Beginning today, and for the next seven Thursdays, my new novella,”Our Love is Here to Stay”, free, a chapter at a time. Please let me know what you think, share with friends, come back for more
“Joseph, my man,” Matthew shook hands with the tall, heavy set concierge. “How’s it goin’ today?”
“Same old, same old, Mr. Matthew.”
Matthew was beyond bored as he approached the concierge desk at the Hyatt Regency Hotel Thursday evening. He was on a first name basis with Joseph who had recommended restaurants, theater, sporting events and sightseeing until Matthew knew the city of Chicago better than most residents. He certainly did his best to take advantage of all the city had to offer.
The lure of travel had been so appealing when Matthew took this job at age 24. Too bad the reality was just monotony. Matthew had been consulting for six years, but it seemed like much longer. Time seemed to stand still week after week in the same hotel, the same meeting rooms, the same restaurants. He longed for more variety. He had imagined short jaunts to exotic locations, opportunities to meet interesting people, maybe even discover a lovely woman with whom to settle down.
What he got was too much time away from home and resulting loneliness. One computer room looked the same as another, one corporate security team had similar issues to the next. The meetings were feeling carbon copy, although the challenges of the job increased each year. His exotic travel turned out to consist of Albuquerque in the summer – too hot to explore – and now Chicago in the winter. Brrr.
At least Matthew had become savvy about his excursions. If he was close to San Francisco, he went home for the weekend, trying to preserve some connection to family and friends, some semblance of a normal life. If he was too far to make the trip, he befriended the concierge and took advantage of whatever the current city had to offer.
“Your shift ends soon though, right?” Matthew queried. “Heading home to Louisa and the girls?”
Joseph glanced down at his smart phone, just out of view of the hotel guests, and nodded. “Yep, but I still have time to help you. I’m surprised you still need something from me, Mr. Matthew.”
“Me too, but I need a change tonight. I have a bit of cabin fever from avoiding this damn snow. One more night of reality TV and I will jump out of a window. Got something close that I can Uber to?”
“Thank goodness the windows don’t open,” Joseph teased. ”Actually, I have just the right thing and you can take a train. It’s Swing Night at The Green Mill. If you leave soon you might even get a seat. It is not to be missed.” A broad grin creased the older man’s cheeks. This must be a favorite spot of his. Matthew was not as certain.
“Swing Night,” Matthew heard the skepticism creep into his voice and tried to check it. “What exactly is ‘swing night’?”
“Music, my friend, swing music. Dancing and a few drinks. Very hip, very Chicago. Trust me on this one.” Without waiting for an answer, Joseph had one of the ubiquitous Chicago maps opened and he was circling the near north location for the club. “Just hop on the Red Line, get off here and you will see the big sign right around the corner. Be there by 8:00. You’ll have fun.”
Matthew knew the transit system pretty well after all these months and the commute to this Green Mill place sounded easy. “Yeah, I could do that commute, no problem, man.”
Matthew’s knowledge of the city, and even the surrounding suburbs, was growing but he had never heard of this place. Joseph must be reaching after all this time. He would be scraping the bottom of his barrel of suggestions after all this time.
“I’ll think about it, Joe. Swing music doesn’t sound like my thing.”
Matthew recognized the listlessness in his tone. He was having trouble summoning enthusiasm for much these days.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel. That described how Matthew felt about his job right about now. The internal politics at the client were getting old, the constant pushback against his ideas was wearing thin and he was really getting tired of this assignment and winter weather.
Still, the challenge was interesting; it always was. Cyber-security was an increasingly hot topic but Matthew had been living and breathing it through undergraduate and graduate schools plus several years since. He loved the work, the problem solving. He even appreciated the increasingly clever hackers he worked against. But the day-to-day grind was catching up with him.
Viewed as one of the top consultants in the field for investment and retail banks before 30 years old, Matthew was honest enough to know how good he was at his job. The hackers got smarter so he got smarter too. Financial institutions were a favorite target and he certainly stayed busy. Just last year, he had reverse-engineered a bug planted in an innocuous email by a Romanian team stealing credit cards. He saved that Florida bank billions. Despite the fact that these operations were thrilling, he wanted more.
Last month his brother Jonah, two years his senior, suggested once again that they create their own cyber-security company. “It would be that stretch you are always looking for,” Jonah had told him. His brother was right. Just hearing the words lit a new fire in Matthew. “And you could stay home more. You know Mom and Dad would love that. Maybe buy a place, stop living in hotel rooms. Get married. Have kids.”
“Slow down, Jonah,” Matthew had laughed. “You are planning my whole life – who says I want to settle down?” Matthew pushed back, but he liked the sound of a family, a home, stability. “Working for myself and being able to set my own hours has a definite appeal,” he told his brother. “These last minute assignments are getting old.”
Five months ago, Madeline had given him 48 hours notice before starting this project. He was used to short notice from his boss, and never planned more than the occasional night of softball and beer. “Head to Chicago,” she had told him. An email followed with parameters of the consulting gig and details of the contract. A favorite with the Corporate American Express travel team now, he had a reservation in minutes and headed East. When he’d read the paperwork on the plane, Matthew’s heart plummeted. A full year assignment. A year away from home, living in a hotel, working with strangers.
Five months into it, the project’s complexity still gave him pause but the challenge excited him, causing him to lose sleep at night either with worry or adrenaline. He would be lucky to finish in the half year left on the contract but the timing could be perfect for working out a plan with Jonah.
On this wintery night far from the California sunshine – or even fog – Matthew could think of nothing sweeter than the ability to control his own time. He decided then and there that he and Jonah would hire consultants to do long assignments, including those that were in Chicago in winter. This could be his last assignment here, Matthew realized with a relieved smile
Seeing the smile on Matthew’s visage, Joseph chuckled. “I see that smile, Mr. Matthew. You like this plan. It’s a good one too, if I say so myself.”
“If you say so,” Matthew parroted, returning his wandering mind to the conversation. He had no actual intention of going to this “Green Mill” or navigating the train on such a frigid night, but he prolonged the conversation, reluctant to disappoint this man he now considered a friend.
“I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Herrington,” Joseph said, standing straighter and becoming more formal. When Joseph addressed Matthew by his last name, he felt like a child getting a scolding by his elder. Somehow, Joseph could spot a lie on Matthew’s lips and his disappointment was palpable.
“Say you’ll go, Mr. Herrington. This place is legendary.”
“Alright, you win.”
You’ll thank me, Mr. Matthew. I promise it will be like nothing you have ever experienced. You’ll feel like you stepped back in time. https://www.madisonmichael.net/new-serial-romance/ Click To Tweet“You’ll thank me, Mr. Matthew. I promise it will be like nothing you have ever experienced. You’ll feel like you stepped back in time.”
They were back to friends again and Matthew felt unaccountably relieved. “The Green Mill has been there since the days of Al Capone, and frankly not much has changed since the gangster drank there.”
“Yep. Capone’s regular hangout. Thursday Swing Nights are really something special there. It’s like a slice of history. Trust me. It’s not expensive and the music is authentic big band. Go. You’ll have fun.”
“OK,” Matthew realized Joseph had hooked him after all. Despite the miserable weather and the commute, he was intrigued at the prospect of a new place, great music and a bit of Chicago history. “Ok, Joseph, I think I will.” He left to brave the elements with the first hint of enthusiasm he had felt in days.
The train was relatively empty since it was later than the commuting hours and just too damn cold for people to stand on the ‘L’ platforms. The cars were toasty, the ride short, and the big ‘Green Mill’ sign was right around the corner, just as Joseph had promised. Still, Matthew was shivering when he stepped inside the club and out of the blustery weather. He had bought a coat and gloves for the winter, but they never seemed warm enough to keep the sub-zero wind chills at bay.
Just inside the doorway, a huge and intimidating bouncer with a low hanging belly sat in front of a large poster promoting upcoming shows with bands Matthew had never heard of. As he checked Matthew out from head to toe, Matthew studied the poster further. The dates for the show were March 1950. Of course, he didn’t recognize the names. The Green Mill really embraced its past.
Igor, as Matthew had dubbed him, allowed Matthew to pass. He wore no coat despite the wind gusts forcing their way in each time the door opened and his face had a rough look as he scowled at everything. That is until a pretty blonde came through the door. “Jonathan,” she greeted him with a smile. Igor /Jonathan cracked a huge smile, displaying crooked, yellowing teeth, and made the motion of a gallant with his arm, indicating the lady should pass. “Suzanne,” he answered in a welcoming low bass voice that was difficult to hear, “we missed you last week.”
“Missed you too,” Suzanne told him, leaning in to buss his face.
A lovely coat check girl dressed like something straight out of a 50’s movie offered to take his coat and he reluctantly shucked it. He stamped snow off his frozen feet ruminating that they wouldn’t thaw until they stood on California soil again.
There was a crowd, despite the threat of an additional two inches of snow and wind-chill causing the 19-degree night to feel like a miserable -1 degrees. Every time a new guest entered, Matthew got a blast of freezing air. The warmth of the club beckoned him. He could see the carved wood bar off to his left, and hear hot jazzy sounds beginning.
Matthew paid his cover charge – a measly $3. Joseph wasn’t kidding when he said that it would be cheap. He happily seated himself far from the door at an empty spot at the bar, and ordered a craft beer on tap. He requested a Goose Island, the local favorite, but the bartender looked at him askance and handed him a bottle of Old Style. Retro, like the club and the price, 50 cents. People here took Swing Night seriously. No detail was overlooked.
A fourteen-piece band was cranking up in the back of the space and couples were taking to the floor. Here too, Matthew observed, people took their nostalgia seriously. There were girls in conservative shirtwaist dresses and saddle shoes, with curled bangs, ponytails and bright red lips. The men, many sporting crew cuts that shocked Matthew, were wearing skinny ties and pleated trousers. There was one woman dressed in a headscarf and blue work shirt who looked like the vintage WWII poster on the wall reminding the crowd that “We Can Do It”.
Matthew had an odd sensation of being out of place and time. He usually could make himself at home anywhere. He had learned early in his career to go places and do things even if he was alone. But here, at The Green Mill, he felt more observer than participant, like a member of an audience watching actors. Perhaps it was the costumes, or the dancing.
Boy oh boy, could these folks dance! The small floor was packed with swing-dancers, colorful skirts flaring about them as they moved through the steps with ease. A man Matthew estimated to be over 70 was simultaneously dancing with two women in their twenties who were struggling to keep up with his fancy footwork. He spun and twirled them about the tight space, easily maneuvering each and never missing a step. Perspiration gleamed on his forehead under the lights. Matthew was mesmerized, slowly sipping his beer, his eyes moving quickly from the dancers to the band to the booths and back again. He was on sensory overload.
The brown vinyl booths lined one wall, the bar lined the other, a few small c-shaped booths and the band delineated the square floor space. Couples and small groups filled each booth, as well as most of the remaining L-shaped room. The crowd was mostly under 30, drinking beers and cocktails, tapping their feet to the music, or chatting. Everyone moved from group to group with ease. This must be a regular crowd.
The music was great, the horns blaring “In the Mood”. Matthew, who rarely danced and knew nothing about swing, found he wished he knew the steps. He felt warm, captivated by the atmosphere, and desirous of becoming part of the crowd filling the old-fashioned club. He couldn’t explain this need to belong. He usually came and went from his out-of-town ventures, knowing he might never visit them again. This felt different. He knew he would drop in again while in Chicago. He felt the siren call of music that was from his parents, hell his grandparents, era. They were old standards and he recognized many of them.
A large bouncer, who could have been Igor’s twin, sat on a wooden stool adjacent to a side door. Studying the history of The Green Mill later, Matthew learned that Al Capone always sat in the only booth that simultaneously provided a perfect view of both doors. Two doors for a surefire getaway. Matthew loved that tidbit. Reading it made him curious to learn more about the club’s past, and to return there.It was what happened in the next five minutes, and not the history of Capone, that ultimately would draw Matthew back again. www.madisonmichael.net/new-serial-romance/ Click To Tweet
Working his way around the room, he sought a place to rid himself of his empty beer bottle. A waitress came to take it off his hands. “Another?” she queried and he nodded agreement, placing a crumpled dollar on her tray. “Too much,” she told him shaking her head no. Matthew was surprised by her response but the tray was covered with loose change so he removed his bill and left the equivalent in quarters. Everything was so inexpensive but the server still needed to make a decent living.
She gave him a grateful smile and turned to move to her next customer, carefully balancing her tray above the heads of the young people around her. In the process, she nudged Matthew slightly causing him to lose his footing and fall gently against another body. Turning to apologize he found himself staring into the clearest, lightest blue eyes he had ever seen. He couldn’t look away.
“Sorry,” he mumbled when he finally regained his composure.
“That’s okay,” she replied with a quick, bright smile. She was lovely, in a wholesome girl next door way. She had her blond hair pulled into a ponytail that curled like a hair product ad, clear-skinned cheeks that were pink with warmth and perhaps exertion, and a curvy body displayed under a bright red sweater and a flared plaid skirt.
Matthew felt his mouth go dry and his palms get sweaty. She did something to him, this fresh faced woman that he found incredibly sexy. Her red lipstick was a slash of bright color mimicking the red of the sweater. Until this moment, bright red lipstick screamed “tough broad, stay away” to Matthew but on this girl it whispered “come hither.”
“Matthew,” he squeaked out, extending his hand to shake hers. Thinking twice about it, he retracted his arm, running his palm against his pants swiftly, and hopefully surreptitiously, before he extended his hand again.
“Patty,” she responded, placing her soft fingers in his large palm. She shook like a girl. After all the bone-breaking handshakes Matthew had endured across the globe, this limp, fingers-only shake surprised him. She looked athletic, not tough but toned, and not sickly pale like most Chicagoans in winter. The handshake didn’t match the image and normally would have bothered him. Nothing about Patty bothered him. Everything about her bothered him.
“You’re not dancing?” she quizzed him. The pink infusing her cheeks led Matthew to believe she was not usually this bold.
“I don’t know how,” he shrugged, “or I would ask you.”
“Well, if you finish your drink and watch a bit first, I could teach you a few steps.”
“That would be great.” He tipped his head back and took two hard swigs, anxious to put his arms around her.
Her girlfriends giggled with her and whispered, likely about him, but he did not care. The four were all young – too young for him probably although they were old enough to be in the club. They had all taken the time to dress for swing night, with matching flared skirts hitting just below the knee, bobby sox and penny loafers or saddle shoes and sweaters that concealed their bodies while showing everything.
He reached to place his nearly empty beer on the table, too impatient to wait any longer. “Ready?” he asked Patty. She flashed him that megawatt smile and placed her hand in his, leading him through the crowds to the edge of the scuffed dancing area.
In that moment, with the crowds receding from view, “String of Pearls” coming from the band and Patty’s hand in his, Matthew felt a warmth come over him, a fleeting sensation that this was where he belonged, in this place, with this woman. The feeling vanished as quickly as it had appeared but he felt markedly different as they stepped onto the dance floor.