“Uncle Jack’s Ava”

Fiction by Kat O’Neill

“What can I say? I’ve always had a thing for musicians. But he was in a different league. His voice had a quality I’d only heard in two other people — Judy Garland and Maria Callas. It made me want to cry for happiness. I called him Francis. No one had ever done that before. I knew he was married but I wasn’t the first. Still I held off. I mean, usually I would have had my clothes off before he had time to spell Ava. But this time it was different. I waited. I wanted to wait. When we finally did make love. It was magic. We became lovers forever, eternally. Big words, I know, but I truly felt that no matter what happened we would always be in love. Of course he left Nancy for me. He wouldn’t leave for Lana Turner but he left for me. But still, still I knew our marriage would never last.”
    “Nice to see you, Ava.”
    “Nice to be seen, Jack.”
     “The usual?”
    “As usual.” I served up a vodka stinger. Ava lived nearby. She started coming into the bar a few years ago. Thanks to her I know more about Frank Sinatra than any man should. She was born Patricia but since she was such a dead ringer for Ava Gardner she had her name legally changed to Ava. Just between you and me, Mike Tyson had a better chance of being mistaken for Ava Gardner.
    She swirled her index finger around her glass. “The sex was great, Jack.”
     I nodded. I’ve heard all about Frank’s abilities and it was too early in the day to hear the specifics. I mumbled something about needing to check on something and headed to the back.
     Ava didn’t see my absence as a problem as she just yelled out loud enough for me to hear. “Frank said all his life being a singer was the most important thing in the world until he met me. Then I was all he wanted. We both had titanic appetites, for food, drink, cigarettes, diversion, companionship, and sex. We both loved jazz. And we both feared sleep, seeing it as death’s mirror.”    In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, Ava didn’t just think she was a dead ringer for Ava Gardner. She thought she was Ava Gardner.
     “After I ended it, Frank recorded a song, ‘I could have told you she’d hurt you. She’d love you a while, then desert you.’ ”
    The door opened. You wouldn’t call Tony a pretty picture even in the best of light but as he strolled up to the bar he never looked better to me. I served him up a pint and a shot and said real low, “Pretend we’re having a conversation.”
    He said, “What?”
    I said, “Pretend we’re having a conversation.” He said, “About what?” I said, “Nothing. Just pretend.”
    Tony said, “Okay.” And he started reciting the alphabet, nice and low, which was just perfect. I got to read the paper. Tony got to practice. And Ava got to sip her stinger. Then the door opened.
    Now he was a dead ringer. It didn’t hurt that he was also about 5-foot-7 and wearing an orange shirt with a pack of Camels and a Zippo stuck in the pocket. The only thing he was missing was a fedora.
    Tony waved, “Hey Frank.” I looked at Tony with a look that said, are you kidding? Tony shook his head. I looked over at Ava. She looked like she had just seen a ghost. And maybe she had. Maybe I had. I walked over and said, “What’ll you have?” And he responded, swear to God, with a Jersey accent, “Jack Daniel’s and water. Not too much ice.”
     I looked at Ava. She nodded as she held up four fingers. Frank never wanted more than four ice cubes. Then Ava held up two fingers. Frank never wanted more than a two-finger pour.
    Ava gestured me over. As I got close she said, “I told you his favorite color was orange. It goes nice with his blue eyes, don’t you think?” I looked over and I had to agree. The orange really did bring out his eyes. Ava tried to get his attention but ol’ blue eyes stayed fixed on the cubes like he was just daring them to melt.
    Ava slid over her stinger and propped herself up on the bar in an attempt to recreate one of Ava’s famous pin-up poses. Nice effort but what I was looking at wasn’t going to sell any posters. And then it began. Soft at first. “The summer wind came blowing in from across the sea. It lingered there to touch your hair and walk with me. All summer long we sang a song. And then we strolled that golden sand. Two sweethearts and the summer wind.”
    Tony echoed, “The summer wind, the summer wind.” I gave him a look. He went back to the alphabet. Ava stopped and waited. Jimmy, who was sleeping it off in the corner, woke up long enough to clap. But Frank said nothing.
    She gestured me over again. This time she whispered, “It’s okay. He’s just still mad about all those bullfighters I slept with. Bogart said to me, ‘I’ll never figure you broads out.’ Half the world’s female population would throw themselves at Frank’s feet and you are flouncing around with guys who wear capes and ballerina slippers.” Ava laughed. A little too loud. A laugh that said look at me. But Frank still didn’t.
     Ava took a bottle of perfume from her bag and sprayed some in Frank’s direction. “He always loved my perfume. We’d fight and then I’d decide I wasn’t mad anymore and I would spray the stairs with it. Frank would smell it and race back up to the bedroom and we’d have, well I don’t need to tell you.” She winked at me as she sprayed some more perfume toward Frank. Still nothing. But Tony loved it. He threw his head back and inhaled so deeply I thought he was going to fall off his bar stool.
    Then Tony, who couldn’t carry a tune if it weighed an ounce, belted out, “Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today. I want to be a part of it — New York, New York.” I shook my head at Tony and mouthed, “Alphabet, alphabet.” But this time he ignored me. I guess it was the perfume or the fact that Frank being a dead ringer for Sinatra had to count for something. “These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray right through the very heart of it — New York, New York. I want to wake up in that city that doesn’t sleep and find I’m king of the hill — top of the heap.”
     Tony laughed as he nudged Frank. Frank looked at Tony. But that was it. It was like he had sung that song so many times that he couldn’t muster up the energy to bear to even hear it again. Tony shrugged. “Funny huh? The only guy who doesn’t like Sinatra is the guy who looks just like him.” Tony grabbed his drink and headed to the corner to mess with Jimmy.
    Ava gestured me over again. “Maybe he can’t forgive me. You know in a desperate bid to keep me, he slit a wrist and was rushed semiconscious to the hospital. I never even showed up to see if he was all right. He checked himself out and flew to see me. But it was over. He saw it. He knew when I was going to love him. And leave him.”
    I said, “Maybe it’s better this way. Let sleeping dogs lie.” Ava nodded. I served her up another stinger. “On the house.” She smiled. I went in the back. It was too much. Something was happening. I was starting to care and I hated to care about anything.
     I guess she wasn’t quite ready to let the sleeping dog lie because, “Strangers in the night exchanging glances, wondering in the night what were the chances we’d be sharing love before the night was through,” filled the bar. Tony clapped and nudged Jimmy awake again so he could clap as well.
    Ava eased off the bar and attempted to swing herself around the support beam in the middle of the room. “Strangers in the night. Two lonely people. We were strangers in the night up to the moment when we said our first hello.” And with that Ava whispered, “Hello,” in Frank’s ear.
    Frank didn’t flinch. He had switched his focus from the cubes to his hands. He kept his eyes fixed on them like he was expecting that any minute they might jump up and surprise him. From his expression I couldn’t tell if he was expecting the surprise to be good or bad. Ava waited next to Frank for what seemed like forever but was probably only a minute or two, then headed for the bathroom.
    I came back out to the front and started cleaning some glasses. Tony came up to me and said, “Hey Jack, don’t you think we should tell her?” “Tell who?” “Ava.” “Tell her what?” “That he’s deaf.” “Frank?” Tony nodded. “What are you talking about? He sounded fine when he ordered his drink.”
    Tony nodded. “I know. I didn’t know he was deaf either. But Jimmy said he grew up in his neighborhood and he got sick or something when he was a teenager and lost his hearing. It was supposed to be temporary but it never came back. Jimmy said he talks fine because he went deaf when he was older and he reads lips real good, too. Jimmy said most people don’t even know he’s deaf. They just think he’s being a jerk when he doesn’t respond so he’s had it pretty rough. And I’m sure being from Hoboken and looking so much like Sinatra and not being able to sing has given him a lot of trouble, too. Poor guy. We should tell her, right?” I nodded. “You want me to do it?” I shook my head.
     I waited for Ava to come out of the bathroom but I wasn’t sure if I should tell her. Maybe he didn’t hear because he was deaf. But he has eyes. He didn’t look over at her once. I figured I would follow my own advice and let sleeping dogs lie. Ava finally came out. She did her best to cover the fact that she had cried a lifetime of regret.
    She said, “It’s my fault. I broke his heart. What do I owe you, Jack?” “Nothing.” She smiled and headed for the door. Tony and Jimmy looked at me. I shrugged. And shrug was all I would have done if only she hadn’t turned back for that one last look. Oh hell, I thought. I said, “He’s deaf.”
    A minute later Ava’s sitting next to Frank singing, “Something in your eyes was so inviting. Something in your smile was so exciting. Something in my heart told me I must have you.” Only this time the only one who heard it was Frank. What are the odds of Ava’s knowing how to sign? What are the odds of Ava and Frank ending up in the same bar on a rainy Wednesday afternoon? What are the odds of Frank and Ava getting married again? I didn’t go to the wedding. I like weddings about as much as I like funerals. But Jimmy said it turns out Frank can sing and he sounds just like Sinatra. Maybe even better. What are the odds?

    Kat O’Neill’s projects have included a humorous book about life with a colicky baby, a photography book on the East End, and a play. This story is one of a series of “Uncle Jack” tales, several of which have been published in The Star.