Short story by Neil Shurley. My favorite story I’ve written. Originally published in Rosebud Magazine.
Until it became time for me to enter elementary school, Mother and I lived in Vegas, where she cocktailed six shows a week at the Stardust. I spent showtime in a back room straining to hear the headliner’s act, although laughter and applause were the only real sounds that carried through the walls.
I’d pass the time reciting passages from the bible chapters Mother and I had studied that week. I took great pride in memorizing verses for the upcoming Sunday’s lesson assigned for my Beginning Christians class.
Before the show Mother would quiz me as she pulled on her little outfit.
“Psalm 23,” she would say as she wiggled into her fishnet hose.
“The Lord is my shepherd,” I’d reply, tiny fist gripping hairpins which Mother would extract one by one. “I shall not want.”
Mother would reward my successful recitation of that week’s verses b Ëy letting me watch that evening’s show. I had a reserved seat in the light booth where a bearded man named Eddie told me stories that I had to “swear never to tell your mother.”
Eddie liked to talk during the headliner’s set. He claimed to have seen them all. Most of the singers he declared to be bums. The comedians stole material. The magicians had no secrets from Eddie. He knew all their moves.
The night I finally nailed the Ten Commandments down pat, Mother suited me up in my Sunday morning bow tie, dropped me off at the light booth and, for the first time, I watched Sinatra.
Eddie winked at me when I entered the booth and told me I was in for a treat. He said very little the rest of the night, staring, mesmerized, as Sinatra worked the room.
I fidgeted a bit (after all he was just another bum singer) but found myself much more interested than I’d been in Vic Damone or even Steve and Eydie.
“He’s the man,” Eddie sighed after the final encore. He turned to me. “You could Ëlearn a few things from him.” He winked at me before I headed out to meet up with Mother in the back room.
“So how did you like it?” she asked me, not looking up, busy counting the night’s tips.
I nodded my approval silently and then watched as a large man in a small suit entered the room and patted me on the head, grinning menacingly.
“Mr. Sinatra would like to see you,” he said to Mother.
She blushed, hesitating, then patted her hair in place and motioned for me to follow her.
“Not you, sonny,” the man said. “Why don’t you stay in here until your mommy gets back.”
“No.” Mother pulled me in front of her. “I’m sure Mr. Sinatra wouldn’t mind.”
The man finally shrugged and led us to the dressing rooms.
Sinatra sat at a dressing table, his back to us, smoking a cigarette.
“Come on in, doll,” he said. “Make yourself comfortable.”
Mother stood in the doorway, still holding me in front of her.
“Good evening, Mr. Sinatra,” she said.
“Please. Call me Frank…” Sinatra turned, Ësmiling, to face us. His smile quickly vanished when he spotted me.
“I see you brought a friend,” he said after a few awkward moments of silence. He took another drag then stood and approached us, his eyes on Mother.
“Whattaya know, kid,” he murmured, patting me on the head, his eyes locked with Mother’s.
I hesitated, not really sure that he had addressed me, then finally said, “The Ten Commandments, sir.”
Sinatra, puzzled, shifted his gaze to me. “What?”
“He knows the Ten Commandments,” Mother explained.
Sinatra whirled around and returned to the dressing table.
“He does, eh?” He smashed his cigarette into an ashtray, causing one last trail of smoke to curl upward. “What’s the first one.”
Mother gently poked my arm. “Go ahead. Tell Mr. Sinatra.”
“You shall have no other gods before me,” I squeaked.
Sinatra nodded his approval. “That’s good. You’re a smart kid.” He took a seat. “Now listen to me. There were eleven commandments. Not ten.”
“He’s just teasing you,” Mother added quickly.
“No. I’m serious.” Sinatra motioned for me to join him.
I looked up at Mother for approval. She nodded and I walked forward a few steps.
Sinatra grabbed my arm and pulled me to his side. Then he leaned over and whispered in my ear.
“You want to know the eleventh commandment?” His breath smelled of smoke and whiskey. “The one more important than all the others?”
I didn’t move.
“Stick to your mother, kid. Thou shalt stick to your mother like glue.”
He shoved me away and lit another cigarette. “Now both of you get out of here.”
Mother took my hand and turned to go.
“You got a smart kid there, doll.” He whirled around and dismissed us with a wave of his hand.
Mother gently closed the door.
Originally published in Rosebud Magazine