the devil and Billy Romance
by dm gillis
There was this guy called Billy Romance. Don’t ask me what his real name was. I just knew him as Billy Romance. Billy played piano round the city but mostly he played at the Arthur Murray studio down on Main above the White Lunch, the one with the one armed chef who sang Puccini all day long.
The reason I bring Billy Romance into the conversation is because he used to say the craziest things. I remember once he told me that he hated walking up hill to get downtown, that sort of thing. He cracked me up. He told me once that a piano’s got eighty-eight keys but an organ’s got no strings attached. Ha! But then there were times when he’d say spooky shit. Like this one time he says all emphatic like, “Sometimes I feel like I wrote my life left handed across a page and smeared the ink.” Whoa, Billy boy. Where’d that come from?
It was back in 1944 when this thing happened to Billy. He had a bum ticker that kept him out of the war, but the skirts really went for him. I guess he was what was considered a little more than just conventionally handsome. He kinda had a skinny Sinatra look about him. And because a lot of the boys were overseas, he had the girls lining up. His dance card was full, if you know what I mean. But the thing was, Billy Romance didn’t go in for the dolls. He could have had a different little chiquita on his arm every night, but Billy Romance was head over heels in love with a tugboat mate named Spike Dillinger. Don’t ask me what his real name was. I just knew him as Spike Dillinger.
Trouble was, Spike Dillinger’s feelings weren’t mutual. He was a lady’s man, and he had the hots for this quail named Rosita Sangria. She was a girdle model for the Hudson Bay Company and had a tattoo of a blue rose on the back of her left shoulder. You gotta understand that back in 1944, a dame that modeled girdles and had a tattoo was pretty hot stuff. How could a big dim mook like Spike Dillinger resist?
This was hard on Billy Romance because he played piano every Friday and Saturday night at Roscoe’s Tavern on Campbell Avenue where Spike Dillinger spent a lot of his time when he wasn’t out on the inlet. Spike would sit there quaffing beers, sometimes with his arm round Rosita Sangria, while Billy played and pined. I mean, the gig wasn’t even that great for Billy Romance. He was just playing for tips, and a chance to eyeball Spike Dillinger two nights a week.
So eventually, Billy Romance does this really strange thing. He goes to see this old Romanian broad with a glass eye named Elga Coal. She was one of these European dames who says she’s a medium, claimed she could read the future. She got away with it because she had the heavy accent and the face of a person who knew too much. Anyway, Billy goes to her to have his fortune read, to see if he has any chance at all at wooing Spike Dillinger.
No way José, says Elga Coal. Be easier to get blood from a paperclip.
When she says this, though, she can see that it really depresses Billy Romance. So she says maybe there’s a solution. Maybe I should introduce you to Mr Shine, says Elga Coal. Mr Shine? says Billy Romance. Who’s Mr Shine? Oh Mr Shine’s a great solver of problems, says Elga Coal. He may be able to help. But you must be prepared to offer something in return, as payment. And you must be very sure of the thing you want from Mr Shine, for you will pay dearly. Okay, says Billy Romance. That’s for me. Bring on this Mr Shine. Gimme his telephone number. Oh, says Elga Coal with a grin, he’ll contact you. Just keep an eye open.
Well that’s very mysterious, Billy Romance thinks. But what’s the point of arguing with an old Romanian broad with a glass eye?
So Billy Romance leaves Elga Coal’s joint with a mind to head up to Shanghai Stella’s. Shanghai Stella’s was one of those places in town at the time where sensitive young men like Billy Romance could congregate and be themselves without fear of reprisal. But he never makes it there. It’s 9.00 pm, dark and damp, and Billy Romance is walking down the alley behind the Carnegie Library and the Pantages Theatre when bingo, he encounters this nervous looking character in an Aquascutum coat and a $200 pair of shoes. This guy stands there all edgy-like, folding a little origami animal out of a five dollar bill and looking over his shoulder like he thinks someone’s following him.
Then he says, “Hello, Mr Romance. My name is Mr Glimmer. There’s a rumour about that you’d like for me to arrange something on your behalf.”
“Ah yeah,” says Billy Romance. Not knowing what else to say. “But I heard you was Mr Shine, not Mr Glimmer.” He’s feeling a little nervous himself all of a sudden. This stooge he’s talking to needs a tranquillizer or something. He’d look kosher if he’d just stand still, but he’s shifting round from one foot to the other and talking out of the corner of his mouth like he’s some sleazy pool hall fence.
“What you want,” Mr Glimmer says, “it involves another man.”
“Yeah,” Billy Romance says again.
“You want his attention.”
“Maybe I can pull that off.”
“Well I’m just filling in for the regular guy.”
“The regular guy? Who’s the regular guy?”
“No,” says Bill Romance. “I ain’t got a clue.”
“He’s the Devil, for goodness sake. Jeez. He arranges things for people, and people gotta pay him back. That’s what this is about. It’s what that batty Romanian dame with the glass eye set up.”
“Swell,” says Billy Romance, wondering what’s coming next. “So, it’s like selling my soul to Satan so I can get into Spike Dillinger’s pants.”
“But you ain’t Satan.”
“No. I’m kind of a temp. He’s dealing with some personal issues and couldn’t make it.”
“Great! How come when I wanna sell my soul to Satan, he’s dealing with personal issues and I get his flunky? You got any experience?”
“I took a class.”
“Yeah, a class. Look, you’re not making this any easier. I gotta start somewhere.”
“Well what do I do now? How do I know when you’ve pulled this off? Shouldn’t there be a puff of smoke and some evil disembodied laughter? And do I get my soul back if I’m not satisfied?”
“I’d have to check our return policy. Keep your receipts.”
“So, that’s it then,” says Billy Romance. “I’ll just be going.”
“That’s fine,” says Mr Glimmer. “Have a lovely evening.”
The next morning the Vancouver Sun ran the headline: Girdle Model Shoots Tugboat Sailor and Turns Gun on Self. Witnesses reported that a quarrel had begun between the two at Roscoe’s Tavern when Spike Dillinger suggested they might spice up their affair by inviting a third party into their bedroom. Apparently, this third party was a young Asian man by the name of Ping who was a waiter at the Ho Ho Chinese Restaurant on West Pender Street.
Billy Romance was devastated. He returned Elga Coal’s to demand an explanation, but there had been a fire in her apartment the night before and she never made it out alive. But standing down the smoky hall in a snazzy suit holding a lacquered walking stick was Mr Glimmer. He smiled sheepishly and said, “Really messed that one up, didn’t I?” Then he just disappeared in a puff of smoke to the sound of nervous disembodied laughter.
It wasn’t long before the war ended. On VJ Day, Billy Romance met a Canadian Navy Ensign just back from the Aleutians. They hit it off, and moved to Hollywood, California where the retired Navy officer consulted on World War Two Naval epics. Billy Romance bought a piano bar where sensitive young men like him could congregate and be themselves without fear of reprisal. And Mr Glimmer, who by then had given up at being a great solver of problems, would show up at the bar occasionally, sit in a dark corner drinking screwdrivers and worriedly folding little origami animals out five dollar bills.