(excerpted from Chasing Fireflies © Lori Berhon, All Rights Reserved)
While Martha Cecchi was home in Patchogue, praying over her cancer with her Practitioner, her husband Mickey brought their kid into the city, to Cooghan’s on 54th Street, where he’d sit for hours, knocking back a few with his old service buddies and Judy Garland.
This was Mickey’s idea of babysitting. Well, there were always a couple of women hanging around Cooghan’s who’d keep an eye on a kid and smile extra at the poor guy whose kid it was. “Broads,” Mickey called them: well-upholstered gals with hair like cones of cotton candy, their eyes plastered purple and black to make them look like Liz Taylor. Frankie would spin around on a bar stool until she made herself almost sick, when one of the broads would get her a warm Coke and some pretzels to settle her stomach. They played knock-hockey with swizzle sticks and bottle caps, and gave her their eyebrow pencils to draw on the bar mats. There were also a couple of other women who felt at home popping by Cooghan’s to have a few with the guys. Mickey called them “Broads,” too, but with a sort of respect that made Frankie hear it with a capital B. Mary Catharine Shea—Mary Cat, as everyone used to call her—had a column in the papers. Her friend Dottie Kelly, who hardly ever laughed herself, wrote for Jack Parr or Sid Caesar…someone funny like that. Deep-voiced Annie Fallon, who kidded Mickey like a big sister, was on Broadway a lot of the time, and sometimes Frankie saw her on TV. And, for a while that most of them never forgot, there was Judy.
The first time Judy came, it was Annie Fallon who brought her. Annie walked in fast, like always, but with her eyes probing corners of the place that hadn’t been looked into for maybe years. Then she nodded a kind of okay to herself and gave a high sign over her shoulder. A bunch of people walked in behind her, checking out the room with faces that were half “aha” and half “uh-oh.” Anyone could see right away that they were show business types. They were mostly men. If they hadn’t been with Annie Fallon, a couple of them would have been in trouble with the guys at Cooghan’s. They must have known it, too, seeing how they never came back after that one time. They all of them wore dark skinny suits and, except for one, dark skinny ties. Some were wearing pretty sharp hats. Two had dark glasses that they kept on, even though at four in the afternoon in Cooghan’s you could hardly see the fingers of your own hand in front of you. They piled into the big corner booth, the one farthest away from the bar, which soon became veiled with their smoke.
The regulars tried to not gawk, to ignore them, but it was impossible. In the middle of them all was a tiny woman, with a fluff of dark hair, sparkling in one of those brocade dinner suits like a diamond in a heap of charcoal briquettes. Whoever this woman was, she was the most alive person Frankie had ever seen. Her face and body seemed to vibrate, even when all she was doing was listening to someone else. A slide show of reactions flashing across her face, she made sitting and listening seem like important things to do. When she spoke, her hands flinging out in the air, she set off sparks. And the people at her table kept their faces turned toward hers, opening like flowers to the sun.
It was Annie Fallon who, picking up their drinks at the bar, told the dazzled child, “That’s Judy Garland. You know, Dorothy, from Oz.” And it was Annie who laughed to see the little girl scoot down to stare at Judy’s shoes. They were disappointingly brocade, pointy like the ones the broads wore, just a little glittery but not red at all.
It was Annie, too, who whispered low to the regulars at the bar about how Judy got bored with fancy places and phony people. They’d been talking, the group of them, about where to go, and Annie’d said she preferred her own watering hole, Cooghan’s, to all the phony El Moroccos and Rainbow Rooms in the city. That got the regulars embarrassed and proud. For years, whenever one of them was lower than usual, they repeated what Annie had said and reminded themselves that Judy had come—and come back again.
Once they realized the strangers weren’t leaving and weren’t asking for any trouble either, the regulars settled into their usual ways, almost. Cooghan’s nephew Ronnie stopped arranging glasses in pyramids and went back to his racing sheets. Mickey’s buddy Phil put a few dimes in the jukebox like he always did, only this time he didn’t put his arm around Rusty’s waist and sing into her ear like Frank Sinatra. Occasionally, there were peals of laughter from the corner, but no one paid them any mind.
Judy must have slid out to go to the ladies’ room, which at Cooghan’s was only just the one of the toilets that had a latch. Walking back, she stopped at the bar. The guys were shooting craps to figure out who was buying the next round.
“I always love a crap shoot,” she said, snapping open a silvery case. “Who’s winning?” She smiled and wiggled a cigarette, the way women did back then.
“More useful to know who’s losing,” Mickey said, flicking out his lighter. “Mickey Cecchi,” he said.
“I always liked the name Mickey,” she said, quirking up the corner of her mouth. And when he lost the round and pulled out his wallet with a good-natured grimace, she laughed like anything.
For a while after that, Judy was something of a regular. She usually came in with Annie Fallon, or sometimes with the anxious looking young man who’d worn the blue tie, the one that made his shirt look like someone had painted a stripe down it with the one of Frankie’s oil pastels that was called “cerulean.” He’d always go sit at the dark end of the bar, on the extra chair where the fluff poked through a slash in the red vinyl seat, and he’d disappear like he was sleeping until Judy looked like she wanted to leave.
When Judy came in, Frankie wasn’t allowed to play Hide Out under the tables, or make xylophones out of half-filled glasses. Mickey would scoop her up onto his knee and hold onto her as if she were something precious that he didn’t want to lose. She’d snuggle back against his starchy shirt and he’d rest his chin on her head and listen to Judy, or sometimes lean across her to light Judy’s cigarette. And always he’d hold her close, so close that for all the next day her hair would smell of cigarettes and beer and Old Spice.
Everything was different when Judy was there, more like a nightclub in a movie than a dark, musty bar. The guys perked up, holding themselves straighter and laughing like they meant it, lighting the cigarettes of the broads, who’d lose some of that scared look from behind their eyes. Everyone laughed, and not that ugly laughter she often heard and shrugged away. They were magic, those times. When Judy was at Cooghan’s, there wasn’t another place in the world Frankie would have wanted to be.
Judy made everyone feel special, just by being in the same room. Frankie wanted to be exactly like her when she grew up. Once, she worked up the courage to blurt this out. Judy chuckled, that throaty chuckle. Then Mickey, feeling kind of proud, put her down and tried to get her to do a little song she’d learned from watching Darla Hood on The Little Rascals. She’d been too scared and hid behind his knees. Judy got down on her own knees then, smiling at Frankie with her big sad eyes. “Don’t let them try and make you,” she said. “When you want to do it, then you’ll sing. Only then. A song has to come from your heart.” That was the last time Frankie and Judy were both at Cooghan’s at the same time. It just turned out that way.
On a cold April night twelve years later, Judy Garland was several years dead and so was Martha Cecchi. Mickey hardly came into Manhattan anymore, preferring to do his drinking at home, or at the bar across the street from his butcher shop, where a twice-divorced definitely-lowercase-broad named Eunice regularly warmed the bar stool next to his. And Frankie Cecchi was on 45th Street, flattening herself against the cinderblock wall of the alley.
Loved it! Thank you.