Monday, May 13, 2013

Lola Dances excerpt by Victor J Banis

Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic and often bawdy, Lola Dances by Victor J Banis ranges from the 1850 slums of the Bowery to the mining camps of California and Montana, to the Barbary Coast of San Francisco. Little Terry Murphy, pretty and effeminate, dreams of becoming a dancer. Raped by a drunken profligate and threatened with prison, Terry flees the Bowery and finds himself in the rugged settlement of Alder Gulch, where he stands out like a sore thumb among the camp's macho inhabitants--until the day he puts on a dress and dances for the unsuspecting miners as beautiful Lola Valdez--and wins fame, fortune and, ultimately, love.

In this excerpt, the young street tough, Tom Finnegan, has rescued Terry from the drunken profligate pursuing him. He takes him “home,” to his living quarters in the Bowery.

Lola Dances
MLR Press (February 10, 2008)

ISBN-10: 1934531421
ISBN-13: 978-1934531426

Where Tom took him was the cellar of an abandoned tenement building. The surface of the nearby river was red with the descending sun. They climbed through a window that had been boarded up, but Tom pulled the boards easily aside and slipped through. He motioned Terry to follow him, and pulled the boards back into place when they were inside.

Although it was still daylight outside, the basement was in near darkness. Terry stood for a bit, allowing his eyes to adjust to the gloom. What he saw, finally, were makeshift living quarters: a moldy mattress on the floor, a box for a table with a candle atop it, and some scattered tins of food and a couple of apples. The place smelled of mildew and rotted garbage and excrement.

"Is this…?" Terry started to ask, and hesitated.

"I live here," Tom said. He followed Terry's gaze about the room, seeming to see it through Terry's eyes. "It ain't much, is it? But I've lived in worse, I can tell you. Anyway, nobody'll find you here. You're safe with old Tom Finnegan, as safe as in your mother's arms. As long as you want to stay."

"But…I can't stay here," Terry said.

Tom's smile faded and he looked crestfallen, but Terry, still looking around the cellar, missed that.

"No, course not," Tom said. "I expect you're used to lots better. This ain't exactly Fifth Avenue, is it?"

"Oh, I'm not used to that either, that's not what I meant," Terry said quickly, apologetically. "It's just, well, what about my things? And I've got my lessons. Besides, my brother wouldn't like it if he knew."

"Yes. Well." Tom kind of shrugged. "Are you hungry. I've got them apples, and there's a can of beans I haven't finished, if you'd like the rest of them. Go on, sit down, why don't you?"

He motioned to the tattered mattress. A large brown rat had crept onto it and Tom gave him a swift kick. Squealing, the rat vanished into the shadows.

Terry sat a bit gingerly and raised up the next moment to look at the cards he'd sat on, several decks, maybe four or five of them.

"I'm learning to play cards. To make money," Tom said, scooping them out of the way. "I plan to be a professional."

"A card sharp, you mean?" Terry said.

"They ain't a lot of jobs open for a fellow like me," Tom said a bit defensively.

"Oh, I didn't mean to sound like a prig."

"Here," Tom said, and thrust one of the apples at him.

Terry took it and looked at it, but it looked perfectly fine, and he was hungry, now that he thought of it. He rubbed it quickly on his shirtsleeve and bit into it. "It's delicious," he said.

"I steal them," Finnegan said, looking altogether too proud of himself, Terry thought. "I'm good at it. That's how come I think I can get good enough with the cards, if I keep practicing. It's all in the hands. That's how they do it, the good ones. Look."

He took one of the decks and riffled through it, the cards flying so fast in his fingers they were no more than a blur. "Here, take a card," he said. "Any card, and look at it and remember it."

Terry did as he was instructed. It was the Ace of Hearts. "Now, stick it back in the deck, anywhere you like. And," Tom shuffled the cards again, screwed up his face in concentration, cut the deck, and turned one half over, to reveal the Ace of Hearts.

"That's…that's amazing," Terry said. "How did you do that?"

"I told you, it's all in the hands," Tom said, pouting his muscled chest like a pigeon. He looked at the card he'd revealed. "The old Ace of Hearts. Hah. That says something, me boy-o."

"What's that mean?" Terry asked.

"Love," Tom said. "Major heart stuff, real close, close enough you could just about…" he caught himself and gave his head a shake. "Oh, shoot, that's just some old gypsy blarney, reading the cards, it don't amount to a hill of beans, really."

For a moment, their eyes met, and it seemed as if something, some invisible current, passed between them. Terry had an urge, it swept through him, to lean forward, across the short distance that separated them, to come closer—but, for what? He remembered the feel of Tom's body atop his earlier in the alley, the warmth that had radiated from him, and now he saw in Tom's eyes that strange hunger he thought he had detected before.

"You're going to be a dancer, ain't that so?" Tom asked, breaking the spell. "That's what you're doing at that theater, ain't it?"

"Yes. I was going to be, anyway, before all this. Oh, I don't know, it was just a dream. I suppose they don't matter."

"We all have 'em. Least I do. Mine's gettin' rich from playing cards. I'll make it, too. And so will you, I bet."

Terry sighed. "Sometimes, at night, when I'm asleep, I have this other dream, a different kind of dream. The same one, over and over. I'm walking down this road, toward a city, a secret place, it seems like, hidden behind these great walls, and there are all these other people walking toward it too, and everyone keeps going faster and faster, and me too, until I am practically running, only, I don't know what it is I'm running to, I just know there is something waiting there for me, and I can't wait to get to it."

He had been speaking as if to himself, but now he blinked and looked at Tom. "I guess that sounds like a bunch of nonsense, doesn't it?"

"It sounds beautiful to me," Tom said, looking impressed. He gave a deprecating laugh. "All's I ever dream about when I'm sleeping is something to eat."

Terry moved his arm, and winced.

"What's wrong?" Tom asked quickly, all concern.

"Van Arndst hit me a good one back there, with his walking stick." Terry felt cautiously at his shoulder and winced again.

"Here, you better let me have a look at it, then," Tom said. "Take that shirt off, why don't you, and let's see what's what."

Terry hesitated for a moment. "Come on, then, off with it," Tom said, and he looked so serious and so concerned, Terry swallowed his shyness and did as he was told, slipping his torn shirt off.

Tom moved closer to him, put his hands on Terry's shoulder and felt it gingerly. To Terry's surprise, his big, callused hands were astonishingly gentle.

"There, is it?" Tom asked and Terry nodded mutely.

Tom felt around some more, lifted Terry's arm up and brought it back down. "Well, it's good and bruised, that's for sure," he said. "It'll hurt for a bit. Don't look like nothing's broke, though."

They sat for a moment longer. Tom had not taken his hand away. It rested lightly on Terry's shoulder, and Terry realized that Tom was looking at him that way again, only more intently than ever, as if there was something he was dying to say, and was afraid to voice it. In a way, it was how Martin Van Arndst had looked at him, but it was different, too. What had been in Van Arndst's eyes had been hard and cruel, and the light in Tom's was much softer, gentler, and Terry fancied he could see something else in it, too, like a silent, eager plea. Terry's face turned pink.

"I like it when you blush like that," Tom said. That only made the pink deepen to scarlet, which seemed to amuse Tom all the more. He grinned from ear to ear, as if Terry had just performed some clever trick for his amusement.

It was cold in the basement and without his shirt on, even colder. A gust of wind blew through a broken window. Terry gave a shiver. When he exhaled, his breath made a little cloud.

"Say, I'm forgetting my manners," Tom said, business like all of a sudden. "It's cold in this place. I ain't got nothing to start a fire, either. Here. Let me warm you up."

He pulled Terry close, against his own body, and put his arms about him. It felt to Terry as if the other boy's body had the heat of a blast furnace, it all but burned his skin, and penetrated clear through him. He couldn't remember anyone's ever holding him like this—Van Arndst, the swine, had held him when he attacked him, but not like this, tight but gentle too at the same time. Tom's hands moved caressingly up and down Terry's naked back, like he was petting him.

"You could stay for the night, anyway," Tom said, and his man's voice was suddenly a little boy's, very shy and tremulous. "Just to be safe. Ain't got no blankets and no heat, but it'll be warm enough, if we…well…we can keep one another warm, can't we? Sleep close, like? I'll bet you wouldn't be cold at all if I was to keep my arms around you, all night, even, I'd be glad to. Warm and safe, is what old Tom promises you. If you was wanting to stay."

Only, Terry didn't feel at all sure he would be safe with Tom Finnegan, the way Tom promised. He wasn't sure he understood exactly what the danger was, but the quickening of his heart told him that Tom Finnegan's arms might not be the best place for him to spend a night.

"No, I think I'd better go," he said. He struggled to get to his feet. Tom's arms fell away.

"Suit yourself, then. Only, not home, I don't advise," Tom said, in his more manly voice, standing too, brushing some dirt off the front of his still dirty pants. "I doubt that would be smart. I think you'll have to go to your brother, regardless. He'll know what to do, at least. Van Arndst is vermin, but he's a rich man, and powerful. Them kind can be dangerous, to them like us especially."

Terry sighed. Tom was right. There was nowhere else for him to turn, and even if there weren't that other thing between them that he didn't understand, he couldn't very well stay here, could he? It looked like Tom was barely taking care of himself. How could he expect Tom to take care of him?

"I couldn't ask you to take care of me," he voiced his thoughts aloud.

Tom smiled, shy again. "I'd be proud to," he said, in something of a mumble that Terry could only just hear. "I'd like it, if you was to know the truth. You look to me like someone as needs a man to take care of him."

Terry remembered of a sudden the few coins he had in his pocket, the last of Van Arndst's money.

"Oh, say, I've got some money," he said. "Let me pay you for that apple, at least."

He took the coins out of his pocket and held them in his hand, palm up, toward Tom. "If you want," he started to say, but Tom looked so offended and glowered at him so intensely that Terry dropped the coins back into his pocket and offered his empty hand instead. "I can't tell you how grateful I am, for all you did."

Tom took hold of Terry's hand, but he didn't immediately let go of it. He swallowed noisily and took a step closer, so close that Terry fancied he could again feel the heat radiating from his body. He looked suddenly determined, as if he had made up his mind to something.

"Listen, before you go, if you was of a mind…well, we could…" he stammered, "I never said nothing like this before, never to nobody, but, since I been seeing you…well, I kind of been wanting to…I mean, not just anybody, is what I mean to say…"

He lost his courage at that point, though. It was his turn to blush, something Terry would never have imagined the tough boy doing. He left unsaid what it was he wanted and let go of Terry's hand abruptly, and backed away again. "I'll take you to your brother's," he said instead in a gruff voice.

"I can find my way," Terry said, his own feelings awhirl as well, and put his torn shirt back on, but Tom gave him a derisive look.

"You need a man to look after you," he said again, firmly, "is my opinion. I think it's lots better if I was to take you. Come on."

When he put his hand on Terry's backside, to boost him out the window, Terry felt as if he had been touched with a white hot branding iron.

The hand did not linger. The memory of it did, though. Terry could still feel it all the way to Brian's, as real as if Tom still had his hand there.

The river had turned black. They said almost nothing on their way. The clatter of an elevated train on Third Street seemed unnaturally loud in their silence. Tom actually seemed to be angry about something. A couple of times, he brushed his hand surreptitiously down across the front of his trousers, but Terry was afraid to look to see what he was pushing at, and kept his eyes stubbornly away.

When he had delivered him to Brian's door, Tom said, gruffly, his eyes down on his scuffed shoes, "You know where I live, then. Just in case you should ever, you know. It ain't much, but…" He shrugged and left the rest of it unsaid, and walked quickly away.

Terry pushed his glasses up and watched him until he had disappeared around a corner, without looking back.

To read more from Lola Dances, see the excerpts from 2/11/08 and 1/14/13.

To purchase the ebook, click  (MLR Books) or (Amazon)

To purchase the paperback, click (Amazon) or
(Barnes & Noble)

and soon to be available as an audio book!


Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

It's always a warm feeling to reread Lola Dances, and I read it three or four times. What can I say, but an excellent recreation of a male/female life in the 1880s, the American West, long before such an unsightly term as 'transvestite' was known. But Lola is more than a pretend woman, she is so real that every male penis stirs awake just to hear her singing and dancing. I've looked at her portrait countless times and every time I looked I could make out the beauty of Lola Dances. Oh, how she sways... And the memory of getting hard comes back again... Beautiful, ahhh...

C. Zampa said...

It's so good to see my old friend Terry/Lola again.
High time I read this book again. A beautiful story, beautiful character.

Anonymous said...

A great excerpt from one of your finest, Victor. Your sensitivity and talent are clear in this piece.

Joe DeMarco