For Jan Hammer, Sr, in memoriam
and for Vlasta Průchová-Hammer, in fond memory
Das Spiel ist ganz und gar verloren,
Und dennoch wird es weitergehen.
(The game is totally lost, and yet it will go on.)
Bull Mácha was leaning against the pedestrian railing at the corner of Vodičková Street and Wenceslas Square. The thin mist of a dank afternoon was slowly falling into the streets, blurring the features of the people trudging past him. The streets were coming alive with the bustle of a Sunday evening in the big city. Through the silvery grey veil of a wet autumn dusk the lights in the store windows and cafés were coming on, and the faces of the girls Bull Mácha's impassive eyes were stalking in the crowd seemed to assume a new and mysterious charm under the misty, magic chiaroscuro of artificial lighting. Their hazy beauty touched him like a sudden pain, and in the depths of his heart he longed to draw close to them in a place where one could get closest of all: a café, one of the dance halls whose windows were already beginning to glow through the spidery mist that was slowly descending upon the city of Prague. It was the month of November in the year of our Lord 1953.
The figure leaning against the green railing, with his low, carefully combed coiffure turned to face the flaming entrance of the Soviet Book Shop, was in his own way a living human fossil. At the age of twenty-nine, František Mácha still referred to himself by his old nickname, Bull, in full "Gablik" Bull—Zoot-Suiter Bull—and he insisted that others do so too. And the vague notion of belonging to a grand conspiracy against something uncertain, a conspiracy he still felt a part of, was epitomized, even after all these years, by the title "Gablik." It was an expression that had stuck to him long ago, during the vogue for a popular American Civil War movie and its raffish, devil-may-care hero, Gable himself.
Now Gablik Bull Mácha was standing on the corner of Vodičková Street and Wenceslas Square, his heart lacerated by those winsome, cosmetically improved young faces, and by a strange, miserable nostalgia. He was alone, his hands stuffed into enormous pockets, and from the overcoat, cut strictly according to fashion with the sloping shoulders of a wine bottle and a collar as wide as an acolyte's, a small head emerged, with a painstakingly fashioned coif in front and the sides slicked back into a ducktail. From that face two watery grey eyes stared: dull, bored, desperate. Bull had the heel of his left foot hooked over the bottom rung of the green railing, with his leg swung over as far as he could to the left, and he had pulled up his narrow trouser leg to avoid making a bulge at the knee, so that all might remark on his black-yellow-and-green-striped socks and gaze in wonder at the Gothic upturned toes of his Hungarian winklepickers. He was especially proud of those winklepickers with their snow-white soles flashing in the descending fog like crown jewels, cared for with boundless love and worn only on ceremonial occasions.
But Bull Mácha's soul was sad. He stood erect and motionless above the crowds flowing from the square into Vodičková Street and back, like a solitary rock in the tide, alone, lonesome and rejected. And in the pain that gripped his heart, he remembered another age, and evenings like this, with the chiaroscuro lighting, the cold, the bright shop windows, when he wasn't alone, when crowds of people his own age, his cronies, would mill about together, and the strange, magic words of an exotic language no one had ever used before flew back and forth through the air, and from the Boulevard Café down below came the Dixieland sound of Graeme Bell, and up above in the Phoenix, Frankie Smith was singing and Leslie "Jiver" Hutchinson was blowing his horn and the sharp, bebop riffs of Dunca Brož drifting up from the underground wine bar tugged invitingly at his ears. Where had those times gone? Where was Kandahár, the tenor player with those tight black negro curls? Where was Harýk? Where was Lucie?
Gablik Bull Mácha was the only one left. He knew exactly where the rest were, and the question that had surfaced in his sad, nostalgic thoughts was only figurative, rhetorical. Kandahár the tenorman, whose real name was Nývlt, was now an architect with Stavoprojekt. He was married, and his wife went to chamber music concerts and was studying to be an opera singer. And that was the end of Gablik Kandahár. And Venca Štern, the trombonist with the magnificent, crackling, tailgating style? He was manager of some factory that made movie screens in the border district. Harýk was in the jug for an illegal attempt to cross the border. Lucie was determined to remain faithful to him, and worked as a secretary at the Central Council of Revolutionary Trade Unions.
He was the only one left, unmarried, unchanged, just as he had been back in the nylon age. He was still willing to bloody his knuckles to get into a public recording session by Karel Vlach's swing band, which—like him—was all that was left of those wonderful things. He was alone, the last of his clan, and when he wanted to find a spirit that was even slightly kindred he had to hang out with seventeen-year-old punks who didn't even know what the word gablik meant.
And so now he stood at the corner of Vodičková Street and Wenceslas Square, a historic site that was part of a faded, bygone world, and as his eyes flitted from face to face, he said to himself, "Shit, there's no one here, no one in the whole damn city of Prague." He had nowhere to go. He was beat, utterly beat.
Just then a familiar face appeared in the river of people flowing by. "Mack! Hey, Mack!" Bull called out. The familiar face looked up, searching for a moment in the mist. Then it broke out in a friendly grin.
"Well, if it ain't Bullsie," said the wilted young man in an army coat with black threadbare epaulets and no regimental insignia. He was pushing a beat-up baby carriage, and at his side slouched a peroxide blonde. Once she'd been a real dish—a luketa—but now her face looked wilted and royally fed up.
"Hey, hand me some skin, man," said Bull, in the familiar accent of the nylon age, all his vowels tight and flat, the words drawn out. "How's it stackin' up?"
The soldier took the proffered hand and replied in the same fashion. "It's stackin' up shit, Bullsie, pure shit."
Bull glanced quickly it the soldier's woman, but Mack's crude language obviously didn't faze her.
"The wife," said the soldier.
"Pleasure." Bull held out his hand. The wife looked apathetically into his eyes.
"Like we've already met, right?"
Bull looked at the partially eroded features and suddenly, in the light of memory, they began to change. He felt a chill come over him. "Hey, right!" he said. "You must be—you're Maggie Vančuříková, aren't you?"
"Didn't recognize me, didja? Quite a shock, eh?" she said mechanically. Her voice was unpleasant, and Bull had the feeling that she was mad at him, that she almost hated him.
"Ah shit, Maggie, it's been a hell of a long time since I seen you last. You was still carrying on with Jackie Petráček, so I figured—"
"You figured I'd wait for him, right? Fat chance."
"Anyway, what'd he pull down that time?"
"Six," she said curtly.
"Right. Well, that explains it. But jeez, it's great to see you both. Hey, I should congratulate you!"
"What the hell for?" asked the soldier.
"Like you're married, ain'tcha? I never heard about it when it happened, so better late than never."
"Congratulate us for the brat too, while you're at it," Maggie said. Her voice trembled with an echo of deep anger.
"So this here's the family future," said Bull as he bent over for a quick, obligatory admiring glance at the pale and also apparently faded infant sleeping under a smudgy blanket in a carriage that had seen better days. This is Maggie? he was thinking, that blonde-haired chick from the White Swan? The one who won the 'bugathon in the House of Slavs back in '46? There's gotta be a mistake.
"Still in the army, Mack?" he asked quickly, so he wouldn't have to think about it.
"You got eyes, haven't you?"
"Yeah, but it's been a long time."
"Third f'kin year, man."
"Somebody slipped them a bum report, eh?"
"Believe it. But I got the bastard's number."
"Lemme know who the son-of-a-bitch is. We could have a heart-to-heart talk with him some night in a dark alley. I can get some people together—"
"Look after him myself," Mack interrupted.
"Suit yourself," said Bull. "But you're getting out soon, ain'tcha?"
"The word is, Easter. The word is they're gonna disband us," Mack said. "And how about you, Bull? Man, you're just the same as you always was. Nothing's changed, except you shit on everything."
"Bull always did that, didn't he?" said the wife. "Or maybe you're different now?"
Deep down, the couple's words made Bull feel good. Yes, he always shat on everything. Still did. Always would.
"You kidding?" he said. "Same as always. They ain't making me over."
"That's what you say," said the soldier. "You'd sing another tune if they shoved you in with the politicos."
"Hey, I did my stint, didn't I?"
"Not with the Black Barons you didn't. Real f'kin chain-gang stuff, I can tell you. And how long were you in, anyway, man?"
Bull Mácha laughed contentedly. "Three months, man. Pretended I wet the bed."
This made even the gloomy wife laugh. "Still a free man?" she asked.
"One hundred percent," said Bull.
"No plans to get hitched?"
Bull laughed again. "I ain't rushing it."
"Maybe you should," sneered the wife, "while there's still time."
That angry light flashed in her eyes again. Christ, said Bull to himself, it ain't my fault they went and made themselves a brat.
"Ever go dancing?" he asked, to change the subject. And also to find out—to reassure himself.
Mack looked surprised. "Dancing? We got other things to worry about, man. Take the brat, that costs something, doesn't it? And you make shit in the f'kin army."
The small flame that had flared up in Bull's heart when he saw his old pardner began to flicker and wane. "What I mean is, you still like jazz, dontcha?"
Mack shrugged his shoulders. "I got no time. Tell you, man, it's like licking shit from a liquorice stick."
"Mack, if we're gonna make that movie we got to move our bones," said the wife.
"Sure," said Mack. "Movie starts at five-thirty and we got to dump the brat at my mom's."
"If you gotta go, you gotta go," said Bull.
"Show up sometime," said Mack. "I'm usually home on Sundays. Made a deal with the brass."
"I'll do that," said Bull. "Take it easy."
"See you," said Mack, and shook his hand.
"So long, Bull," said the wilted girl who had once been Maggie Vančuříková.
"So long, Maggie," said Bull. "So long." The soldier gave the baby carriage a push and the couple blended into the crowd flowing down the street. Bull's impassive eyes followed them for a while. The wife was wearing an old coat. She'd lost weight, and it hung from her as if from a coat rack. Maggie! Shit, where had it all gone? Where? And Mack! In '46, '47, it was five nights a week, every week, in the Boulevard Café. Now he says he hasn't got time for it. Hasn't got time! What the hell else is your time supposed to be for?
Again Bull peered into the Sunday crowds parading through the thickening mist. Up there above the city it was night already, and the streetlamps were coming on. They hung like spheres of luminous honey dissolving in milk, with thin golden haloes forming around them in the mist. They've all given up, they've all just said to hell with it! It was like a betrayal. Maybe they're just scared shitless, who knows? They all used to be so wild about it, and now everyone's in such a goddamned hurry to drop it. All it took was closing down a few jazz gardens, slapping a ban on jazz in the cafés, and everybody says screw it. But they won't make me over. Never! Bull felt a wave of disgust and resistance rise within him. I can remember the beginnings. Back when I still wore the kind of moustache Gable wore. I can remember when the Nazi cops used to chase us down Wenceslas Square because we had our hair long in the back and wore our shoelaces for neckties. I wore oversized fedoras and flat-brimmed hats and strap belts low in the back, and in '44 the cops hauled me in and shaved my head and then got me tossed out of school on my ear, and then shoved me into the Technische Nothilfe. Can't forget stuff like that. I ain't gonna forget it, anyway. They won't make me over!
"Well, glory be to the Lord Jesus Christ! Bull Mácha!" The voice came from somewhere beside him, and he turned to see who it was.
There was a pale little hepcat in a double-breasted winter overcoat with narrow shoulders, a tie as loud as a fireworks display, and a brilliantined coif looping down over his forehead. He gave Bull a friendly smile.
"F'rever'n'ever, amen," said Bull.
"Hey Bullsie, why don't you tag along with me?" said the hepcat, still smiling.
"Where to?" Bull asked.
"National House up in Vinohrady. Jan Hammer's cookin' there tonight."
"Absolutely, man. They wangled the permish at the last minute. Never had a chance to poster."
"I kid you not. Come on, Bull! The joint'll be jumping."
"Is he still hanging out with that bebop crowd?"
"Course. Rhythm Fifty-three. Vlasta Průchová's singing."
Vlasta Průchová! The wave of rebellion building up in Bull's soul now took on a concrete shape. Even if everyone else said to hell with it, he wouldn't!
"So let's move," he said to the hepcat, and quickly unstuck himself from the railing. The hepcat trotted along beside him, trying to keep up. They walked up Wenceslas Square, hands in their pockets, shoulders slouched, the misty golden spheres of the streetlamps reflected in their slicked-back hair.
"Workin' these days, Bull?" asked the hepcat, partly to be polite, partly out of curiosity.
"Got a job in a junk depot."
"How's the bacon?"
"Sliced pretty thin."
They were silent for a while. Then the hepcat said, "Hey, man, have you heard? Prdlas put a group together. They cook at his place every Thursday."
"What's the line-up?"
"Prdlas horn, Šmejda liquorice stick, Rathauskej bull fiddle, Bimbo skins. You could bring your git-box over sometime, Bull."
"I might." Bull was silent for a moment, then said, "They play hot?"
"They'll burn your ear off, Bull! Drag your git-box over some night 'n you'll see."
They turned into the park around the museum. The dusk was thicker there, and people were hurrying to get through the park and back into the illuminated streets. They walked through the park and quickly up the side streets to St Ludmilla's. The hepcat opened the conversation again.
"Líza said she was coming."
"Which one's she?" said Bull.
"Works in Pearl's, remember? She got really blasted last New Year's Eve at Tubby's."
"She the one they had to carry out?"
"That's her. She was screwing Hekáč."
"You goin' out with her?"
"Not me," said the hepcat. "She treats me like a piece of shit. But she's class, eh?"
"Yeah, she's OK, she's OK," said Bull. OK, he repeated to himself, but she's nothing compared to Lucie. Or to what Lucie used to be. He remembered a different evening in the National House in Vinohrady, when Terš was playing and Lucie wore a yellow dress with a wavy fringe on the hem of her skirt and they danced the boogie together and he rolled her right over his shoulders.
Why had it all dried up? When did it happen? And how? It just sort of happened by itself, and no one even noticed. But it happened, and in the end, he was the only one left, alone. And he missed Lucie. It had been a long time since he'd been with a decent girl like Lucie. All he knew were gangs of young teenies. He was too old for them. There was a whole generation between them. A painful longing pressed Bull's heart. Where had all those jitterdolls gone? Where, goddammit?
They began walking faster. The windows of the National House shone brightly across the square. They walked towards it, two figures, one tall, one short, a large coif and a smaller one, shoulders slouched like a wine bottle's. As they came closer to their goal, the smaller one said, "Jeez, man, you know, it's strange they let this dance go on at all."
"Finally got it through their skulls people are pissed off," said Bull.
The hepcat chuckled. "Like where I work," he said, "they're always after us to join some goddamned choir, can you believe it? Want us to sing some stupid Russian shit, stuff like that. I mean fuck that."
"You in the Youth League?"
"Yeah. Collective membership, like nobody even asked us if we wanted to join or not; they just signed us up. They expect us to play their little games, but like everybody's saying fuck that."
"What else they expect?" said Bull, but he felt the touch of doubt. They won't make me over, he said to himself again. Not me. That'll be the day, when they get me to go to a bunch of meetings. Screw 'em; they'll never change me.
The windows on the second floor of the National House poured bright shafts of light down into the square, which by this time was quite dark. The walls of the church stretched blackly towards heaven, and they could hear the faint sounds of an organ. Black figures stood around the entrance to the National House, and the puffs of breath that came from their mouths merged with the evening mist. They went through glass revolving doors into the lobby, and as the door gently swept them into the building, their ears picked up the distant riffs of wild, delicious music.
"Hear that? They're already blowing a storm," said the hepcat excitedly. "Hammer's really belting it out!"
Bull stopped and listened. The crisp, metallic halting tones of a vibraphone came tumbling down the stairs.
"Great!" said Bull, and both of them ran eagerly up the stairs. The music mingled with the hum in the crowded hall, that familiar, ancient backdrop to pleasure. They put their coats in the cloakroom and then, despite their hurry, stopped in front of the mirror. Beside it hung a poster displaying a caricature of an antediluvian zoot-suiter, and underneath this were the words Zoot-Suiters Not Welcome!
"Hey, man," said the hepcat. "Get a load of these wise guys."
"Screw 'em," said Bull.
The diabolically beautiful music was drawing them inside, but the magnetism of the mirror was powerful. They appeared in its shiny, smudged surface, a big and a small coif, and they pulled out enormous combs and began grooming their hair. Bull's jacket, reflected in the mirror, was first-class English cloth, from which the tailor—who still had a private shop—had produced a loose-hanging garment with rows of buttons down the side and a collar that dipped down to a point midway between his shoulder blades. Bull Mácha put the finishing touches on his coif and pulled out his tie. In the past, he had worn his hair long at the back, and then in a crewcut; now it was coiffed in front, with long sides slicked back. Over the years, his tie had grown from a tiny knot that resembled a shoelace knot to a super-wide American windsor that he had to use the end of a fork to tie properly. It was this type of knot that now sat resplendent beneath his chin. He straightened the knot, jerked his arms forward to free his sleeves, then hooked his thumb under his collar and adjusted the slouchy jacket on his shoulders. Finally, he ran the palm of his hand over his coif, then turned around to look at himself from behind. He was ready to go. He was ready to enter a ceremony which—though he had never thought about it—he felt contained the meaning of life.
No longer paying any attention to the little hepcat still trotting along at his side, he entered the hall. He positioned himself in one corner, and the first thing he did was take a good look around. His eyes were no longer impassive, but bright and eager as he watched the band on the podium. The smile that washed over his small face was almost happy. The vibraphone, Jan Hammer standing over it waving his sticks like a magician over a metal stove-top, bobbing his head to the rhythm, grinning like an ecstatic idiot as a wild foxtrot tumbled off the podium, Vlasta beside him in a blue dress, rotating her beautiful hips and clapping her hands to the rhythm, and Kyntych, his head bowed over his trumpet, the bell pointed towards the ceiling, Rocman with his glasses and clarinet, Tiny Vondráš with a tenor sax in his face. They played and played—man, how they played! Behind them, Poledňák pounded the drums furiously, then gently; then there was a sudden off-beat break, a roll of rim-shots, and he slipped back into the groove again and on they played, man, how they played! Bull felt a wonderful mood blossom inside him, and without thinking, he started stamping the parquet floor with his Gothic Hungarian winklepickers and staring intently, his eyes now alive with worshipful delight, at the sticks of the swaying vibraphonist. The desperate rebellion that had been building up inside him all afternoon, right until he had heard Hammer play, gave way to a victorious sensation of certainty that all this would last, that they wouldn't manage to suffocate it after all, that it was the same jazz it had always been, sounding just as sassy as it always had, with the same crowd of people dancing to it, and that no one in the world could wipe out this music, this world, the only one he had ever wanted to belong to.
Then, feeling the urge to dance, he started looking around at the girls. He wanted to have it all, the music and the women, because jittermolls belonged to this musical worship service too, girls who felt the dirty syncopated tone of the swinging tenor-sax player travelling through their nervous systems just as it did through his.
It looked as though Lady Luck was with him. A luketa was just sidecarring past him, with some donkey pushing her back and forth. To those magnificent thundering riffs and swinging rhythms, these two were dancing, if that was the word for it, like a couple of hicks at a tea dance in the outer boondocks. He watched them for a while, a contemptuous smile on his small face. He saw the geek step on the luketa's foot, and the luketa looked fed up. What else? She wore a black, close-fitting skirt, a wide black nylon belt, and a blouse with big flowers on it. Her face was like a beautifully painted Easter egg. The geek's clothes were strictly John Farmer. Bull felt that fate had brought this woman across his path. She reminded him of Lucie in her best years. Class. You could see the kind of class in her that was missing in the women who went with the cats he hung around with now, for lack of anything better.
The band finished and the scarecrow led the luketa back to her table. He bowed, she thanked him coldly and sat down to her glass of lemonade. A fellow in a black suit and a nowhere tie sat down beside her.
The vibraphone started playing again. Bull kicked himself into gear, and in a flash he was standing in front of the luketa.
"Take your bones for a strut, miss?"
She looked up at him with blue eyes. "I suppose so."
She got up. Bull put the palm of his hand against her nylon belt and led her onto the floor. They began with an ordinary foxtrot, but he could feel right away that this girl was a marvellous dancer.
"They're really socking it out, eh?" he said.
She looked at him again with her blue eyes. He expected some warm, enthusiastic response, some affirmation of his statement of faith. But instead she said, "I beg your pardon?"
It sounded almost hostile. Almost unpleasant. At least he had that impression. Like some goody-goody defending her reputation. But he didn't believe that.
"You like the way they play?" he asked uncertainly.
He tried a more complicated step. She responded immediately. Maybe she just didn't understand what I said, he thought. It's okay. He held her out at arm's length and tried something more daring.
"No. Stop it!" she said suddenly.
"Don't you want to jelly the goulash, darling?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"You know: kick loose, introduce a little juice, show 'em we're alive to the jive?"
"No. Just dance the way you did at first."
"Aw, go on," said Bull desperately. "You dance magnif. It's a pity to waste your talent tromping down sauerkraut."
"It suits me just fine."
"But it's got no jolt to it, my dear! Come on!" he said, and again he tried to execute a variation that required more imagination than the standard foxtrot shuffle. But she just stood there and left him hanging. It was embarrassing. He stopped.
"Don't do that!" she said threateningly. "If you want to cause a scandal here, find someone else to do it with."
"Scandal, miss?" He took her around the waist again. She relented, but he felt the muscles of her back go tense under her blouse. "Scandal?"
"You know very well what I mean. I don't dance any of that jitterbug stuff."
Bull's heart almost stopped. He couldn't believe his ears. Again, he felt that pain deep in his soul.
"Don't tell me that, miss," he said. "You're a champ! Okay, so what dances do you dance?"
Her reply sounded like an article in the Youth Union daily. "All kinds, but it has to be decent. If you don't like it, you can take me back to my seat."
"But it's such a drag, miss. It's for cripples!"
"It's good enough for me," she said.
Hammer hit the vibraphone, and Vlasta's voice was clear, bell-like. "Rhythm, that's my kind of thing," she sang. "Rhythm, that's what makes it swing!"
It really got to him. The silly goose can't be serious.
"All right, here's a surprise for you," he said resolutely, and grabbed her firmly by the hand, hit the floor with his left toe crossed over his right, then did a quick reverse repeat, and again and again, at the same time tapping the parquet with his heels and toes, step-dancing beautifully to the rhythm. There was a lot of art to it. And suddenly he felt her tugging on the arm he was holding and trying to struggle free.
"Let me go, let me go!" she hissed, pushing him away. He stood there helplessly, his arms hanging loose, staring at her in amazement. Her eyes flashed with hatred again.
"Find yourself some—some jittermoll for that, not me!" she shouted. Then she turned around and disappeared into the crowd.
Bull was thunderstruck. Then he realized that several couples dancing nearby were scowling at him. He felt himself beginning to blush, so he turned around and walked out of the hall, his heart pounding. At first, he was stunned by the realization that she had made him look like a fool. But in the foyer he came to his senses and once more felt that malignant, miserable afternoon pain in the depths of his soul. How could she have done a thing like that to him?
He stood leaning against the banister and began to hate her intensely. The whore! I'll bet she's in the goddamned Youth League. Dumb, just like the rest of them. But the sweet image of that face could not simply be driven off by the insults which, in his mind, he heaped on the girl's head. It was as though he were reviving other faces from the past, and it hurt.
"Hey, Bull!" said a fellow who was just coming up the stairs.
"How come you're not inside?" asked the fellow called René. He'd been a Gablik and zoot-suiter too. Then he got married and said to hell with it. So what was he doing here?
"Taking a breather?" said Bull. "Where's the old lady?"
"Went for a piss. Come on, let's check out the talent."
"Bugger all out there, I'll tell you that," said Bull. "Hammer's cooking, and that's about it."
"And he's not bad," said René, pricking up his ears. "Still tight as ever."
"Maybe. But Hammer and Vlasta's all that's left of the old Rhythm Forty-Eight. Rest are all new."
"They can still cut loose, though."
"That's a fact," said Bull. He felt a faint hope stir inside him. "So I see you haven't said to hell with jazz after all."
"Yeah," said René. "That's a fact. Always ready to listen to anything solid." He turned to Bull, half closed his eyes, and said didactically, "All the same, Bull, you know, the classics it ain't."
"No, you're right there," said Bull. He felt the hope dying stillborn. "The classics it ain't," he said ironically, but René didn't seem to get his point.
"Any hookers around?" he asked casually.
"Take a look, why don't we," said Bull. But his hope was dead. He didn't want to spend time with René.
They took up positions at one of the doorways and scanned the dance hall. Bull tried to see his luketa. He found her. She was with the guy who had first sat down at her table. They were dancing a neat, nowhere foxtrot. Enough to make you puke.
"Know that woman over there?" he asked René. "The one with the black nylon belt over by the edge of the floor? The blonde?"
René looked in that direction. "Never seen her before. But she don't look completely useless."
"No, she don't," said Bull. "What do you suppose she does?"
"Who knows? Maybe one of the sexual proletariat. At least she looks like it."
Bull laughed bitterly. "I think you're way off," he said, and then he greeted René's wife, who had just joined him. "Evening."
"Evening." Her lips were thin, like a corpse's, and her checks were painted with purple rouge. Her hair was done up in small tight curls, like a lambskin cap.
"Want to dance, Jarka?" asked René.
"Hmmm," she said coquettishly.
"You coming too, Bull?" René asked, out of politeness.
"Sure," said Bull. The couple drifted away. Bull looked around and saw a jittermoll type who had just come in. He knew her. She hung around with the beboppers. Called herself Evita.
"Greetings, Creamroll," he said.
"Want to polish the floorboards?"
"Why not?" she said. He led her onto the dance floor. Kyntych was just blowing a solo in the middle range, a diabolical, fast bebop solo. A deluge of short notes in foxtrot rhythm. Again, a desperate wave of defiance washed over Bull Mácha. If everyone else has shit on it, if they're all like that stupid broad, such a looker and yet so dumb, I ain't gonna change. They'll never make me over! And if the first one didn't want to, Evita certainly won't mind.
He took hold of Evita and started showing her everything he knew. Evita wasn't a bad dancer. They stayed in one corner of the hall and commandeered their own private dance floor, a space of several square metres where Bull really began to cut loose. Would zootsuiters please refrain from dancing excessive dances? Just watch. He spun Evita around until her skirt was flying high above her knees. That's how it's done! Hammer laid down a groove on the vibraphone and everyone settled into it. They howled, they bleated, they wailed, the drums thrashed, the cymbals sizzled. Bull really cut loose now. He felt that this was something big, what he was doing, that it was everything you could possibly do here, everything you could possibly accomplish in this lifetime—
Suddenly someone was tugging his sleeve. He swung around irritably and saw a waiter.
"What do you want?" he blurted out, without waiting to see what he had to say.
"Sir," said the waiter. "You can't dance that kind of dance in here."
He felt a rush of anger. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"It's forbidden. Otherwise you'll have to leave the dance floor."
"Well now, ain't that nice," said Bull. "Why don't you just take a walk. I paid for my ticket. I can do what I damn well feel like."
"I'm telling you, you can't dance like that here. Wild dances are forbidden."
"Is that so? Well, you can kiss my ass," said Bull, turning back to Evita. They began dancing again.
But the waiter held on to him. "Watch your language, sir. I'm telling you to stop that kind of dancing."
"Look," said Bull, talking to him over his shoulder. "Why don't you just drop out of sight?"
"I'll have to call the police," said the waiter.
That was all they needed! Bull was outraged. "Get lost! You're in the way!" he roared at the waiter, and then he and Evita danced their way into the crowd. He saw the waiter stand there uncertainly for a few moments, then turn and leave the hall.
"Just let him try," he said to the girl called Evita.
"You shouldn't have been so rude to him, Bull," said Evita. "He'll rat on you for sure."
"I don't care if he takes it all the way to the goddamned ministry!" said Bull. "I had the Germans on my back for dancing, and they couldn't stop me. Nothing to worry about, Evita."
He started dancing again, deliberately making wild figures on the floor, but he kept looking nervously over Evita's shoulders at the door. No one appeared. The number was over, Evita pressed close to him, and they followed the crowd off the floor.
The waiter was standing in the doorway, and beside him was a uniformed policeman with a revolver and a fur collar sewn to his tunic.
"That's him," said the waiter, pointing at Bull.
Bull tried to disappear, but the waiter caught him by the shoulder.
"Take your hands off me," said Bull.
"Come with me," said the cop gruffly.
"What's going on?" growled Bull.
"That's the one," said the waiter. "When I asked him politely to stop dancing that way, he started yelling at me and using very filthy language."
"Don't you know jitterbugging's not allowed?" asked the cop. "There's a ban on it."
"There ain't no such law," said Bull.
"But there's a ban," said the cop.
"Don't get your shorts in a knot!" said Bull. "I paid, so I dance."
"You watch your language!" shouted the cop.
"I am," said Bull. "And what are you hanging on to me for, anyway?"
"Nobody's hanging on to you," declared the cop. "You were dancing forbidden dances and causing a public nuisance. I'm warning you to lay off. Otherwise I'm going to have to—"
"Introduce me to anyone who thought I was a nuisance," said Bull arrogantly.
"Shut up!" shouted the cop. "If you don't stop—"
"Well, this is just great, this is wonderful!" said Bull bitterly. "A guy forks over eight crowns and they don't even let him dance."
"You can dance all you want, but you can't make a public nuisance of yourself," repeated the cop.
"You're the public nuisance!" said Bull. All at once he didn't care what happened to him. He was only desperately angry. "You should be out chasing down some real public mischief. Leave people with regular jobs alone when they're trying to have some fun."
"That's it!" said the cop. "Leave the room at once!"
"You got no right! I ain't done nothing!" said Bull. He caught sight of Evita standing to one side, making herself small and watching him with wide eyes. A crowd of gawkers had gathered around them. A new wave of defiance washed over him. I'm not going to let these assholes trim me back, he said to himself.
"Don't tell me what I have a right to and what I don't," said the cop.
"You seem to think you got a right to everything," said Bull. "And just because somebody wants to have a little fun, you'd as soon lock him up as let him, right?"
"You'd like that, wouldn't you? You'd like us all just to shut our mouths!"
"You're coming with me," declared the cop.
"No I ain't. I ain't done nothing!"
"Let's go, then," said the cop, taking Bull under the arm. This guy has muscle, Bull realized.
"Take your hands off me!" he said, but the cop was already dragging him off towards the washrooms.
When they got there he said, "Show me your ID book!"
"You got no—"
"Open your mouth once more and you're going with me," the cop interrupted him. His face had hardened, and Bull saw that the fun was over.
"This amounts to police brutality," he said, pulling out his ID book. And when the cop took out his notebook and began laboriously taking down Bull's name and address, he added more quietly, "This is curtailing my personal freedom."
Then he said nothing, and merely watched as the cop struggled with is notes.
A long time passed before he finished and returned the ID book to Bill. "And now clear out, fast!"
"You're trampling on human dignity," said Bull, quietly now, almost to himself.
"There's the cloakroom," said the cop.
Bull looked around for Evita, but she'd made herself scarce. There were only a few gawkers left, staring round-eyed at him.
"Well, are you going or aren't you?" said the cop.
"Yeah, sure, don't get your socks in a knot," said Bull. They've all dumped on me. He went to the cloakroom, got his coat, and walked slowly down the stairs. The cop watched him go. They've shit on me. And now I'm in it all alone, he said bitterly to himself. They've all shat on it.
The revolving door spat him out into the raw night. Light from the windows on the second floor was seeping into the fog, and he could hear the faint tones of Hammer's vibraphone. A trolley bus was going past the church. There was a pre-Christmas quiet in the air, as though nothing at all had happened. Bull stuck his hands into his pockets and started walking. But he had nowhere to go. He couldn't go back, and there was nothing ahead of him.
"The bastards!" he hissed between his teeth, without having anyone in particular in mind. But they were somewhere around. Someone must be responsible for all this. "The bastards," he repeated quietly. "But they won't make me over. They'll never make me over."
He walked down the square and soon was lost in the fog that seemed to be dissolving the streetlamps in misty golden globes of light.
Josef Škvorecký (originally written in 1953)
Translated by Paul Wilson.
Thanks to Key Porter Books for permission to publish this excerpt from Škvorecký's new collection, When Eve Was Naked.
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