Madeleine Altimari is the clever, charming, and full-of-life nine-year-old at the center of 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas. Who are some of your favorite children in fiction?
Still mourning the recent death of her mother, and caring for her grief-stricken father, Madeleine Altimari doesn’t realize that on the eve of Christmas Eve she is about to have the most extraordinary day—and night—of her life. After bravely facing down mean-spirited classmates and rejection at school, Madeleine doggedly searches for Philadelphia’s legendary jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, where she’s determined to make her on-stage debut.
. . . . .
It is dark, dark 7 a.m. on Christmas Eve Eve.
Silent flurries fall in the city. Actors walking home from a cast party on Broad Street try to catch them on their tongues. The ingénue, landing one on her hot cheek, dissolves into a fit of laughter. In Fishtown a nightmare trebles through the nose and paws of a dog snoozing under construction flats. The stone deity that rules the Rittenhouse Square fountain switches to life with a pronouncement of water while Curtis Hall musicians, late for final rehearsal, arpeggiate through the park.
The flurries somersault, reconsider, double back. The alleys of 9th Street bear witness as they softly change their minds. On 9th Street Mrs. Rose Santiago, shawl knotted beneath her chin, uses a broom to convince them away from her stoop. They refuse to land. She sweeps uselessly at the air.
In her room at the prow of her father’s apartment, Madeleine Altimari practices the shimmy. Shoulders, shoulders, shoulders. In front of the mirror, so she can judge herself, face sharp with focus. It is the world’s most serious shimmy. After thirty seconds, a flamingo-shaped timer trills and hops on its plastic legs. Madeleine stops shimmying and rejoins a Menthol 100 dozing in an ashtray on her vanity.
She exhales. “Again.”
Madeleine restarts the shimmy. On the record player, Blossom Dearie says she’s alive, she’s awake, she’s aware. Shoulders, shoulders, shoulders. Madeleine imagines cymbals on her hips and shoulders she wants to clang. After thirty seconds, the timer trills again.
“Terrible.” She frowns at herself in the mirror. On a list by the ashtray, she marks “one minute” next to “The Shimmy.” Madeleine drags on the cigarette. The other categories: Singing, Scales, Guitar, are unmarked.
Madeleine is two days away from being ten.
She wears a clothespin on her nose and the uniform for Saint Anthony of The Immaculate Heart: a maroon sweater over a gray jumper over a gold shirt over a training bra with lemon-colored stitching. Thick, maroon tights. She is number three in 5th grade height-ordered line-ups, behind Maisie, whose spine is shaped like a question mark and Susan, the daughter of ballerinas. She read somewhere a clothespin worn religiously will shrink her un-ignorable nose. She thinks the occasional glimmers she can see through her window are flurries. She has trouble spelling the word rhythm. She likes when people in movies go to see movies. She cannot begin to understand why the dime is worth more than the fatter, wider nickel. She needs a haircut. Her favorite singer is Blossom Dearie and her favorite bass is upright. She spent the previous night dreaming of apples. She smokes Newport Menthols from the carton her mother was smoking when she died at the beginning of the year.
Eggs cuss and snap on the stove.
The unofficial rule of Saint Anthony of The Immaculate Heart is that Madeleine is never allowed to sing again in Church or at any assembly. Never, never, a whole page of nevers. Still, it is going to be a gold star day. She will suffer through Claire Kelly’s singing in morning mass, the girl’s nasal notes and plosive p’s filling the Church with unholy noise, spritzing the first row of pews on every heretical t, BUT THEN, her class will be making caramel apples. Madeleine has never had a caramel apple and she wants to taste one more than she wants god’s love.
Claire, the sound Madeleine’s toilet makes when it’s dry. Madeleine is forever adding water to its basin when it wails, from the purpose-specific can she keeps next to the toilet.
Like a comet, a horrific afterthought, a roach darts down the wall. Its path follows indecipherable logic. Madeleine screams in high C and crushes the cigarette. She pivots, rips a paper towel from a roll on her nightstand. The roach halts, teasing coordinates out of the air with its antennae. It senses her and is rendered paralyzed by options. Madeleine closes her eyes, makes the sound of a train whistle on a prairie, and squeezes. 9th Street Market roaches are full and round like tomatoes. This one leaves a mark on the wall but most of it gets flushed down the toilet.
Madeleine washes her hands. Breathes in and out. Worries she is a bad person for killing a roach. Instructs herself to stop panicking. It is time to sing.
She changes the record and releases the clothespin from her nose. She locks eyes with herself in the mirror and waits for the music to start.
Excerpted from 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie Helene-Bertino. Copyright © 2014 by Marie Helene-Bertino. Excerpted by permission of The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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About the Author
MARIE HELENE-BERTINO is the author of Safe as Houses, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. An Emerging Writer Fellow at New York’s Center for Fiction, she has spent six years as an editor and writing instructor at One Story. A Philadelphia native, she currently lives in Brooklyn. Visit her online at MarieHeleneBertino.com.