if i close my eyes

Act I: On Some Dark, Quiet Street

March 13, 1956

Danny Mangan stood against the wall of the music hall, listening contentedly to the melodic sounds coming from Willie Smith's fingers as they danced over the ivory keys. The "Lion" may be old, but he can still play. Danny glanced around the familiar room. Standing next to him was another boy, also leaning against the wall, listening intently to the music. Danny figured the boy was about his age, meaning fourteen, possibly a year or two older. Having seen him here a number of times at other jazz shows, he'd been curious about the boy for some time. Danny noticed he always came into the shows late and when the music ended, he left quickly. When Willie "The Lion" Smith paused for a break, Danny turned to the boy. He stared at the yarmulke on the boy's head. "Hey," he said.

The boy turned toward Danny with a look of surprise, as if he thought he'd been invisible. "Hey," he answered.

"You're Jewish?" Danny asked. It was just a casual question, a way to start a conversation.

One side of the boy's mouth turned up in a half-grin. "Chinese. And you?"

Danny smirked. He deserved that. "Cuban," he answered, with hardly a pause. It was an obvious lie, just as the other boy's response had been.

The other boy let out a little snort. "I see you here a lot. You live around here?"

dannyDanny shook his head. "Lower East Side. And you?"

"Near Prospect Park. But I've got friends in your area." The boy looked at Danny's black leather jacket, the cowboy boots, and the cap. They were a definite contrast to the conservative dark blue slacks and white shirt he was wearing.

Danny fingered the bottom edge of his jacket protectively. He had just earned it a few weeks ago and was very proud of it. He was tempted to turn and show this boy what was written on the back. Before he could, the other boy spoke again. "You hang out with those Cowboys?"

"Cowhands," Danny corrected, suddenly defensive. "What of it?"

The other boy shook his head. "Nothing." He turned back to the stage where the Lion was getting ready to play again. Danny was dismissed.

Danny wasn't sure what to make of that response. With a shrug of his shoulders, he followed the other boy's lead and immersed himself in the music.

As soon as Willie Smith finished his last song and closed the piano keyboard, the other boy turned to leave. But this time he paused, sticking his hand out in Danny's direction. "Neil," he said.

Danny took the hand and shook it firmly. "Danny."

The two walked out together and headed toward the Atlantic Avenue subway entrance in companionable silence. Just before the two had to veer in different directions, Neil spoke. "Barry Galbraith is playing next week."

Danny wasn't sure what it was about the Jewish kid that intrigued him. Maybe it was just that he didn't see many youngsters at the jazz concerts he snuck in to. Make that, Neil was the only other person anywhere near his age that he would see at the jazz concerts he snuck in to. Most kids his age seemed more interested in Bill Haley or the Platters. Danny liked them, too, but jazz was very special to him. Luke and the others didn't get it. They made fun of Danny for going over to the jazz clubs in Brooklyn or up in Harlem. While the ragtime pianists were great, it was the jazz guitarists that were his favorites. He had already been looking forward to the Barry Galbraith show next Thursday. Danny nodded. "See you then."

Danny arrived early on Thursday. Neil was there, in the same conservative attire, yarmulke on his head, standing in the back. He gave Danny a half-grin in greeting. "Barryís great, isn't he? I've always wanted to see him play."

Danny eyed the crowded room. "It's going to be packed tonight. Everyone wants to see him."

"That's no surprise," Neil said. "Barry is one of the best jazz guitarists around. He's done recordings with all the big names."

Danny nodded, leaned back against the wall, and stuck his hands in his pockets. "He is good. And it's rare to catch him out of the studio. I wouldn't have missed this for anything. But have you ever heard Tal Farlow? He's probably my favorite."

neilNeil smiled. "Yeah. He has a unique sound. I really dig him." Neil paused to let some people walk by. "But he's not my favorite. My favorite is Timmy Mangan."

Danny froze. His stomach felt queasy. He wasn't sure what to say. He tried to think of an excuse to leave, but he did want to stay and listen to Barry Galbraith.

Neil continued on, completely oblivious to the change in Dannyís demeanor. "It's been quite a few years since I heard him, though. I was only ten when I saw him play. He makes the guitar sing like no one else." He finally looked over at his new friend. "Danny? You okay?"

Danny found his voice at last. With a small swallow, he mustered, "You won't be seeing him play again. He died."

"No kidding? When? How? How did you hear?" Neil fired off the questions, still unaware of Danny's inner turmoil.

The words came out slow and steady. "Korea. Jeep hit a mine."

"War. Figures. All the good men die." Neil shook his head. "I hate war."

"Thank you," Danny managed.

Neil's eyebrows scrunched together in confusion. "For what?"

"For calling him a good man." Danny paused, and then nodded toward the stage where Barry Galbraith and his band were getting ready to start. "Let's just listen to the music."

Danny was tense, rigid even. Thankfully, Neil dropped the subject. As Barry and his band played, Danny felt himself relaxing again. The smooth sounds of jazz always seemed to calm him, reminding him not only of his father, but also his mother. He knew he was a big disappointment to them both, if they were watching him. But he had to survive. He didn't want to end up in a foster home after the horror stories his mother had let slip from her childhood. He was making it on his own, and he was proud of that.

When the concert was over, Danny and Neil quickly slipped out one of the main doors. Again, they walked toward the Atlantic Avenue subway station. It wasn't long before Neil brought up the dreaded subject. "I've never met another Timmy Mangan fan."

Danny cast a quick glance at him but didn't answer; he just kept walking.

Neil pushed on. "You obviously know a lot about him." The sound of their footsteps hitting the sidewalk echoed around them. "I noticed you're really into jazz."

Danny shrugged his shoulders. They were still a couple of blocks away from the subway entrance. Trying to change the subject, he answered, "So are you."

"Yeah. I pretty much like all kinds of music." Neil took two more steps, and then stopped. "Why don't you want to talk about Timmy Mangan?"

Danny stopped, also. He wasn't used to such a direct approach. He turned around to face Neil, but shifted his eyes towards the ground. "Just drop it, okay?"

"No. The guy obviously means something to you. Did you know him?"

"Yeah," Danny answered. "I knew him." He turned around and started walking again.

Neil followed. "And?"

Danny stopped again, abruptly, and repeated Neil's method of introduction from the other night. He stuck his hand out towards Neil. "Danny. Daniel Mangan."

Neil nodded his head. "I thought as much," he admitted simply. He reached out to shake Danny's hand, but unlike the first time, there was an air of respect in the simple gesture. As they dropped their hands, Neil raised a critical eyebrow at Danny. "You could've just said so."

"Right." Danny said nothing more, just waited for Neil's next words, words he practically knew by heart. When the other boy remained silent, the two of them started walking again. Danny shook his head. He had to admit he liked that Neil didn't offer him any sympathy. He'd had enough sympathy over the last few years.

Dannyís stomach rumbled hungrily as he got on the train that would take him back to Manhattan. He glanced around; there werenít many people on his car. He noticed one woman who had her purse only partly slung over her shoulder, and she looked half-asleep. Danny waited, hoping she wouldnít get off too soon. He was patient. He passed his own stop waiting for that right moment, and it finally came. Most of the other passengers had already gotten off the train earlier, and those that were left were not the least bit threatening to him.

As the train approached the next stop, he slowly got up and made his way toward the doors, standing close to the lady. Her purse strap had fallen to below her elbow. When the doors opened, Danny grabbed it. He felt the shift in the womanís arm as he pulled. He also heard her startled gasp and then the cries of "Stop him!" and "Stop, thief!" as he took off.

He was fast. Jumping over the gate and up the subway stairs, he ran and ran. Soon, he found himself in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park. Hiding in a thick section of trees, he dumped out the contents of the purse. Keys, lipstick, some scraps of paper, and her wallet. He opened it and quickly counted the cash. Eight dollars and some change. He took inventory of the other items on the ground. Nothing pawnable. Danny sighed. Heíd been luckier with the last purse heíd snatched; there had been over thirty dollars in it. Leaving the contents where they were, he calmly headed to a diner up on East Houston Street so he could fill his stomach.

Once his hunger had been sated, he counted the money he had left and thought about his other two needs: shelter for the night and some clean clothes. Both were fairly easy to take care of. Heíd already paid his dues to the Cowhands, so this money was all his own. He could save it for the next few meals. And, having paid his dues, he knew he could count on a place next to the warm oil-drum fire in the empty warehouse that was the gangís home base.

As for clean clothes, he just had to hope that no one had found his hiding spot. He wandered back to the subway and caught a train up to his old neighborhood in Harlem. He walked nonchalantly by the front entrance of his old Catholic high school, and then quickly scrambled over the fence surrounding it. He headed for the janitorís closet just down the hall from the gymnasium. Sure enough, the lock had never been replaced and the door opened easily. No one ever cleans out this closet. Danny moved some boxes out of the way. His duffle bag was still there. Danny fished in his pocket for the key of the small lock on the zipper ends. Opening the bag, he stared at the contents. All of his belongings besides the clothes on his back were in that bag: two extra pairs of jeans, three extra t-shirts, five pairs of underwear, and five pairs of socks. There were also three small notebooks and a few pictures, but Danny ignored those for the moment. He grabbed some clean clothes and then headed for the gym itself. It was easy to get into the boysí locker room through a window. Soon, Danny was relaxing under the steady stream of hot water in the shower.

Three days later, Danny's money had just about run out. Heíd used up some of his coins washing the contents of his duffle bag at a Laundromat. The rest had been spent on food. The Cowhandsí leaders, Luke and Paul, had cornered him that morning. They hinted that while his dues had been paid, they thought he was holding back on them. He couldíve volunteered to do a few drug runs to appease them, but Danny hated drugs. Instead, he headed to a nearby park, hoping to find a purse to snatch or someone to mug. If he had to make his money dishonestly, heíd rather do it that way. Sure, the person he hit would have the inconvenience of having to replace some stuff, and theyíd be out a bit of money, but that was better than the long-term effects of drug use. He couldnít stomach the thought of being responsible for that.

Crystal followed him to the park. Crystal didnít have a last name, or, rather, he didnít know it. He doubted Crystal was even her real first name. She hung out with the gang a lot, though she was usually pretty strung out. They were sitting on a picnic table, their feet resting on the bench below, and Crystal was eyeing the playground.

"Letís go on the swings," she whined.

"Thatís for kids," Danny answered, mildly annoyed. He hadnít wanted to hang out with her today. How was he going to score some cash with her around? Looking at her pout, he added, "Go ahead, if you want to. Iím staying right here."

"Fine," she replied, twirling her stringy black hair around one finger. "Weíll stay here."

Danny sighed. "I said you could go. Iíll wait for you."

"You just want to get rid of me." She didnít sound mad about it; it was a fact.

"I did want to be by myself. But Iím not. So if you want to go swing, go swing already. I said Iíd wait for you."

"Danny, I wanted to talk to you. To warn you." Crystal looked serious. Danny thought she was being her usual over-dramatic self. "Luke and Paul, theyíre not happy about you going off by yourself so much."

Danny rolled his eyes. He was only slightly concerned. All they care about is if I help the gangís profits. "Yeah? They didnít say anything to me about it."

"They wouldnít. But the gang wonít tolerate your lone cowboy ways much longer." Crystal paused. "Where do you go when you go off?"

"Luke knows. Paul knows. Thatís all who needs to know." Danny was about to say something else when he heard his name. Turning around, he was surprised to see two boys walking towards them. They werenít wearing the normal Cowhands colors; they were in jeans, t-shirts, and tennis shoes.

"Who are those two?" Crystal asked, curious. The boys were close to the same age as Danny, and they looked alike enough to be brothers.

As they got closer, Danny recognized the Jewish boy from the jazz club in Brooklyn.

"Danny." Neil took a couple more steps. "I thought that was you I saw."

"Neil. Hi. I almost didnít recognize you." Danny looked over at Crystal, who was eyeing the newcomers. "Uh, this is my friend, Crystal."

"Pleased to meetchya." She looked Neil up and down and nodded in approval.

Neil introduced the other guy with him. "My brother, Harvey."

Harvey nodded and barely mumbled "ílo." Then he looked at his brother inquisitively. "Where do you know him from?"

Neil looked like he was ready to smack his brother, but his reply was nonchalant. "I met him over at the library --"

Harvey scowled in disbelief. "He was at the library?"

At the same time, Crystal smiled. "Cute and smart. I like."

Danny was a quick thinker and he hastily corrected Neil. "Neil may have been at the library, but not me." He didnít offer any further explanation.

"Oh," Harvey simply stated. He looked uncomfortable. "Come on, Neil, letís go."

Neil did his customary half-grin in Crystalís direction, and winked at her. "Nice to meet you, too. Well, we better get going."

"Yeah. See you around."

When they left, Crystal threw even more questions at Danny. "Where do you really know him from? Heís cute. Would he want to be a Cowhand?"

"Down, girl," Danny said, only half-jokingly. "I just know him from around the neighborhood." He didnít bother to say which neighborhood.

"Maybe Iíll go check him out." Crystal started to get up, but Danny grabbed her arm.

"Let him go, Crystal. Heís not your type." Danny gave her a warning look.

Crystal quirked an overly-tweezed eyebrow at Danny. "Why? He's breathing, ain't he?" Danny snorted with laughter, and Crystal settled back down, smiling. "His brotherís not half bad either. Can I go after him instead?"

Danny laughed again, and threw his arms up in the air, signaling he was giving up. "Sure. Why not?"

Another Tuesday night, another jazz band. Danny snuck in, as usual, and found Neil standing at the back, as usual. Danny was in his Cowhands gear; Neil was in his school uniform.

Danny walked up to him. "Library?" he asked in greeting, trying not to smirk.

"Yeah, well... my father wouldn't be thrilled to find out I was here." Neil grinned. "Sorry about all that, anyway. I was just surprised to see you sitting there, and accidentally said so to Harvey. He didn't believe I knew you at all. Then he dared me to go over and prove it."

Danny grinned back. "Gotta take a dare."

Neil laughed. "Harvey wanted to crap. He thought youíd beat us up or something."

"Maybe, if he hadn't been with you." Danny tried to laugh the statement off as a joke, but he realized it was probably true. If Neil hadn't been with him, Danny might have tried to mug Harvey. He had noticed that Neil walked with an attitude, and in his casual clothes, he looked like just another kid on the street. But Harvey didn't have the same toughness about him. Feeling uncomfortable, Danny quickly changed the subject. "So, what would your father do if he found out you were here?"

Neil shrugged. "He'll figure out I'm lying sooner or later. My report card won't reflect any of this studying I'm supposedly doing."

"That's one thing I don't have to worry about." Danny frowned. He'd always kind of liked school.

Neil raised an eyebrow. "Your mom let you quit school?" he guessed.

"My mom's dead, too." Somehow that didn't hurt to say as much as he thought it would. It still hurt, though. Danny felt a bit flushed.

"Crap." Neil frowned. "Life has cut you a raw deal."

Danny just shrugged. He hated the turn the conversation had taken so quickly. He needed to learn to keep his mouth shut about his personal business. Danny wiped some sweat off his brow and wondered why the club had the heat on so high. "What's your dad got against music?"

"Nothing, really. As long as I don't want to become a musician, I can listen to all the music I want. On my radio. At home." Neil looked down and scuffed his feet on the floor.

"Do you?" Danny asked.

Neil looked up again. "Do I what?"

"Want to become a musician?"

"I don't know. Sometimes I think about it. Or maybe writing instead."

"Writing?" Danny questioned.

"Writing music; writing songs. But, no, not really. Iím not any good at that." Neil looked around the room. Danny followed his gaze. The band was playing and most people were sitting and swaying to the sounds. On the small dance area, a few couples were swinging enthusiastically.

"What about you?" Neil suddenly asked. "Ever thought about becoming a musician like your father?"

Danny hated how Neil always turned the conversation back to him and his family. The last thing he wanted to think about was his father. Yet, isn't that why he always came here? He loved jazz. And he loved his father. No, it wasn't that he didn't want to think about him; it was that he didn't want to talk about him. Maybe that was because the people he usually had to talk to were either overly sympathetic or they didn't care at all. Neil was neither. "Dad used to try to teach me to play the guitar. I never could get the hang of it." He laughed softly, remembering. "I would get so frustrated. One time, I threatened to smash his guitar to pieces if he tried to teach me again. He just shook his head at me, and then he looked at my mom and asked if she was sure I was his. She answered, 'Well, obviously. He has your temper.'"

Neil laughed. "Now that I know who you are, you do look a lot like your father. You got along with him pretty well?"

Danny nodded. He tried to quell the pain that was suddenly shooting sharply behind his eyes.

"Danny? Are you okay?"

Danny tried to focus on Neil, but couldnít.

"Iím sorry, man. I shouldnít have asked." Neil's face was wavering before him.

"Itís not that. Iím just not feeling so great." Danny wiped his brow again. "Itís too warm in here. Iíve gotta go." He turned to leave and almost stumbled, but recovered quickly.

"You donít look so great, either." Neil gave him a concerned look. "Have you eaten yet? I bet my motherís got a nice home-cooked meal ready to go on the table soon."

Danny thought about it. He hadnít had a decent meal all week. Almost every dime heíd "earned" heíd given to the Cowhands. "A home-cooked meal sounds good. Letís go."

Dannyís stomach grumbled loudly in agreement, making Neil chuckle. "Sounds like we better get you there soon."

They walked quickly over to Flatbush Avenue and hopped on a bus headed towards Prospect Park. Danny looked out at the dark sky and wondered what time dinner was usually served at Neilís house. It seemed a bit late to be hoping for a warm meal.

Neil saw his look and answered the unasked question. "We always eat late. Pop works at his store and doesnít usually get home until around now."

Danny nodded but didnít really have the energy to say anything more. When the bus came to a stop and Neil stood up, Danny followed. The smells of a butcher shop on the corner were still strong, and somewhat nauseating. Soon he was entering the third floor apartment right behind Neil. He was surprised to hear Fats Domino singing softly from a radio sitting on a cabinet against the wall. The good smells coming from the kitchen did indicate a warm meal and Dannyís stomach grumbled quietly again.

"Mameleh," Neil spoke quietly from the doorway, "is there enough for one more?"

Neilís mother looked up from the stove and smiled at them. "Jo, lib. Harvey, set two more places at the table. It looks like your brother will be eating with us for a change." She looked over at Danny. "Whoís your friend? And where are his manners? Why are his coat and hat still on inside the house?"

Danny flushed, unsure whether it was from embarrassment or the fever he was sure he had now. He removed his cap and leather jacket quickly. "Sorry, maíam," he mumbled.

Neil took them from him and hung them up in a closet nestled in a corner by the door. "Mameleh, this is Danny." He motioned Danny into the kitchen. "Iíll be right back."

Danny wasnít sure whether to stand or sit. If he did sit, which chair should he take? He was suddenly very uncomfortable. What if there are special Jewish rules I donít know about and I break them? The throbbing behind his eyes started again.

Neilís mother interrupted his thoughts. "Sit down, dear." She pointed to a chair, easing that worry, at least. "Look at you. Youíre just skin and bones. Do you want a nosh before I serve?"

He wasn't sure what Mrs. Diamond had just asked, but he really just wanted to stay seated. "Iím okay, Mrs., uh..." Danny realized he didnít know Neilís last name.

"Diamond," Neilís mother filled in for him. "Where do you know Neil from?"

"The library," Danny quickly lied. "That is, Iíve run into him a few times when he leaves the library."

"Oh?" She didnít sound at all convinced. She fussed around the kitchen some more. "Which library?"

Danny wondered how to get out of this lie. It didn't seem fair; it was Neil's lie, anyway. "I don't know which library he's been at. I see him near the bus stop." He felt someone staring at him and looked up to see Harvey standing there, arms crossed. He apparently had set the two extra places, as Danny saw the dining room table behind him.

"Mama," Harvey hissed. "He canít eat here."

Mrs. Diamond looked up again from the stove. She was transferring something from the pot to a serving bowl. "Why not, lib? He needs to eat somewhere. They obviously donít feed him enough at home."

"Heís a ganef." Harvey glared at Danny.

Danny didnít know what that meant, but he was sure it wasnít good. Neil came back at that moment, having changed out of his school clothes into more casual attire. He grabbed the bowl from his mother and placed it on the table. His brother followed, taking a different serving tray. Danny got up, wanting an escape from Mrs. Diamond's friendly interrogation. "Whatís a ganef?" Danny asked Neil, following them both into the dining room.

Neil coughed quietly, and then answered under his breath, "Thief, rascal, scoundrel..."

Danny nodded. Maybe I should just go. He was about to suggest that, when the front door opened. Danny followed Neil and Harvey back to the front room. "Iím home!" the man standing there called out. Mr. Diamond effectively blocked his exit plans.

Dinner wasnít as big a deal as he feared. Heíd been afraid to take too much, but with every plate that was passed, Mrs. Diamond would encourage him to take at least two servings. "Take more." "Thereís plenty." "Donít be afraid to eat." "You look like a little bird." That earned a snicker from Harvey.

The food had a different flavor than what he was used to, but it was good and warm. If only he had more of an appetite. He was still working on his second serving, when Mrs. Diamond suddenly spoke up. "So, my son Harvey tells me youíre in a gang."

Danny choked. He looked around the table. Neil quickly smacked Harvey on the back of the head. Harvey glared at Neil in return. Mr. Diamond looked angry. The whiskers of his mustache were actually quivering. Mrs. Diamond went on, seemingly unaware of the reactions around her. "Why do your parents let you run around with those bad boys? Donít tell me they approve."

"My parents are dead," Danny mumbled, putting his fork down.

"Thatís no excuse. You probably have them turning in their graves. If you were my boy Iíd come back from the dead and haunt you until you did right. Didnít they bring you up properly?" Mrs. Diamond sighed.

Danny looked around the table. The throbbing behind his eyes got worse. Neil met his gaze and shrugged. "Mothers," he mouthed.

Mr. Diamond glared at both Neil and Harvey, who squirmed a bit, but didn't say anything. Then Mr. Diamond just kept mechanically moving the fork from his plate to his mouth, eating.

Mrs. Diamond got tired of waiting for Danny to answer. "Your parents are dead, youíre half starved, and youíre in a gang. I may not be as smart as my son who spends all his time at the library studying," she looked pointedly at Neil, "but I can add things together. Our couch isnít that comfortable, but Iím guessing itís better than the street."

"Mama!" Harvey cried. "Youíre not going to let him stay here?"

Mrs. Diamond continued on, as though Harvey hadnít interrupted. "Hopefully Harvey will never have to make that comparison, though, since heís the one whoíll be sleeping on the couch." She turned to Harvey. "When youíve finished eating, change the sheets on your bed for our guest."

Danny was about to protest that he really didnít need to stay, that he'd be fine. Before he could get the words out, everything in his vision faded and turned dark. He felt a sense of relief as he put his head down on the table and closed his eyes.

act II: i'll be what i am