Curtis was sitting at the Hotel de la Montagne bar. He’d been there since three o’clock. He should have been drinking at a brasserie, saving his money, but he hated brasseries. They made him feel cheap. Besides, things might be looking up. He’d had a job interview earlier. The creative director liked his stuff. The problem now was waiting. The agency wouldn’t make a decision for five days. Five days wasn’t long by advertising standards, but five days was five days. Curtis hadn’t worked in six months. He was down to his last four hundred bucks. Even if the job came through — and that was still a big if — it would be two weeks before he got his first cheque.
Around five o’clock, the place started filling up. Behind him, a pianist was playing in the lounge. An attractive woman sat down next to him and ordered a drink. Her hair was pulled straight back. She was late thirties, same as him. No ring. She took out her cigarettes, lit one, then glanced at the mirror behind the bar. She noticed Curtis looking at her. She gave him a slight smile. It had been a while since anyone had smiled at him.
“How are you?” she asked.
“Not bad,” he said. “You?”
“All right. I haven’t seen you here before.”
“I’m celebrating, I guess.”
“I might have a job. I’ll know next week.”
“Sounds exciting. What sort of work?”
“You know people in advertising?”
“They tell you it’s tough?”
“Some did, others just looked it.”
“How does someone look it?”
She blew smoke out of her nose.
“That sounds about right,” he said. “Do I look terrified?”
“A bit,” she said. “I’m Vanessa, by the way.”
“Curtis,” he replied. “Nice to meet you.”
A couple sat down next to them. They were dressed for a night out. The man was balding and heavy, the woman a bit mousy. She kept fiddling with her hair, checking it in the mirror behind the bar.
The man waved to the bartender.
“Whiskey sours,” he said, taking out a fifty. Then he changed his mind and handed over his credit card. “Keep it open,” he said. “We might decide to have ourselves a party. What do you think Ruthie? You wanna party?” His arm was across the back of her chair. She sat slightly forward as he talked. His voice was high for a man of his size. “You and me party good together, don’t we, Ruthie?” he said. “Any place you wanna eat tonight.”
Vanessa leaned close to Curtis.
“What do you think of those two?” she asked.
“What about them?”
“They won’t last.”
“Why won’t they last?”
“I know his type.”
“You seem to know a lot of types. What do you do?”
“This and that,” she said. “Tell me more about this job.”
“And you’re worried about what?”
“Money, mostly,” Curtis said. “I’ve been out for a while.”
“I hope it works out.”
“So do I. Can I buy you a drink?”
“Maybe another time, Curtis.”
She looked around the bar.
“Listen, can you do me a favour?” she asked. “Would you mind not talking to me? I can move further down if you like.”
“Are you meeting someone?”
“I might be.”
“Not me, in other words.”
“Maybe when things work out for you.”
The guy next to them was trying to get the bartender’s attention again.
“Drink up, Ruthie,” he said. “We can have another before dinner.”
The bartender came over.
“Another round,” the man said. “I’m going to use the can.”
He walked towards the lobby. When he passed the pianist, he put some money in his jar and spoke in his ear. “Go ahead,” he then said loudly. “Play it for her now.” He turned and waved to Ruthie.
The pianist started playing My Funny Valentine.
Ruthie shook her head. She saw Curtis and Vanessa looking at her.
“Hank thinks it’s our song,” she said. “We were down at The Sheraton last night. This drunk guy got up on stage. He had his own trumpet and everything. Someone said he was some famous jazz guy. Chet something — I don’t remember. Hank says, ‘Well, if he is some jazz great, he oughta know My Funny Valentine. Then he goes up and asks the guy to play it.”
“Chet Baker?” Curtis asked.
There was an article in that morning’s paper. Chet Baker was supposed to play at Place des Arts the night before. He arrived drunk and proceeded to fall off his stool. Then he suddenly packed up and left, showing up later at The Sheraton piano lounge. He got up on stage and started playing.
“That’s him,” Ruthie said. “Imagine Hank asking him to play our song.”
“What did Baker do?” Curtis asked.
“He told Hank to fuck off.”
Vanessa lit another cigarette. She offered one to Ruthie.
“Thanks,” Ruthie said. “Hank gets carried away sometimes.”
“Is he your husband?” Vanessa asked.
“Hank’s still married,” Ruthie replied. “He’s getting a divorce, but you know how it is. Kids and stuff. Are you two married?”
“No,” Vanessa said, putting out her cigarette and standing up. “I have to go powder my nose.” She went out into the lobby, passing two men at the front desk. One elbowed the other as she went by.
“Your girlfriend’s beautiful,” Ruthie said to Curtis.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Curtis said, watching the two guys.
Hank was coming back.
“You hear our song?” he said to Ruthie. “That’s what I wanted that jerk to play last night.”
“His name’s Chet Baker,” Ruthie said.
“Chet Baker, huh,” Hanks said. “Who told you that?”
“He did,” Ruthie said, pointing to Curtis.
“So I asked him to play our song,” Hank said. “What of it?”
Curtis paid his bill and put on his coat.
“Have a nice evening, folks,” Curtis said.
“Aren’t you going to wait for her to come back?” Ruthie asked.
“No,” Curtis said.
“Who are you talking about?” Hank asked.
“The woman who was sitting here,” Ruthie said. “Didn’t you see her?”
“I was paying attention to you, Ruthie.”
“Nice try, Hank.”
“Whatdya mean, nice try?”
Curtis left the hotel. Snow had fallen while he was inside. Now it was heavy slush. People were jumping out of the way of cabs pulling up. In one of the newspaper boxes, Curtis could see the headline: “Chet Baker Walks Off Stage.” There was a picture of Baker sitting on a stool, legs crossed, trumpet up to his lips. Baker was back in Paris now.
Curtis kept hearing Ruthie say, “Imagine asking him to play our song.” Maybe Hank didn’t know his jazz artists, but he knew Ruthie. He knew he could keep stringing her along. One day Hank’s romantic streak would end, though. Ruthie probably saw it coming. Vanessa sure had them pegged.
Over on de Maisonneuve, Curtis caught a cab. He went home, fell into bed, woke up the next morning hungover. He lay there most of the morning, imagining the worst. He always imagined the worst. There were no optimists in his gene pool. Maybe that’s what Vanessa meant by terrified.
The following Friday, he heard from the agency. The job was his. He went in that afternoon, filled in some forms, meet the other creatives. Around four, he walked up to the Hotel de la Montagne. A few people were sitting at the bar. He ordered a scotch, then another one.
By five thirty, he was feeling drunk. More people were arriving. On the other side of the palms, dividing the bar from the lounge, the pianist was starting. Vanessa came in wearing a fur hat. She sat down, ordered a drink, and took our her cigarettes. She saw Curtis and smiled.
“You’re back,” she said to him.
He moved to the stool next to her.
“I’m working again,” he said.
“Congratulations,” she said. “You must be very happy.”
“Well, cheers, Curtis,” she said, clicking glasses. “Let’s hope it lasts.”
Curtis suddenly felt angry.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s just a saying,” Vanessa said. “I’m wishing you well.”
“Why didn’t you just say that?”
The bartender was looking over.
“You’re talking too loud, Curtis.”
“So I’m talking loud. You want a drink?”
“I have a drink.”
“Have another. I can afford it now. I thought you liked money, Vanessa. Didn’t you say when things got better?”
The bartender gave Curtis a hard look. Across the lobby was a big guy dressed as a doorman. A nod was all it took.
“Okay,” Curtis said, raising his arms. “I’ll behave. My voice okay now?”
“Why don’t I order you a coffee, Curtis?” Vanessa said.
“I’ll go throw cold water on my face. How’s that?”
He pushed off from the bar and made his way out to the lobby.
Vanessa got up from her stool, motioning the bartender over.
“What does he owe, Claude,” she asked.
“About sixty,” Claude replied.
“Put it on my tab.”
“I insulted him.”
“Guy deserved it.”
“Put it on my tab, anyway.”
She was putting on her fur hat and coat.
“Suit yourself, Vanessa. There’s a party upstairs.”
“Okay, I’ll talk to you later.”
She walked over to the elevators. People filed out, she got in.
Curtis came back to the bar and picked up his drink.
“Where’s Vanessa?” he asked the bartender.
“The woman sitting here.”
“Did she say where she was going?”
“What do I owe you?”
“She paid it.”
The bartender went to serve another customer.
Curtis put on his coat and left.
Over on de Maisonneuve, he stopped in at a strip club. A girl asked if he wanted a dance. She was small and blonde. Vanessa was tall and brunette. None of the dancers reminded him of her. “I’ll just have a drink for now,” he said to the girl. She took his order and went to the bar, bringing back a scotch. “Let me know if you change your mind,” she said.
When she went past him again later, he asked for a dance. She got the platform, danced two songs, then Curtis finished his drink and left.
Back at his apartment, he sat in the dark. Lights from the street cast a dull glow over the room. He went to the washroom, took some aspirin, then went to bed. He felt lousy. He knew he’d feel worse in the morning. You always felt lousy, then you felt terrified. Not like Chet Baker. What did he have to feel terrified about? He was a genius. He could fall down drunk and still be a genius. Being terrified was an ordinary man’s disease. It stayed with you your entire life. Maybe you got a day off, but it always came back.
Curtis went to sleep thinking about that.
He even dreamt of being terrified.