreidels and menorahs: the album had gone down about as well as the cardboard parachute. The critics had savaged it with the innate and precise malice of a big cat lunging for the jugular. Samuel had cancelled every one of Andy’s subscriptions to the papers, but he had found out anyway, displaying his prodigious natural talent for seeking out new methods of self-destruction.


And now, all Andnej Popowicz had left was Andy Prescott, a name created only because Samuel had pointed out that no self-respecting Yank deserved to be exposed to that many vowels all at once. It wasn’t as if he was a stranger to new identities either: he himself had been born Sean Kelly, a wee lad from the Emerald Isle. Then he had stepped off that stinking boat onto Ellis Island and the shores of the promised land. And lo, the promised land had said unto him: JOBS WANTED: IRISH NEED NOT APPLY. So, Sean Kelly had become Samuel Cohn, after an old drinking friend of his had shared a theory that it was the Jews that had all the money in this country. But Samuel Cohn had grown to be far more real than Sean Kelly ever was, as had Andy Prescott. It was like how the fat glass diamonds in the movies seemed so much more like the real article. But you had to work hard to keep the trick alive, like a fat man sucking in his stomach for a photograph. Slip even for a second and the whole world would see a tubby piece of lard where once they would have sworn stood a handsome, strong heartthrob. Andy was floundering, his Ego flaking away under the ruthless onslaught of life’s current. And no matter how dead he was, if Andy Prescott fell back into being Andnej Protopowicz then there was truly no coming back.


“Have another drink,” said Samuel, more an order than a suggestion. He signed for a fresh glass with a casual flick of his wrist. Andy ignored it however, swirling the amber contents of his cup and staring dead ahead. “I can’t keep going like this Sam,” he whispered. Samuel blinked. He had expected this meeting to descend into the usual histrionics of struggling, entitled talent. His early annoyance dissipated: this was dangerous territory. Samuel would never have considered himself a sentimentalist, but he certainly wouldn’t abide a suicide resting on his conscience.


“There’s nothing to worry about Andy,” he reassured. “You’ve just hit a bit of a bump on your career, that’s all, nothing that can be sorted out, I mean you’ve still got your voice, your looks, you’re a young fella, barely a day over thirty-”

“Thirty-six,” corrected Andy glumly.

Samuel hardly missed a beat. “-still in the prime of his life, that’s what I’ve always said, and trust me, we’ll look around, book a few gigs, maybe an army show, that always goes down well, a charity ball or two....” he was striking out wildly and he knew it. The charity balls were their best option, but the last thing Andy needed for his already ailing image was to be seen around rooms of geriatric old grandmothers tipsy off sherry and tossing their lace hankies on stage at his feet. But God’s sake, at least it paid-


“No, no Sam none of that,” said Andy firmly. “I won’t live out the rest of my days as a circus act, or, or some glorified gigolo.”

“Yes, well the thing about the circus is,” sighed Samuel, “they make money. As do gigolos. Quite a bit more than you do at the moment, I might add.” “I can tighten my belt a bit more Sam. I can’t afford another embarrassment just to snag a quick buck, you know how the critics are, they’re circling like sharks and if they so much as get a whiff of another Happy Happy Hanukkah situation....” Sam raised one hand to his temple. Andy was right. Christ Almighty, it would be a lifetime before he would be able to turn to the reviews column of The New York Times without breaking a sweat.


“So, what then, Andy?” It was becoming more difficult to keep the exasperation from his voice. “We make a bid for T.V? A surprise appearance on I Love Lucy? Crack wise and sing big with Ozzie and Harriet?” Andy ignored the jibe. Samuel paused for breath then stopped altogether. There was a look of steely determination in the man’s eyes, which had solidified into onyx sheets in the half-light of the room. It was a look suffused with a grim, lean hunger, one that Samuel knew all too well. He had seen it in the gaze of a young man named Sean Kelly when he stepped off that boat all those years ago. Without noticing, Samuel realized he had sat up straight.


“What I need, is energy,” stressed Andy. The Polish burr had vanished. “Everything I do from now on must be done with the utmost, unwavering confidence. At the slightest sign of weakness, they will bury me for good, they will hammer the nail down so far it will sink into the ground. I can’t budge, not an inch, or it’ll be over like that!” snarled Andy, slamming his palm down onto the table. “Failure isn’t an option, Sam; I’ve tasted too much of that already and frankly I’m ready to wash my mouth out. No corny stunts, no gimmicks, no pandering.”

“Meaning......?”

“Meaning no charity balls, no song and dance for the good old American boys, no TV dinner ads or detergent jingles.”

“Well, that’s all well and good Andy,” Samuel conceded, “but you’re flat broke, and it sounds like whatever scheme you’re cooking up is worth a lot of cash. Dollars, Andy. Capital, fundusz, whatever you want to call it.”

“Money doesn’t have to be an issue,” assured Andy, ignoring Samuel’s shocked burst of laughter. “I’ll sell the Chevy, I’ll pawn off the Rolex, whatever it takes, just to get me in that recording booth, just one more time, it’s all I’m asking for.”

“You’re talking about a comeback? An honest-to-Gods comeback?” spluttered Samuel. He had expected the meeting to be something along the lines of Andy begging for a loan or another hellish chapter in his ongoing marital issues, but this? “Andy, buddy, I’m telling you this because of our history together. You’re almost forty and singing swing music, it’s just not gonna cut it,” he said, not unkindly.

“Sam,” said Andy firmly. “Have you noticed something ever since I walked in?”

Samuel’s brow creased. Andy smiled wanly. “We’ve been talking here for nearly thirty minutes, and not a single person has realized who I am.”


It dawned on Samuel once he heard it said aloud. The usual hushed whispers and shocked squeals that had accompanied Andy’s entrance into any public place, back in the Good Old Days, was entirely absent. No rustling of fingers digging through handbags in search of handkerchiefs or grocery bills to be autographed, no turning heads. He had become so accustomed to that reliable, steady background noise whenever the two met that its silence was as disconcerting as the sudden quiet of a forest when a traveller realizes all the birds have ceased singing. The patrons around them were chatting, laughing and drinking, their eyes sliding through and past Andy as if he had been made from steam.


Andy leaned forward. For someone who had just pointed out how little the world cared for him, his face was aglow with the feverish excitement of a small child with a new toy.

No one remembers me Sam,” he said. “No one here cares about the old, sad Andy Prescott with his dance albums for suburban moms and his sappy concert hall performances. Don’t you see what this means? We can start again, turn over a new leaf, we have a whole blank slate to work on!”

Samuel made sure to maintain his usual air of tentative scepticism, but a smile was tugging at the edge of his lip with the persistence of an itch clamouring to be scratched.

“So, assuming we do have this blank slate-not to mention we somehow find some actual money-” began Samuel with forced nonchalance, lighting another cigarette, “what would you, say, draw, for lack of a better word, on this blank slate?”

Andy took a swig of his drink, smacking his lips appreciatively. “I’m thinking something for the younger crowd-”

“Jesus Andy, I thought you said no gimmicks,” scoffed Samuel.

“No, no, not for kiddies, ugh, I’m talking something with some pep in its step, music people will want to dance to without worrying about slipping a disc,” continued Andy, his words unfurling with the aplomb of a magician revealing the card concealed in his sleeve.

“I’ll still stick to swing, but we ditch the big band high-society stuff, bring in some jazz horns, some sloppy, dirty brass, a pianist that can play Sam, really play not tinkle out show-hall tunes, maybe even some backing vocals like you hear in those Beale Street records!” Andy was almost levitating off his seat with excitement, his eyes sparking with an intensity Samuel had only before seen in the religiously insane.

“That’s a hell of a step away from your usual stomping ground Andy,” Sam pointed out. “Jazz horns? Beale Street? It sounds to me like you want to put together a record for darkies Andy,” said Samuel. He noticed the black waiter glare daggers at him from where he was serving beers to a couple and waved it away with a flick of his cigarette.


“Yeah?” said Andy, perplexed. “And what’s wrong with that?”

“You’re white.”

“Negros still buy records, Sam,”

“So do Jews, Andy, and I don’t need to remind you of how that ended,”

“That was because the music was bad, Sam,” insisted Andy. “The songs were crap; we all knew it. But if we put real effort into it Sam, genuine passion I don’t see why it wouldn’t work!”

“You would be an easier sell than a coloured act....” murmured Samuel, half to himself.

“Exactly! And look, Sam, that kind of music’s always been popular with the younger crowd, we’re talking about a whole new audience here! New buyers, with money to spend, and old ones, who’ve been waiting for me to do something fresh and exciting and dangerous!”

Sam clicked his teeth together. “A lot of your old listeners might not like this,” he warned, but his heart wasn’t in it. Behind his pale blue eyes, numbers, figures and names were locked in vicious battle as they fought to pave the fastest way to El Dorado.

“Ah, c’mon Sam, you and me both know I haven’t made a good record since ‘49. Any “old listeners” I still have left will be in the obituaries by the time we make this.”

“We’d have to reshape your image a little.... The New And Improved Andy Prescott, not mom and pop’s music, something cool....” Samuel pondered. “You don’t go to the ponies anymore, do you?” he inquired suddenly.

Andy flushed red. “I’m not that man anymore Sam, I wouldn’t have called you here if I was.” Samuel nodded to himself, satisfied. “A new kind of swing record, for Negros and white folk looking for a little danger, a little more life when they go dancing,” Samuel grinned, his smile all canines. For the first time in quite a long while, he felt excited in Andy’s presence. The dead could walk again, with a little push and two electrodes jammed into their skull. Andy had found a spark, and now it was his turn to pull the lever. “It just might work.”

“It has to work,” stressed Andy. “Trust me Sam, I won’t let you down on this. Just one more push, and no more meeting in dirty bars in the Village, no more loans and mortgages. Back to dining at the Ritz and rolling through 59th street in nice cars with pretty girls,” laughed Andy. The frail man that had sat down at the table had been replaced, his body inflated from within with the fierce glow of a blaze ready to spring from dust. Sometimes even collapsing stars can burn fiercely, one last time.

“Oh, what the hell,” chuckled Samuel, and stuck out his hand. Andy gripped it in a vice ridged from the memories of New Jersey steelworks, a leathery hiss emanating as calloused palm met calloused palm and worn-down links of a nearly rusted chain began to mend themselves together again. They shook, more for the hell of the thing than for any genuine reason, and then Samuel ordered another round of drinks, his eyes gleaming with the far-off halls of El Dorado.


******


It was later in the evening, around eight p.m., and Samuel and Andy were in Andy’s temporary apartment in the Village. The windows had been cracked open to provide respite from the muggy, dry heat that carried the stench of garbage and exhaust fumes on its back, and both men had discarded their jackets, sleeves rolled up past their forearms and sweat stains spreading from beneath their armpits. Ties that had been constricting around their throats like a hangman’s noose had been loosened, and both men were in animated conversation around the dingy kitchen table, a bare lightbulb flickering anaemically with a whining buzz. A steady flow of excited babble came from both mouths as they jotted down names and ideas in a scribbled hand in Samuel’s notebook, his pencil skittering manically to keep up with the torrent of ideas. Presently, a cracked plastic phone was found for Samuel, who paced around the room, his fingers blurring as they turned the dials, the New York air outside the apartment punctuated by intermittent burst of unctuous flattery or vicious swearing as deals were made, favours called in and demands insisted upon.


After a while, Andy located a bottle of cheap champagne he had been saving for a day like this. The slipshod, makeshift roadmap of their future were completed, the first foundations laid for the New Andy Prescott had been finalized. Both men sat down in the cramped, sweltering apartment, and raised a toast to God and to country, to dollar bills, to America, to youth markets, cheap booze, studio musicians, red-headed actresses, Negro pianists, Frank Sinatra, penthouse suites, new beginnings, new names, and the new age of swing. The pop of the champagne cork was a firework.


As the bubbles fizzed and spat, in the apartment across the street a young student was watching T.V. the muted sounds and flashes of monochrome light from the screen barely audible over the honking cacophony of traffic and the repeated clinks of champagne glasses and oblivious celebration from the opposite kitchen. The Milton Berle show was playing, and the student was frozen in his seat as if nailed there through his feet and palms. He was watching a stickman gyrating and moving from side to side with animal ferocity, tossing a head of ink-black hair, snapping back and forth as if at any point he could tear his way free from the confines of the set and stride out to claim dominion of the world. On the television, the figure whooped and hollered and shook like a thing possessed.


He was singing a song about a hound dog.




Writer's Bio:


Pablo Lacalle Castillo (he/him) is a twenty year old, third-year student of English Literature (MA HONS) at the University of Edinburgh. He is from Madrid, Spain.

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