This is a short story, originally published in 2010, featuring the characters in King of the Cross, some of whom turn up in my later novels, Spirit House and R&R.
I arrived at the First Presbyterian Church two hours before the worst man. There was a band – can you believe it? – rehearsing in the church hall. The door was closed but I didn’t need to see them to know what they looked like. The singer was small and dark with cuddle-me eyes and breasts like cathedral bells. Her guitarist was long and thin with a pedal-shaped head and, when they made love, he held her tight and hard, and his bony fingers left bruises on her milk-white shoulders. If she wanted to get anywhere, she had to let him go. The bassist was solid, handsome and secretly in love with her. He could not follow the drummer while he was watching her thighs. She should ditch him too and get a session man working for a wage instead of a percentage.
Ah, what the hell did I care? I hate musicians anyway.
We chose the First Presbyterian because we are not religious, and the First Presbyterian is not a church. It used to be, back in the early 1960s, when I had my offices in Kings Cross and Doo Wop Ron was trying to rebuild his miserable career without me. It was deconsecrated the year Digger Ronnie Blake drove his Roller into a gum tree, robbing Australian music of one of its most dazzling singing talents but not, thankfully, one if its more lucrative publishing deals.
The first time Savannah and I walked down the aisle, the First Presbyterian was a BDSM club. We had the pews hosed down on the morning of the service and the celebrant said it was the only church in Sydney where the crucifix had actually been used for a crucifixion. We drank out on that story all through our marriage – myself and my lovely, faithful bride.
It was the best month of my life.
I unlocked the chapel door and looked across the empty pews to the altar, then climbed the staircase to the choir stalls, where a clear-glass window opened out onto a balcony overlooking the driveway. I felt like Dustin in The Graduate waiting to scream.
(I tried to bring a musical version of The Graduate to Sydney in 1972. Imagine all those great songs performed by the characters themselves. I wanted John-Paul Young for Ben Braddock but it turned out he couldn’t act.)
I had a good run with musicals – I co-promoted Hair, Gospel and the Rocky Horror Show – but if you know one thing about me, it would be that Jake Mendoza and I flew Frank Sinatra to Australia in 1959. If you know another thing, it would be the rumour that I kept a piece in my desk drawer and pulled it on Doo Wop Ron when he demanded payment for playing support to Frank.
I’ll tell you the truth: all that was in my desk drawer were blank contracts and fountain pens. But some of these artists – they call themselves ‘artists’, like they were Picasso or Braque – write one hit song and they think the world owes them a living. There were a lot of tough boys in the singing and dancing game, especially after Vietnam, and I’m not ashamed to admit I carried my old service revolver in a shoulder holster, and I was wearing it again on the balcony of the First Presbyterian, gunning for the worst man.
I sent out invitations on the anniversary of our wedding day – our ‘cotton’ anniversary, it would’ve been – but not everybody posted an RSVP. The hardest person to lure to the service was Colin, Savannah’s father, who thought I was going to leave him with the bill. The easiest to persuade was my mother, who twittered away like a broken old bird in the Montefiore Home. She had forgotten that Savannah and I had ever married and was worried I might be a faygeleh because I wore expensive clothes.
Mum turned up to the disengagement party too. As I don’t believe in long disengagements, we held a quiet function at Fat Mario’s restaurant only two weeks before. The guests were encouraged to pick up their woks and fondue sets, Savannah gave me back the engagement ring and I told the small crowd how pleased and proud I was to call myself Savannah’s ‘financier’. I explained I first telephoned Colin to ask him to take back his daughter’s hand, then went down on one knee and begged her to leave me. When she finally agreed, I felt like the luckiest man on earth.
Savannah took it well, although I have always found it hard to tell whether she was stoic or just stupid.
I returned the ring to the Morris Emmanuel, the jeweller who had sold it to me in 1982. At the time, he told me it was a unique piece and the workings alone were worth the price of the band. When I brought it back, he examined it under the loupe as if he’d never seen it before, and said the setting was worthless and he could only give me the price of the gold and the stone. I liked the idea of the ring being dismantled. I would’ve had the gold reburied in the ground and the diamonds returned to the mine, if that were possible.
For the divorce service, I had hoped to hire the woman who officiated at our wedding but she had retired. Philly the Catholic recommended a de-frocked priest who worked as a civil celebrant, but he was appalled when he read my script.
‘ “Do you forsake this woman, to be your awful, shedded wife?” ’ he recited. ‘I can’t say that.’
‘Why the hell not?’ I asked.
‘ “Shedded” isn’t a word,’ he said. ‘The past tense of shed is “shed”. ’
‘ “Shed” doesn’t fit the rhythm,’ I told him. ‘Trust me, I’m a musician.’
He filled his cheeks with air and looked doubtful, like an uncertain puffer fish.
‘Also,’ he said, ‘you’ve called me “the commiserant”. That’s not right. I’m the celebrant.’
‘It’s a play on words,’ I said.
He shook his fringe.
‘ “Commiserant” isn’t a word,’ he said. ‘Not in English. It’s part of a Latin verb, meaning “they pity”. ’
He was an easy man to tire of.
‘Is this part of your job?’ I asked. ‘Editing the text?’
‘You can’t call me “the they pity”, ’ he insisted, rubbing his loafers into the carpet. ‘It doesn’t make sense and it undermines the dignity of my position.’
‘What I’ll do,’ I promised, ‘is make sure I don’t invite any ancient Romans to the ceremony. That way, no one’ll know the difference.’ I had an appointment with the de-florist and I didn’t have time to argue about the linguistic root of every word in the service.
‘If you mean to say “one who commiserates”, you could use the word “commiserator”, ’ he suggested.
‘So why don’t they call you a “celebrator”?’ I asked.
‘Because that would imply I celebrate events,’ he said, ‘which I don’t. I conduct ceremonies. That’s what a celebrant does.’
‘I’ll tell you what,’ I said.
I tried to persuade one of my artists to be the commiserant instead. I said it was a gig and they would be paid, but they were all afraid of offending Mendoza. I ended up with ‘Iron’ Mike Steel, a former middleweight champion of New South Wales, who used to work the doors of our clubs. He didn’t speak Latin, but that wasn’t necessarily a drawback.
Mendoza was the best man at my wedding but the worst man in life. He was a corrupter, he ruined people. He made them do things they’d have to hide, then kept their secrets, for a price. He laid bait, he set traps. He ran whores and filmed men fucking them, then made them pay for the rest of their lives.
I explained to the de-florist that I wanted a funereal arrangement, to signify the death of our marriage. I suggested wreaths of lilies, pansies and carnations. She said she did not usually do divorce but, from now on, she would advertise it as one of her services. She asked if I had any friends in the entertainment industry who would be interested in a similar arrangement and wondered if this might be a new celebrity trend she had not yet read about in the magazines.
I told the caterer that my guests must be given the choice of chicken and fish, but Savannah and I would eat humble pie, with steak and onions. There would be no cake, to show Savannah could not have her cake and eat it.
I hired a dysfunction centre for the deception, where the wedding presents were lined up on a trestle table like chess pieces on a board. Among the cut crystal and the silverware, damask linen and Egyptian towels, was a pishing well, scattered with envelopes full of money. Everyone who had given us cash would get it back, with twelve months’ interest.
When I explained to Colin what I wanted to do, he felt I was mocking the institution of marriage, laughing in the face of mugs like him who stayed with the same partner all their lives. It was nothing to do with that. I love the idea of marriage. It works for a lot of people and I hoped it would work for me. I thought I might be fourth-time lucky. To a promoter, life is all about relationships, and I was proud both my living ex-wives turned up at my marriage to Savannah and Linda Lou was going to be there for the divorce, too.
Colin’s wife, Alma – whose name meant soul, although she didn’t have one – was an out-of-work actor (is there any other kind?), who refused to play mother-of-the-bribe unless I paid her an appearance fee. But Savannah’s sister Gertrude – an accountant who’d never had to change her name for career reasons – was the maid of dishonour and she was happy to lead the bridle party. I think she secretly hoped to catch the wreath and be the first to get divorced once the divestivities were over. Gertie’s husband was a shikker and a shnorrer. She thought he went with other women but I knew he slept on park benches and passed out in bars.
Although I am primarily recognised as a successful businessman, I am, at heart, a creative person, and any original thinker will tell you that his best ideas often have to be abandoned. For instance, Savannah wouldn’t consent to have flour girls pelt her with flour bombs, even though she’d been showered with rice at the wedding. I offered to grind rice into flour myself, so as to symbolise the way she had crushed my heart to powder.
I told Savannah she could have a white shedding, since she’d never been divorced before. She wore something old (her wedding dress), something new (her shoes), something borrowed (her wedding ring – I was having that back) and something blue (my balls).
After the speeches, we would do the freylekhs to a proper klezmer band, with a violin, cornet, tsimbl and cello, so Savannah could once again lead me a merry dance.
I was throwing the shedding party because I needed Savannah to understand how big a thing she had broken, how carefully we had put it together in the first place and how completely it had fallen apart. I wanted her to take responsibility for what she had done, and to be sorry, but for the world to know that I was a trouper and the show must go on.
When I think about all the old shows, I can almost forgive Mendoza. We had a life back then. I brushed against Ava’s butt when she was in Melbourne filming On the Beach. I sat watching Tina as she changed costumes, saw the bruising Ike had left on her back. Sure, Mendoza was Mr Big, ‘the King of the Cross’, but People magazine called me ‘that rare entrepreneur with the debonair flair’. (Variety in the US called me ‘Double Cheese’ because my surname was Berger and my acts were schmaltz. To me, that type of anti-Semitism should’ve died out with the liberation of Dachau.)
It seemed like I always married musicians. L’il Brenda, my first wife, sang back-up for Doo Wop Ron. Linda Lou, my second, was a singer-songwriter from Potts Point. (She ran off with Crash Craddock but I still own the rights to her back catalogue.) Mrs Berger the Third, Katie Lee-Anne, was a war bride. Yes, I’d been to dark places, I’d seen terrible things. I was in Vietnam and nobody came back the full quid from that shemozzle. I wasn’t officially in the military in Saigon. I was more involved with entertaining the troops. But those who know the truth about war – and I’m not talking about tap-room blowhards and armchair generals or enlisted men who sat out the big one in Liverpool NSW – realise that a soldier’s morale is just as important as his rifle. A digger can’t fight on an empty heart and my girls filled their hearts with song. We called them the Songbirds, because there’re no prizes for originality in this game. It’s about giving the mugs what they want, and anyone who says otherwise never made a quid out of a brass razoo or sold tickets to a gig by Arnold Zwaybil, the Eastern Suburbs’ Frank Sinatra, with Frank’s name a dozen times the size of Arnold’s on the bill.
I may not have had rank in the army but I had status. The Songbirds were the biggest hit since Dresden, and half of 1ATF were in love with Katie Lee-Anne. (The rest of them were queer, smacked out or tragically killed in action defending the government of South Vietnam from its people.) I took my R and R in the bars of Vung Tau, with commandos who carried VC heads in bowling bags or wore their ears in bandoliers. It was fighting men who taught me how to use a tool, not gunsels like Jake the Fake’s two-bob gangsters.
Katie Lee-Anne and I married on the battlefield, which was quite fitting, as it turned out, because she never stopped sniping at me. That’s the thing about songbirds: they start chirping first thing in the morning and they don’t shut up until the sun goes down or somebody shoots them, whichever comes first. Katie Lee-Anne loved a man in uniform, which is why she’d volunteered for Nam in the first place, and she was always taunting me about the industrial deafness that kept me on Civvy Street. I would probably’ve put in a bullet in her if she hadn’t left me when she did.
History has been unkind to the heroes of our south-east Asian wars. They fought a fair fight against a determined enemy, and Katie Lee-Anne’s next bloke knocked her anyway, which is what you get when you run off with a shell-shocked, gook-raping baby killer, even if he is more decorated than a wedding cake and three fingers short of a hand.
The band in the hall played their own songs and 1960s Motown classics. Their original material had a bit of guts. They’d learned a thing or two from Smokey and Martha, and Michael and Marvin: I met them all. They called me ‘Izzy’. They said, ‘Izzy, tell us about Australia. Is it true that you hunt koala bears with boomerangs?’ They were typical thick-as-pigshit schwartzers.
I said, ‘Is it fair dinkum that your mob eat nothing but fried chicken and watermelons?’
That was when Marvin pulled out his piece and shot me in the leg, and a showbiz legend was born.
Yes, I’d been shot. Gunplay held no fear for me. Savannah knew what I was capable of. She’d had to beg me not to murder her ex-boyfriend for the things he did to her and it was only the fact that he lived in Granville that saved his life. It’s hard to summon up the energy to drive past Parramatta to kill somebody you don’t know over something that probably didn’t happen in the first place.
Savannah was a singer. Actually, she did a bit of everything – dancing, modelling, stripping, hooking – but was best known for her wheel-spinning skills on a Tuesday night game show. It’s all in the wrist action, apparently. It’s like playing the guitar.
And the guitarist in the band downstairs wasn’t half bad. His fingers knew their way around the fret board, like his hands knew the singer’s thighs and everything in between. Maybe he should stay. He might help to ground her, and songbirds need something to anchor them to the earth or they flap their wings and fly away. I supposed they wrote the songs together. They all do.
Back in the old days, all you had to do was find a mug with a half-decent voice (or not, in the case of Arnold Zwaybil) and pair him up with a great Jewish songwriting team like Bacharach and David, Leiber and Stoller or, dare I say it, Berger and Fries, and you had an instant hit machine. I knew people said I stole the publishing rights from Frankie Fries and I didn’t write a note of ‘Letter to Brenda’ but where do they think the name ‘Brenda’ came from? Does ‘Li’l Brenda Berger’ ring any bells? She didn’t come with Fries.
I was an artist and businessman, a ladies’ man, and a man’s man. Charm and cool, street smarts and sophistication, brains and brawn: I had it all. Why couldn’t Savannah see that? But she was young and naïve, so I could forgive her. I could’ve forgiven her anything, if only she had asked me.
It wouldn’t have been difficult to understand if she’d run off with a younger man, like that nebbish who used to hand around her dressing room offering to handwash her G-strings, although I think he was a faygeleh. She liked guitarists. They all do. She’d been with the fella from Cold Chisel and that golem in Rose Tattoo. Even the pisher in Granville had tried out for the Screaming Jets.
I don’t see the glamour myself. They all use session men on the albums anyway.
I asked Mendoza to organise my cucks night, for the cuckold. He treated us to an evening at the same club where I’d passed out on the eve of my wedding, with a stripper on each arm.
A lot of the old crowd turned up. There was Slow Eddie, Big Harry and Plastic Sam, and Ernie Katz who never came to anything. Certain heads only attended for the free piss, or to keep in with the old man but, on the whole, I felt I was among friends.
I’ll say this for Mendoza: he entered the spirit of the thing. The first girl on stage was naked, and she spent the next ten minutes slowly getting dressed until she ended up parading in front of us in a hat, coat and scarf. Then the lesbian act came in wearing flat shoes and jumpers, and sat on a couch stroking cats, drinking coffee and watching TV.
‘That’s a bit subtle,’ I said to Mendoza. He admitted it had been Ira’s idea.
I wondered what Ira thought about Savannah. She probably thought nothing. Ira had signed up for a life of cheating and being cheated. A mistress lives in the shadows, in the awnings, in the wings. She’s a stand-in, a cunt double. She has her own secret pride.
We drank whisky and smoked cigars and told stories about the days before the Lebs came to the Cross. At about one o’clock in the morning, when some of the older fellas were nodding off, Mendoza had the manager turn on the lights and he climbed onto the stage to make a speech.
I’d thought he might save it for the shedding ceremony but he wanted to get it over with. I was grateful because this, in the end, was what it was all about. Sure, Savannah had hurt me to the core. She’d torn my heart into tiny pieces and stamped them into the bedroom carpet. But when she finished, it was over. I’d bought her a lonelymoon in Transylvania. It was the farthest and least romantic place I could think of, but it came with an onward ticket to London and an introduction to Bernie Goldman, the Godfather of Soho, who could’ve been Mendoza’s long-lost brother. Savannah wouldn’t be back.
I’d never be rid of Mendoza, though. Neither of us could leave East Sydney. We were both, in our own ways, the kings of the Cross. Kellett Street, Orwell Street and Darlinghurst Road were our veins, our arteries. Vitto’s coffee was our blood.
We’d had our fallouts in the past, including the notorious incident when he allegedly made me eat an LP (Mendoza had a strange habit of forcing people to swallow sound recordings), but we always made up in the end because, to be honest, I was afraid he would kill me if we didn’t.
I had endured so many humiliations but this was the lowest I’d fallen. My best man had stolen my bride and he’d done it reflexively, unthinkingly. She was just another stripper to him. But his motive was also his alibi. Mendoza drove women like rental cars and traded them when they’d blown the head. He didn’t know I was in love with her because he’d never loved anyone or anything.
I’d tried to explain when I burst into his office the day after Savannah had admitted she’d been with Mendoza in the bathroom of the Bourbon, while Lazarus, the doomsman, guarded the door. He listened to me splutter and sob as if he had no idea what I was talking about, and I thought he was going to deny it, but he just couldn’t understand why I was making a fuss.
He watched me for a while as I cried in the leather chair, then had Lazarus pass me a tissue (I wondered if he’d done that in the bathroom) and pour me a whisky.
Mendoza smoked a Montecristo black man and stared at me through the cloud he’d created between us until finally he said, ‘Izzy, Izzy, Izzy…’ He stood up and hugged me, knocking a little ash from his cigar onto the shoulder of my bowling shirt.
‘I never should’ve done it,’ said Mendoza. ‘I’m really, truly sorry.’
And that’s what gave me the idea. If the King of the Cross could climb down from his castle and apologise, man to man, to a commoner like me, then I could accept my fate like a trouper and go on with the show. There’d be no Kings Cross whispers, no sniggering behind my back. I’d go out and tell the world what happened and show them all I didn’t care. Izzy Berger would bounce back, his pride intact. And as long as men met for poker nights, hired strippers at building sites or gathered for business lunches in lingerie restaurants, they would talk about the party I threw for my shedding, my shredding, my Cleveland Street un-wedding.
I don’t like heights. It’s not a phobia, it’s just a preference. I’d rather be on the ground than up a tree because I am an evolved person, not an ape. The sun was boiling my head in my hat like an egg in a pan, so I figured I might as well go down to the church hall to make sure the band was going to be out of the way before the service started. I didn’t want their racket drowning out Jake the Rake’s last words or the applause of the gathered crowd as he lay bleeding across the path.
I pushed open the church hall door, and I watched through my spectacles what I’d already seen in my mind’s eye. There she was with her tintinnabular tits and he with his high forehead and straight chin. They had chemistry. As she danced, he mirrored her with his hips. The bassist glowered, as if he were concentrating on the beat, but he didn’t care about the band anymore because all he could feel in the room was a woman who didn’t want him. If he could’ve turned his pain into music, the song would’ve broken your heart.
She wasn’t as pretty as the girl I’d imagined, but she hadn’t been styled, she hadn’t been groomed, she hadn’t met her star-maker. She had the rack but not the head, which meant she’d have to rely a bit more on luck and charm. There were dozens like her, who could ride the wave if they caught the break, but they’d all end up back in arts school, as life-drawing models to a class of seeping college boys, if they didn’t meet the right person at the right time.
The bassist stopped playing when he saw me standing in the doorway – he’d take any excuse to down tools – and the song collapsed.
‘Can we help you?’ asked the drummer.
Could they help me?
The name of the band was painted on the bass drum. I thought that was a nice old-fashioned touch. If he had half a brain – which, in my experience, was unusual for a drummer – he wouldn’t clean it off when they threw him out on his arrhythmic arse. He’d keep it for ten years and then sell it at auction, and that would be the only way he’d ever make money from the band.
I came closer to the stage and read the gothic script off the skin of the drum.
‘ “Hades Comet”, ’ I said. ‘That’s a great name for a singer.’
‘It’s not the singer,’ said the guitarist, ‘it’s the band.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘it’s not such a good title for a group.’ I shook my head. ‘Not at all.’
Mendoza was a performer too but he had only one turn: a flash rat who lived on the edge of the underworld, tough enough to play by its rules but too clever to get his hands dirty. He was a club owner, a property developer, a dispute mediator, a racing identity. He had powerful friends.
But every man at my cucks night knew the real Jake Mendoza – the gunsel, the gonif, the killer. When he started his speech, King Leer was Shakespearian: ‘Friends…’ he said to nobody. ‘Romans…’ he said, nodding to Fat Mario. ‘Cunts of men…’ he said, looking at everybody.
‘I’ve know Izzy Berger for too many years to count. And if I did count them, he do his own maths on the back of a beer coaster, come up with a different total, and offer to split the difference with me – in his favour, of course. I’ve seen him blossom from a maggot who left school at fourteen years old, barely able to read and write, into the social butterfly we see before us today, whose only problem is he can’t count.
‘Izzy and me have been all around the world, meeting talent, making deals, eating pizza. We’ve lived through a lot together and tonight, on the eve of his fourth – or “fruit and flower” – divorce, I’d like to share some of those memories with you.’
A camera projected pictures onto the screen behind the stage. There was a black-and-white of me and Mendoza in Balmain in 1939, in the days of our first foray into the music business: the stolen car-radio racket. We were as cool and slim as cigarettes. Then he showed the photo from People: the King of the Cross with the Rare Entrepreneur. I wore a quiff as high as my hat and a lip drawn back like Elvis. After a montage of stills – including a rare picture of Slow Eddie and Fast Eddie together at a barbecue – the movies started, with a minute’s footage of me walking arm in arm with Frank and Ava and a grab from a 1960s TV interview about Swinging Sydney. Then the picture quality took a dive and two out-of-focus figures bounced around the corner of the screen, flickering shadows wrestling on the ground. The larger blur pushed the smaller blob into the centre of the frame and the cameraman adjusted his lens to sharpen the image. I recognised Mendoza first, riding a girl with dark hair pushed back with an Alice band. The tart’s tiara dated the footage and identified the slut. It was L’il Brenda, in her post-Crash days, taking it up the Patton. Before I really knew what was going on, the film cut to another scene in the same room, with a girl on her knees. It was Linda Lou, of course, naked except for her wedding ring.
The word ‘intermission’ jumped across the screen, and a stripper walked through the crowd, selling ice creams. Mendoza looked at me with a grin like a chimp on his shrunken-monkey face, and I smiled back, as if he’d done something funny and clever, like sign his death warrant in his own blood.
After the break there was a third act featuring Mendoza in his old military uniform – well, the jacket, anyway – banging Katie Lee-Anne every which way but sideways.
The end credits named all the players, and finished: ‘The producers would like to thank Izzy Berger for the use of his wives in the making of this film’. The lights came back on, and schlammers and shtarkers blinked and rubbed their eyes because they couldn’t believe what they had seen.
‘Izzy and I have shared a lot,’ said Mendoza. ‘We’re like brothers, and I’d like to congratulate him on his impending divorce to one of Sydney’s most accomplished sack artists – a girl who could siphon a Sherrin through a drinking straw – and look forward to his next marriage as if it were my own. Which, in a funny way, it will be.’
He was still skiting when I slipped out of the club and into a cab. I felt numb, then enraged. My wives, my life, our ‘friendship’, was all one big laugh for Jake the Joker. It wasn’t enough for him to wreck my dreams, now he had poisoned my memories. At home, I oiled my toy, wiped it, loaded it, and pointed it at the mirror.
‘With this thing, I thee dead,’ I promised Jake Mendoza.
Mendoza was Satan. He’d been called ‘the Devil’ in Parliament. I couldn’t count the compromises he had forced on me – the sins of omission and commission, to borrow the burdens of another faith. Without him, I would’ve driven a hard bargain, but I would’ve been fair. Artists would’ve come out of meetings and said, ‘Izzy Berger is a mensch. I trust him with my songwriting credit because his business acumen added as much to my success as my own realisation that “send a” rhymes with “Brenda”.’
There would’ve been none of the court battles, the acrimony, the dirty laundry laid out for the press. I would’ve taken my rightful place in the pantheon of honest managers, up there with Brian Epstein and Allen Klein, Malcolm McLaren and Bernie Rhodes.
‘I’ve hired the church,’ I told the guitarist. ‘I’ll need you to be finished before the shooting starts.’
‘What shooting?’ asked the guitarist.
‘It’s a figure of speech,’ I said.
‘We’ve only got two numbers to go,’ said the singer, looking down at me with her big round nipples.
‘Have you played many gigs?’ I asked her.
‘None,’ she said. ‘We’re just practising.’
‘You need a manager,’ I told her. ‘Try Mickey Fitzsimmons. He’s a good one.’ I patted down my pockets. ‘I’ve left his number in the office.’
I looked at my Rolex. I still had enough time to run across the street, pick up Mickey’s card from my desk and do my last good deed before the beak gave me twenty-years-to-life – which meant life either way at my age.
When I thought about it, it was probably my first good deed. There was nothing in it for me, no finder’s fee for talent. I was helping out a mate and Mickey and I weren’t even that close. He wasn’t at the cucks night, he wasn’t invited to the shedding. But he was a good bloke and I knew he’d do right by Hades. He was a straight shooter, a squarehead. He couldn’t lie crooked in bed.
I sprinted over the road and up to my suite. I could see the First Presbyterian from my window. If I had a hunting rifle instead of a service pistol, I could shoot him from there but – unlike some people – I don’t keep an arsenal in my office.
My answering machine was winking like a rockspider, with six messages, all from Krazy Karl and the Klezmer Kings. They’d been driving up from St Kilda when their van had broken down outside Wollongong.
What the fuck did I care?
I found Mickey’s business card in the pages of a manual of entertainment law, marking the landmark case of Fries versus Berger, when I established the inalienable right of managers to manage. You’d think every other artists’ manager in Australia would’ve rung to congratulate me on my win, but none of them did, not even Mickey Fitzsimmons, who probably didn’t like the publicity and thought I was giving middlemen a bad name. Ah, fuck him. I tossed his card aside. It would only have ended up as a roach in a joint.
I looked around the walls of my office, at gold and silver discs and the autographed photos of Izzy Berger with Dean Martin, Izzy Berger with Muhammad Ali (he’d signed it, ‘From the champ of boxing to the champ of dentistry’; he hadn’t really understood who I was), and Izzy Berger with Arnold Zwaybil (I kept that one up in case his mother came to visit).
I’d had a glittering, star-studded career. I never thought it would end like this, with a final desperate act of revenge, but I was driven to it by forces no man could withstand. Mendoza had taken from me the only thing I loved. Now I had nothing to lose. I was like a tiger who’d seen his cubs bagged by a hunter. I was ready to pounce and I didn’t care if I lived or died. Mendoza had lured me into many different crimes, from arson to theft and extortion, sly-grogging, perjury and fraud, but this was his pièce de résistance. He had coaxed me into killing him.
I raised my fists like a fighter and touched the picture of Ali for strength.
I walked back into the church hall just as the guitarist struck the opening chord of the ballad that would outlive all of us, and the singer threw back her head and bawled like Tina on the turps: ‘I’m gonna send a letter to Brenda’.
I didn’t usually like to hear a woman singing that song but Hades belted it out like her lungs stretched all the way down to her balls.
The thing I’ll miss the most is live music, I thought, when I’m in the nick for the rest of my life. I’d miss singing and women, champagne and cigars. I’d miss strippers and dancers and Slow Eddie Finkel. I’d miss my Merc and my card games, my tailor, my barber, the Coke sign, the Bourbon and Sweethearts – but the hardest thing to do without would be the smell of stale tobacco and spilled beer in a cellar bar in Kellet Street, the ringing in my ears as the drummer hit the hi-hat, the rumble in my toes when the bassist drove the beat. A strong man doesn’t need other people to give him a reason to go on. It’s easy to convince yourself you’ve got nothing to live for when the truth of the matter is you’ve got nothing to fuck.
If I killed Mendoza, I’d be letting him control me. I’d throw away my life just to see him die. He wasn’t that important. He wasn’t worth the price.
‘Letter to Brenda’ was my sign from God, my burning bush. It was the guy in the sky saying, ‘Get a grip on yourself, Izzy. Your life isn’t over. You will survive your fourth wife running off with your lifelong business partner, who already had a wife and a mistress of his own.’ (God knows everything, see.) ‘You will go on to bigger and better things, younger and more beautiful women, even though you are sixty years old and everyone has forgotten Doo Wop Ron and Lucky Jack Gold, and even Digger Ronnie Blake is just a name to most kids these days. And as for that Baal-spawn Jake Mendoza, aka Yankel Rosenblatt, I’ve got an eternity in hell lined up for him: he’ll be promoting Arnold Zwaybil at the Taxi Club until the end of time.
‘Put down your piece,’ said God, ‘pick up your pen, and make Miss Tittyfuck sign on the dotted line. Change the band’s name to her name, so she owns the trademark when they split, and persuade her to share the songwriting credits with you “for legal reasons”.
‘You’re gonna go all the way with this one,’ said God. ‘Mark my words.’
The band began to pack away their instruments and wheel out their amps.
‘You’re in luck,’ I said to the guitarist. ‘My headliner’s pulled out. I need somebody to play two sets this afternoon. If you’ll close with “Letter to Brenda”, you’ve got the gig.’
He was speechless but his girlfriend kissed me on the check, which was a slow start but a good one.
‘I don’t suppose you know any klezmer?’ I asked them.
The celebrant arrived on a bicycle – I think he was training for a comeback fight – and behind him came the first of the guests, carrying a shopping bag to take back his wedding present. I helped the bassist lock up the church hall and, as one door closed, another one opened.
MARK DAPIN | 10 SHORT STORIES YOU MUST READ IN 2010 (Australia Council, 2010)