House of Diamonds
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by Harry Buschman
Ruby Lee-Diamond sat on her sunlit patio with both feet on the seat of the chair in front of her. Her red plastic shoes stood toe to toe on the table next to the empty lemonade pitcher. Her skirt was pulled above her knees in a last ditch attempt to absorb what little was left of the late afternoon sun. A careful look at her legs would reveal varicose veins in a fine network of lavender and blue lines like those on a rare old ceramic vase.
She was edgy. From time to time, although she had nowhere to go, she checked her wristwatch, flexing her elbow to bring the time into focus. "This is the problem," she thought to herself. "TIME! I had no idea there would be so much time."
Somerset watched her from the kitchen window. He shook his head sadly and crossed to the opposite wall to check the calendar hanging next to the refrigerator. Although it was still September, the page was turned to the month of October. An impossibly blue picture of the Riviera smiled down on the days he had crossed out diligently from the first to the twentieth. “Twenty-one days to go,” he sighed. He had every intention of leaving the House of Diamonds the twenty-first of October.
He buttled for Marcus Diamond more than twenty years before the Madam intruded. Now, with Marcus gone, there was no one to buttle for. No woman, even a woman as inconceivable as the ridiculous person on the patio outside, needs a butler. She needs, (well, Somerset didn’t really know what she needed) but it certainly wasn’t him, and it wasn’t the freak show that dropped in every afternoon for cocktails either. He shuddered when he thought of what Mr. Marcus would have thought of these ex-burlesque comedians, jugglers and haggard old strippers cluttering up his House of Diamonds! When they gathered on the patio in the afternoon for drinks it looked like feeding time at the zoo.
He thought back to the special relationship he had with the late Marcus Diamond. Master and servant, living in perfect harmony. But, sadly, that relationship was shattered when Ruby Lee walked into Marcus Diamond’s life. The man to man old boy camaraderie was lost, Somerset was not on the inside any more.
First, the cook left and the Madam hired an Italian juggler she knew from her old burlesque circuit. Somerset couldn’t stand him. Madam sold the sports car that he and Mr. Diamond had so much fun in. She kept the limo but fired the chauffeur and hired an old friend, a fat stand-up comic who could barely fit behind the steering wheel.
What did Mr. Diamond see in the Madam anyway? She was loud, brassy and bawdy. Somerset, who prided himself on a life without female entanglements couldn’t understand the Madam at all.
He placed a fresh pitcher of lemonade on a silver tray and walked through the french doors to the patio. Under his breath he muttered, “Twenty-one days.”
Ruby Lee frowned at the empty pitcher on the table next to her as the Somerset walked soberly through the French doors from the living room.
“No, Somerset! Absolutely – no! No more lemonade. I’d like a gin on the rocks. Just gin. Nothing but gin and ice.
“Madam you ...”
“Yes I know, I know – no more gin for the Madam. The Madam’s liver is kaput; like ninety percent of the rest of the Madam.” She swung her feet from the chair and let them drop like blocks of stone to the patio floor. “I’m bored with life Somerset – bored out of my mind. Except for the few lost souls wandering around here in the afternoons, everyone I’ve ever known is dead ... or living in Philadelphia, as Fields used to say.” Somerset, with his usual reticence remained at attention after placing the pitcher of lemonade on the patio table. He hesitated to speak unless spoken to, but in this case he thought it best to remind madam of the time.
“It’s five p.m. Madam. I thought it best to remind Madam she likes to eat early.”
“You know why I like to eat early, don’t you? I like to eat early because I like to go to bed early – so I can wake up early and start the day with the birds. Early to bed early to rise, Somerset. Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise – but it doesn’t do the madam a hell of a lot of good.”
Somerset regretted staying on the year after Mr. Diamond died, but he reminded himself that Mr. Diamond would have wanted him to watch over the Madam. He looked out over the four acres that for better or worse had been the physical limit of his life for the last thirty years. The landscape company didn’t tend the flower beds as lovingly as the old gardener did. The rose beds in particular looked spiky, petals littered the cracked earth and the bushes showed signs of aphids and beetles, only the lawns were well mowed. Somerset still loved to walk those four acres in the evening – after Madam had retired.
“You like it here Somerset, don’t you?”
“Yes Madam I do.” He turned back to Mrs. Diamond, and in a rare burst of conversation, remarked, “It’s going to be very hard to leave here.”
“You don’t have to go, Somerset. You’re the only normal person in this house – I need somebody to keep me on the straight and narrow.”
“It’s nearly 5:30 Madam.”
Ruby Lee-Diamond crowded her feet into her red shoes, gathered her legs under her and made an effort to get out of her chair, hardly aware of Somerset’s strong and steady hand on her arm.
“You never saw “Tassels” in action did you Somerset?”
“I don’t think so Madam.”
“Tassels LeSeur, queen of the Variety, my stage name, Somerset ... I got the LeSeur off a can of peas.” Mrs. Diamond drew herself up to full height, her eyes now on a level with Somerset’s stick pin. “I could make one spin this way and one spin ... that way. Takes practice Somerset; and of course you gotta have the boobs to begin with. I’ve only got one now, so I can only go ... this way.” She tilted her head sideways and looked at him critically, as though he were a figure in a wax museum. “You don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, do you Somerset?”
Somerset thought he might get away without answering, but Mrs. Diamond was adamant. “Well, ... do you?”
“I think I do Madam.”
“I doubt it. You buttled for my husband twenty years before I showed up, didn’t you, Somerset ... how could you know? What do you call a lady butler – a “buttress? That’s about what I was.” Then, with a slow and careful dancing motion she waltzed her way to the French doors. “You know how my husband got rich don’t you?”
“He was in the theater, Madam.”
“He owned burlesque houses, Somerset – didn’t he ever tell you? ‘Course he did. “Boiler-Q’s” he called them. Milwaukee, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Tacoma ... even Allentown, Pennsylvania. Wherever in the country the man of the house couldn’t get his rocks off, ol’ Marcus Diamond put up a Boiler-Q.”
She jabbed a finger into Somerset’s middle. “I did my bubble act in every one of ‘em, Somerset. I was a headliner, not like those has beens in the living room.” Her eyes grew moist and she pointed vaguely in the general direction of New York City. “The big time was here, right here in the Big Apple – this is where Marcus found me. At the “Palladio, along that beautiful porno strip called 42nd Street ... street of sin. Great name for a Boiler-Q, huh, Somerset ... “Palladio!” She turned to go into the living room and paused to look at Somerset. She stood theatrically with one hand on the door jamb. “But you know all that, Somerset ... why am I going over it again?”
“It’s nearly 5:30 Madam.”
“Let me hear you say, ‘it’s nearly 5:30 Ruby Lee’.”
Somerset sighed and almost imperceptibly raised his eyebrows. “It’s nearly 5:30 Ruby Lee.”
“See, no sweat, Somerset.”
She grumbled to herself, “If he’d only stop calling me, Madam. I’m not a Madam – I’m an artiste.” She made that choice in the beginning. No cathouse for Ruby Lee. How many of her friends had gone that route? All too many. How many did she visit in hospital wards – in rehab – in jail. They were so pretty in the beginning, girls hardly into their teens ... “Just ‘til I get on my feet.” “If you’re smart you can make a lot of money cattin’, Ruby.”
“I wish he’d stop calling me, Madam.”
She stood looking at her friends sitting in the living room – they weren’t really friends – they were has-beens, the cast-offs of the old routines that played the burlesque circuits from the Black Hills of South Dakota to Allentown, Pennsylvania. Saddest of all were the surviving members of the two man comedy teams who still remembered the jokes they told while their partners were alive. Their eager feverish eyes would dart from person to person waiting for the laugh that rarely came. “I know you’re out there – I can hear you breathing.” Jimmie Silvers was over in the corner. He sat in a corner of the sofa with a pillow behind him. His legs were spread wide in front of him as he leaned into the room, his arms gesticulating in long graceful sweeps. He was going over routines from forty years ago, never missing a beat – only one person listening. “You never know,” he explained eagerly. “I could get called back ... back on the circuit. I’m as funny as I ever was, even funnier without Shields.”
His audience was Princess Do-Me, the former Cherokee burlesque comedienne, whose old act combined stripping and lewd barnyard monologues designed to titillate the lusty cattlemen west of Cedar Rapids. She was over sixty now and weighed nearly 300 pounds. She laughed at everything, admired everything and drank enough for three people. She heard Jimmie’s jokes a thousand times but couldn’t resist bursting into silvery gales of laughter whenever he told one. She overflowed an armless chair and it gave the impression that she was actually not sitting at all, but squatting in the middle of the room.
Ruby considered asking them to stay for dinner, but why? It would only depress her further, and she couldn’t bear having to sit through another hour of Jimmie Silvers. “Okay! Time’s up folks! See you tomorrow!” It was the only way to get rid of them. They would stay there forever if she didn’t tell them to get out – like children at a birthday party they had to be shooed home. Ruby, well aware of their tendency to stay rooted wherever they were, was forced to tell them to leave every afternoon. Today there were only two of them – the Princess and Jimmie Silvers, on rainy days there might be as many as a half-dozen old burlesque queens, two or three comedians and a toothless saxophone player.
The princess leaned forward, and by the force of gravity, slowly staggered to a standing position. She was still quivering with residual laughter, wiping the corner of her eye with a cocktail napkin. “Oh Jimmy, you’re making my mascara run! You’re such a funny man. Ruby – thank you dear, I’ve had a lovely afternoon.” She stifled a belch. “Come Jimmy, you can tell me another on the way down town.”
Jimmy took one of the princess’s meaty arms and stuffed it under his own. “Thanks a mill, Rube ol’ girl, can’t remember when I’ve had such a good time. I’ll be back later in the week. Did I tell ya I’m interviewin’ a new agent tomorra? I got one now who’s older’n me.”
“See them out, please Somerset, they may not be able to find the door.” She watched them follow Somerset, their steps were unsteady and while Princess Do-Me’s unsteadiness was a lethargic side to side rolling, like a ship low in the water, Jimmy’s was a nervous jiggling. He caromed off the Princess like a bagatelle ball.
Her people! The relics of her past; they would always be her people and she could not do without them anymore than the snapshots she saved from her early days in burlesque. You don’t have to look at them every day but you know they’re there and you would risk your life running back into a burning building to save them from the fire. Her chauffeur would drive them back to the city and the house would be empty again.
She heard the front door close and saw Somerset standing in the foyer. She walked over to him and together they watched the Prncess and Jimmy climb into the back of the limo.
“There they go, Somerset – the last roses of summer.”
Somerset, in a rare vocal response, agreed. “They are the sweetest, Madam.”
They were both aware of the unspoken bond that held them here. Ruby and her friends – Somerset and his attachment to the old house. Neither could walk away and leave their past behind. Now, in the last glow of this autumn day, they both accepted the fact that they were bound to the House of Diamonds.
“Dinner time, Madam.”
“Is Somerset your first name, Somerset?”
“I really can’t remember, Madam.”
“Can’t remember! Of course you can remember, you must have been a little boy years ago. What did your mother call you?”
Somerset screwed up his face and watched the limo as it drove away. “I seem to recall, Madam ... it was so long ago, you understand, but I think I remember her calling me ... Willie.”
Ruby shook her head sadly. “Oh, that’s sad. Let’s make a deal; I don’t call you Willie and you don’t call me Madam.” She started for the dining room then turned to say, “What say Somerset ... let’s have dinner together.”
©Harry Buschman 2003
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.