Five Bells | Maelstrom

By: Laura E. Vasilion


Johnny was asleep when the busboy lit the match. Unconscious, when flames flickered in the artificial palm tree and flashed across the blue satin ceiling. Ate up the tropical fabric and netting and imitation leather fixtures. Roared up the Melody Lounge stairs. Gave birth to a black wall of toxic smoke that rolled through the swank nightclub.


Silenced the screams.


If not for the fight with Libby, Johnny would have been there. Up on the main stage, playing with Mickey Alpert’s band. From that vantage point, he would have seen Buck Henry and his entourage sitting in the VIP section. Would have heard the collective gasp when the club was suddenly pitched into blackness. Heard the chairs crashing to the floor, dishes breaking, as the crowd panicked and tried to grope their way free. Would have felt the fireball’s heat as it burst into the room. Been overwhelmed by the noxious fumes. Trampled in the mad rush for the jammed and locked exit doors.


With Libby.


She was the reason he was a no show. The reason he had wandered Boston’s cobblestone streets alone on his final night of leave. Stumbled around Scollay Square in a daze. Brushed past the faces of gobs and their girls as they wobbled past him like paper lanterns in the wind. Sensed the longing of the sailors, smelled the girls’ perfumes.


For the price of a Mai Tai, he could have had the same options. Nuzzled up to a pair of willing red lips and a matching set of shapely gams down at the Howard. Or squeezed into the Crawford and lost himself in the splendor of Sally Keith’s remarkable orbiting tassels.

Options. Yeah, sure, he’d had options. Options he was in no condition to pursue with her on his mind. When all he had to do was close his eyes to recall the scent of fresh soap on her skin. Hear the way she laughed when she walked in the snow.


So he did the only thing that made sense; he got stiff. Bounced in and out of countless dives, swigging cheap beer and lousy Manhattans. When his money ran out, he tried to talk a bartender into one on the house. But the Irishman wasn’t buying.


“Look around, mate. If I pop for every bloke shippin’ out, I’ll be in the poor house.”


The barkeep was right. Like swells on the Atlantic, a sea of Navy white hats undulated in the barroom haze. Shrugging, Johnny slapped down his last two bits and slid off his worn barstool. Checking the Chelsea ship clock nailed above the bar’s cash register, he noticed it was coming up on ten o’clock.


Four bells. Four hours.


Since the fight. Since the last time he’d seen Libby.


Things between them had been off for weeks. But this day, his last day in Boston, he wanted it to be different. The way it used to be. So he’d gone to Boston City Hospital early. To surprise her.


He found her, all right. Flirting in the corridor with a handsome young doctor. Johnny almost lost it and gave the good doctor a bigger head than he already had. Couldn’t believe Libby just stood there, all dewy-eyed and innocent, clueless that the white coat was trying to horn in on her. Knowing Johnny could do nothing about it once he shipped out in the morning.

Though it broke his heart, he said the only thing that came into his head. “Goodbye, Lib.”

Words meant to hurt her. Give his heart the upper hand. Let her know he didn’t want her to bother showing up at the club, as they had planned. Words he regretted as soon as he said them. He couldn’t tell her that, of course. Not with Maude, the head nurse, looking at him with sanctimonious pity. Not while the doctor stared at him with smug victory on his face. Not while Libby, seemingly bewildered, stood frozen in place, saying nothing.


Nothing.


So he stormed out. Lingered at the sidewalk outside the hospital expecting her to show up. Apologize. This time she didn’t come after him. Didn’t try to make things right as she had so many times before.


It was her fault, then, that he missed his chance to play with Mickey Alpert’s band at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub that November evening, 1942. Her fault he went on a binge his last night in Boston. Her fault he spent the final hours of his Thanksgiving leave between the dingy sheets of a crummy Scollay Square hotel.


Alone. Aching for her.


Her fault.


Sleep came in waves. Freed of sobriety’s ballast, Johnny let out the slack. Rode slumber’s swells like a renegade skiff on Long Island Sound. He could not give the same freedom to his heart. It was still too heavy with the sound of her voice, the memory of her touch. All the booze in Boston couldn’t alter that. Troll him deep and far enough away from the pain of missing her.


She was the last thing on his mind before the bourbon and beer took him under. The first thing on his mind, when the deadly mix woke him up again, barking and howling from inside his gut. He couldn’t gauge if he’d been out a minute or an hour. Didn’t much care. With the liquor sloshing around inside him, her on his mind, little else mattered.


Deaf and dumb to the world around him, Johnny did not hear the distant ring of the first alarm sounding down on Piedmont Street. Or the second one, ringing out while he bolted for the bathroom. When the third and fourth alarms whined, Johnny was down on his knees, hands clamped around the cool porcelain toilet bowl. Still there, heaving, when the fifth and final alarm wailed.


As bodies began jamming the glass revolving doors at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub.


About the Author - Laura E. Vasilion worked as a freelance writer for thirty years. Her credits include The Chicago Tribune newspaper and magazine, Baltimore Sun, Reader’s Digest, Entrepreneur, and The Des Moines Register, among others. Currently, she is focusing on fiction, essay, and blog writing. Samples of her work and award-winning blog, Talking to the World, can be found at lauravasilion.com.

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