Under the Minkby Lisa Davis
New York City, 1949. At the Candy Box Club, three steps below the street, the show is about to begin. But in this club, the world is upside down. Emcee Blackie Cole is Blanche Cohen, the chorus line is led by a stunning dark-eyed boy named Titanic, and the only thing protecting the performers from the social reformers is Stevie, the kingpin of the mob's downtown
New York City, 1949. At the Candy Box Club, three steps below the street, the show is about to begin. But in this club, the world is upside down. Emcee Blackie Cole is Blanche Cohen, the chorus line is led by a stunning dark-eyed boy named Titanic, and the only thing protecting the performers from the social reformers is Stevie, the kingpin of the mob's downtown operation, whose hand moves from the till to the pockets of the police. When a young gay man is murdered in the club, only Blackie cares enough to find out why. Richly detailed, Under the Mink is both a boldly entertaining picture of the lesbian and gay subculture of pre-stonewall New York, and a first class period mystery complete with gangsters, crooked cops, and notorious madams.
Lisa Davis's writing has appeared in Queer View Mirror 2, and Early Embraces II. among others. She lives in New York.
- Alyson Publications
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1 ED
- Product dimensions:
- 5.40(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.64(d)
Read an Excerpt
Uptown on Park Avenue, Skip sat on the edge of his bed-antique Venetian, supported head and foot by gilded leaping dolphins. He was clad only in a polka dot silk dressing gown with velvet lapels. A loose strand of hair, bleached almost white by the summer sun on low-lying beaches, swept across his forehead. He was beautiful, with a sweet beatific aura, and his skin was very fair. The cheeks were soft and radiant. It was the kind of face that tricks went crazy over.
Skip dangled his bare feet off the bed and opened his robe. A pale naked image with dreamy hyacinth-blue eyes looked out at him from the tall mirror, like the center panel of some Renaissance triptych. His chest and legs had a buttermilk sheen and shimmered in the hothouse light. He ran his hands down his thighs. He was restless and tired of being alone. If his sister had come home, they could've gone out on the town. But it was too late to expect her now.
He went to his closet and fingered the light blue silk tulle, then a strapless pink satin with seed pearls. They were all his sister's dresses, let out for him at the waist and the hem with a few tucks here and there. She was no prude. If her baby brother liked to dress up in her clothes and said he was gay, that was all right with her. She loved him and found his friends charming. They had lots of laughs. Of course, if his father found out, the old man would have a screaming hissy fit. And Mummie would really take to her bed for good with a whole thermos of hot toddies.
Skip's hand lingered over the metallic threads of a floor-length gold lamé he'd worn the night he won first prize at the Paradise Casino on 125th Street. It was a big drag to-do, almost as big as Phil Black's Funmakers Ball. A long stairway with a shiny brass railing led up to the door where Skip had slipped the maître d' a generous tip for a good table and champagne.
After the competition, his friend Titanic, a drag queen who entertained at the Candy Box Club, had come by to congratulate him. "You look just like Dietrich, dahling," Titanic said and swished a fan of real ostrich plumes in one gloved hand. "A natural beauty wonder!"
Titanic could be a sore loser, but he hadn't allowed Skip to feel guilty about winning. Skip already felt self-conscious about being filthy rich, and Titanic had told him a thousand times how silly that was. "For Chrissake, I don't know why you're ashamed of all that moolah," he'd say. "If the fur coat fits, wear it. Poor is tacky!"
Clutching the gold lamé, Skip thought maybe he'd drive down to the Candy Box and say hello to Titanic and the other kids. He'd go backstage and have a few laughs. It seemed like ages since he'd been there. Titanic had told him to have nothing to do with the trade that hung around the bar-a lot of creeps, all closet cases. "I oughta know," he'd grin. But Skip wanted to suck a dick. Maybe he would try to pick up somebody anyway.
He carried only the money he needed, no identification, in case his trick turned out to be an undercover cop. Because his family was well-to-do, he couldn't afford to be recognized.
The picture of bandbox elegance, Skip stared again into the mirror, his eyes a haunting blue. He'd dressed simply for his visit to the Candy Box, in a Savile Row suit and silk shirt from Sulka, with a foulard tie and pocket square. He shuffled down the balustraded stairway into the apartment's circular polished-marble foyer, and pressed a button. A white-gloved attendant popped up in the small velvet and gilt cage of an elevator, like a diver emerging from the deep. He opened the door and rode Skip down to the building's wide vaulted vestibule.
Red damask covered its walls halfway down, with dark wood panels to the floor. Paintings in the beef-gravy colors of the Royal Academy represented English cathedrals and Italianate ruins. Beneath them sat pleasant groupings of low sofas, wing chairs covered in striped satin, and mahogany tables.
Ruggles, the doorman, touched his cap. He was gap-toothed and elderly, liveried in gray to match the fortress-like, pre-World War I building. Thirteen floors of stone with sharp cornices, false architraves, and fluted pilasters.
"Will they be bringing the car around, sir?" Ruggles asked. He noted that the boy was wearing a proper suit and no makeup. Maybe someone had warned the father, or the sister, that people in the building were beginning to talk.
"I'll need a taxi," Skip replied. They stood beneath a green awning that stretched to the sidewalk. Unquestioning, Ruggles stepped off the curb. His shrill whistle sounded up and down Park Avenue.
Skip's Checker cab bounced downtown. Red taillights bobbed on either side, taxis and limousines picking up fashionable people at their doorsteps. On a mild summer night like this, no one would sleep until dawn. Skip watched the city flash by and wished he'd gotten into the chorus line at the Candy Box.
"It must be wonderful to be in show business," a stagestruck Skip had hinted to Titanic in the dressing room. "What could I call myself?"
"Oh, something aristocratic," Titanic replied, "like Alexis, Georgette, Lalique."
"Howzabout Dolly Dimples?" Blackie Cole had suggested and flashed him one of her sensational smiles. In her white tie and tails, she looked like a swashbuckling Errol Flynn, starring in the new show at the club.
Back at home, when Skip had talked to his sister about the Candy Box, she hadn't shared his enthusiasm for a stage career.
"You can't use your own name," she warned. "You know how stuffy Father and Mummie are...and terrified of scandal."
Titanic confirmed the warning. "Don't be so sure you won't meet up with somebody you know!"
"Everybody gets down here sooner or later," Blackie Cole added.
Skip hated being in the cab with no one to talk to. He looked out the window and wondered if he'd ever do anything with his life. His sister would know what to say to raise his spirits, but she was out on the island with Mummie. Another one of the crises that Mummie had managed to prolong through the weekend.
A roll of thunder threatened summer showers. Skip got out in front of an unmarked door on Eighth Street just off Sixth Avenue. To find the Candy Box, you had to know where you were going.
Three steps down from street level led him to the dimly lit bar. Skip stood silhouetted in the entrance until the shapes inside took on firm contours. Slender young men leaned against the bar or sat on stools. Older guys, some with women on their arms, sat at tufted wraparound banquettes along one wall. Beyond the bar was an oblong performance space, white-draped tables in a semi-circle around the stage that glowed like a distant star, with red and blue gelatinous shadows. In dresses of frothy pink chiffon, a chorus line of long-haired boys, including Titanic, swayed in time to an old standard. They sang,
Life is such a drag.
Short-haired girls in tuxedos knelt beside them.
Skip liked the Candy Box because it wasn't seedy like some bars he went to down by the river or uptown in the shadow of the Third Avenue El. The floorshow inside gave it glamour, and Titanic said they had the best protection money could buy. A straight audience of high brows, racketeers, celebrities, out-of-towners, lawyers, and Wall Street brokers gave the club an air of respectability. They came for the novelty and to spend money. But management allowed gay boys to gather in the bar, which was cruisy and more than a smidgen adventurous.
Skip ordered a drink and leaned on the bar. He felt the caress of eyes on his flesh. A guy in a bomber jacket at the end of the bar caught his eye. He could have been a gypsy, swarthy with longish black hair. All he was missing was the golden earring. His eyes were like burnt-out cinders, where Skip read experience and mystery. If Titanic had decided the guys in the bar weren't worth the trouble, it was because she hadn't seen this one.
The man looked up, returned Skip's blue-eyed stare, and flexed his shoulders. The boys and girls in the show wailed to the music,
When I'm not with you.
Now Skip and the man stood side by side. Skip took in the man's hands. Heavy veins and knuckles like walnuts. Blue-white sparks seemed to play around them with the promise of power and a tantalizing hint of danger. The hands cradled an empty glass.
"Can I buy you a drink?" Skip asked.
"Sure." His warm sweet breath broke over Skip's cheek. "I'll have what you're having."
Skip carelessly threw a ten-spot on the bar. When he pocketed the change, he touched his money clip, 18-karat sculpted with his initials. Titanic had always warned him to keep his money out of sight.
"Bottoms up." The man raised his glass in a toast. He was a connoisseur of back-street brawls and barrooms, his voice coarse and self-assured.
Skip leaned closer, offering up all his youth and good looks for inspection. "You like the show?"
"What can I say? If those fairies want to dress up like that..." He glanced over his shoulder. "Great legs though, and lots of laughs!"
The answer made Skip uncomfortable, but he longed to touch the face, burnished olive skin like antique bronze, and flaring nostrils above fleshy lips.
The man drained his glass. "I gotta go inside," he said.
He skirted the crowd watching the show, and hesitated for a moment on the far side of the room in front of a red velvet curtain. Then he lifted the curtain and headed for the Gents.
Skip's body hummed with desire. He made his move, legs racing out from under him. He tried to slow down. Titanic would be green with envy when Skip told her about this number.
The men's room was lighted by a single incandescent bulb under milk glass. The glare flattened the porcelain urinals against the wall and threw dark shadows into the corners.
Skip came in as the man turned away from the urinal. When they faced each other, Skip wanted to say something easy and joking. He moved closer and tried to kiss the man, who averted his mouth and pointed toward the two metal stalls.
The last one had no door. Ancient phone numbers and hearts pierced by Cupid's arrow were etched into the walls. Skip slipped inside and tried another kiss.
"No." The man pressed Skip onto the enamel toilet seat.
The man stepped back, zipping his fly. "That's 20 bucks you owe me, kid."
Skip took out a silk handkerchief and wiped his mouth. You had to expect these things, Titanic had said.
"Don't be like that," Skip said, leaving himself room to maneuver. "There's plenty of time. Let's go somewhere."
"I've got to meet some people, kid."
"Don't be afraid," Skip said. "We could have a few more drinks."
"Why should I be afraid of you?" He ruffled Skip's shining hair, and put out his hand palm up.
"Well, maybe some other time."
"I don't make dates with faggots." The man spread his feet into a hustler's stance.
Skip laughed into the narrow space. "Who are you calling a faggot? You could've fooled me."
"C'mon, I saw you got money on you." He grabbed for Skip's pocket.
Skip shielded it with both hands. "You oughta pay me. You got what you wanted."
"Hey, don't get highfalutin' on me." The man nudged Skip's chin with his fist. "Rich boys, fancy dressers like you can afford it. I know who your old man is, and whatcha can't afford is for somebody to put a bug in his ear: 'Hey, didya know your little Lord Fauntleroy is queer?' "
"You don't know anything about me," Skip muttered. "I'm going back to the bar." He stood up and tried to push his way out.
The man pushed back, and the flimsy stall rocked as their bodies ricocheted against the walls. Skip lowered his shoulder and landed a surprising uppercut, a lucky sucker punch, as he twisted away. He wanted to smash something.
Taller and heavier, his opponent recovered and collared Skip. "Whazzamatta with you?" He stunned Skip with an open-handed slap.
Another punch sent Skip crashing back into the stall, and he fell for what seemed a long time. The scarred metal walls rose up on either side. A black hole gaped in the plaster ceiling. Finally, the back of his head cracked sharply on the cold enamel of the toilet seat. Everything went silent and dark.
The man straddled Skip, lifting him by the lapels of his suit. "Well, ain't you the pretty one?" he whispered tenderly, and dug deep for the money clip with its wad of bills. He pocketed Skip's money and gave him a shake.
"Get up for Chrissake!" The kid was lying too still. Behind his head, a pool of thick blood was forming.
Along Skip's neck and over his heart, there was no pulse. The man seized Skip's shoulders and shook the body harder. Blood spattered the stall. Skip's left hand, flashing a ring with several carats of square-cut diamond set in platinum, waved convulsively as his life were draining away.
The man backed away fast. Blinded by sweat, he stumbled over Skip's legs. "A dead kid wasn't part of the deal," he muttered, sirens wailing inside his skull.
Skip's ring flickered ghost-like in the shadows, a crystal will-o'-the-wisp. The man stopped and cautiously reached across the body. If this was real, a couple of easy grand. He was forcing it over the knuckle when he heard the dull thud of footsteps outside the door.
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Under the Mink was an amazing read. I felt like I was in The Village in 1949 with Blackie Cole, experiencing the events with her. I'm eagerly awaiting for more books by Lisa E. Davis.