Lenny Levine


“So, where the hell is Freddy with this girl singer?”

Andy Ginsberg nervously ran his hands over the fringes of his guitar bag as he sat on the couch in the recording-studio lounge. “I need to be out of here by 2:30.”

Ike Wilkins, in the easy chair across from him, casually rested a cocoa-skinned forearm on his bass bag. “Hey, man, why are you gettin’ so antsy? It’s only eleven in the a.m.”

“That goddamn Freddy,” Andy muttered. “I told him I’ve gotta be at Lisa’s school by three.” He stopped playing with the fringes and started cracking his knuckles.

“Why don’t you just let Margo pick her up?” Ike suggested.

“Margo and I are getting a divorce,” Andy said in a flat tone of voice. “I’ve got my own place now, on 87th.”

“What?” Ike sat bolt upright. “When did this happen? Where was I?”

“Three months ago, and I don’t know where you were.”

“Three months ago…” Ike gave it some thought. “I was in Australia with Elton John. But shit, man, I’m sorry.”

Andy nodded grimly. “Not as sorry as I am.”

J.C. McAdams, the drummer on the session, caught that last bit as he emerged from the restroom.

“I always thought you were a sorry sonofabitch,” he said, sitting down at the other end of the couch, “but I’m glad to hear you’re finally admitting it.”

“Did you know about Andy getting a divorce?” Ike asked him incredulously.

“Hell, yeah, that’s old news.” J.C. picked a crumb out of his ginger-colored beard and looked at it appraisingly before flicking it away. “You ought’a stop touring so much, Ike. You’re missing all the good shit.” He turned toward Andy. “How’s the custody thing coming?”

For the first time, Andy’s expression brightened. “Great. The hearing is Friday, and my lawyer says it’s a slam dunk. With Margo’s history, they’ve got to give me custody of Lisa.”

Ike shook his head bemusedly. “Usually, it’s the musicians with all the coke, booze, and rehabs, not their wives.”

“How long were you guys married?” J.C. asked.

“Nine years, and it was a total mistake. If she hadn’t gotten pregnant with Lisa…” He looked off for a moment into the void of what might have been, then returned. “But it was a blessing,” he said softly. “Lisa is the most wonderful little girl in the world, the best thing to ever happen, and I love her beyond anything. Which is why that fuck-brain Freddy had better get here. I have to be at that school by three o’clock.”

“Man, don’t they have after-school programs?” Ike said. “You should put her in one of those, so you don’t have to worry about it.”

“She’s already in one. But I want to pick her up early today. Margo and I had a huge fight on the phone last night. The woman hates me. I think she’s desperate. She realizes what’s coming down on Friday, and I think she’s going to do something crazy.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I think she’s going to try to kidnap Lisa.”

* * *

            Forty blocks south of them, at a West Village boutique called Chez Cheryl, Margo Sterling-Ginsberg stood at a display rack, holding an armful of petite-size dresses and hanging them up one by one.

“I need to leave at 2:30 today,” she said to her friend and employer Cheryl Trent. “I have to pick up Lisa at her school at three o’clock.”

Cheryl, at the next rack with her own armful, regarded her with a bit of anxiety.

“We’re supposed to get a big shipment from Bob Mackie this afternoon.”

“I know, and I promise I’ll come in early tomorrow and deal with it. You know I never ask for favors, but I really need one today.”

Laying her dresses over the top of the rack, Cheryl came over to her. “Why three o’clock? Isn’t she in the after-school program?”

Margo nervously chewed her lower lip. “Yeah, but I want to pick her up early.”

Cheryl wondered if this was a red flag. She trusted her friend, who’d been clean and sober for two years now, but she knew from experience that trust can be a fool’s game when it came to alcoholics. She also knew Margo had been under a lot of stress lately.

“It’s not about the custody situation, is it? Didn’t your lawyer say there was no problem?”

Margo gnawed on her upper lip now. “I’m not worried about that. The courts always favor the mother, so I’m sure I’ll get Lisa. But I think Andy’s flipping out. We had a terrible argument on the phone last night. It was real ugly. He hates me, and I don’t know what he’s capable of doing.”

“Did he threaten you?”

“Not in so many words. But I think that, deep down, he knows I’m getting custody. Cheryl, I’m really scared he’ll try something.”

“Like what, kidnapping Lisa?” Cheryl scoffed. “He wouldn’t do a stupid thing like that.”

Margo’s eyes filled with tears. “He would,” she said, her voice trembling. “That’s exactly what that asshole would do.”

* * *

            “Whoa, hey, take it easy,” said J.C. “Don’t get all paranoid on us. She wouldn’t do a dumb thing like that.”

“She would, and it’s not so dumb,” said Andy. “Her parents are rich WASPs who live in Palm Beach. To them, no matter how much money I make, I’m still a New York Jew musician who knocked up their princess and introduced her to a life of debauchery. She could take Lisa down there in a heartbeat, and they’d love it. She’d have nothing to lose. It would cost me even more money to go after her.” He gave his knuckles another good cracking. “No, there’s no way I’m not in front of that school at three o’clock.”

* * *

            “Oh, come on,” said Cheryl. “Where would he take her?” She moved around to the other rack and began hanging the dresses again.

“L.A.,” said Margo, shifting the weight of her own armload. “For years now, he’s been saying how much work there is in L.A., compared to New York. He could easily relocate there and not miss a beat. It would be nothing for him to grab Lisa and get on a plane. For all I know, he’s already set up an apartment, or one of his friends did it for him. It’s easy. People rent places out there like they try on shoes.”

Cheryl shook her head. “I still think you’re being paranoid.”

Margo resumed hanging the dresses. “Maybe, but I’ve got to make sure Lisa is okay this afternoon. I’ll go nuts if I don’t.”

* * *

            The long-awaited Freddy Samuelson, after two phone calls saying he was stuck in traffic, finally showed up at the recording studio at 12:30 with an anorexic-looking teenage girl in tow.

“Sorry,” he said breathlessly, “there was some kind of hazmat spill on the George Washington Bridge.” He adjusted his comb-over with one hand while extending the other toward the girl. “Guys, I want you to meet Tilda O’Connor. Tilda, this is J.C. McAdams, Ike Wilkins, and Andy Ginsberg.”

The girl gave the others a shy smile, then looked at Andy and blushed.

“I’m a big fan,” she said softly. “My dad used to play me all your albums.”

“Thank you,” Andy said, ignoring the snickers of the other two, “and good for him.”

“Wait’ll you hear her songs,” Freddy enthused. “We’re doing three of ’em today and each one just screams, ‘PLATINUM!’ C’mon, let’s go inside and Tilda can show you the charts.”

The girl looked startled.

“Oh, Freddy, I didn’t write out any music. Was I supposed to?”

* * *

            “Okay,” said Cheryl, putting down the phone, “according to the Bob Mackie people, they’re getting here sometime between one and two. Let’s pray that it’s closer to one.”

“Thank you for doing this for me,” Margo said.

“Hopefully, it’ll be no big deal. But I can’t supervise the delivery and run the shop at the same time.”

“I know you can’t,” said Margo, “and I really appreciate it.”

“Right,” muttered Cheryl.

* * *

            “This is BULLSHIT!” Tilda screamed.

It was approaching 2:30. Andy hurriedly packed up his stuff, while Tilda and Freddy stood on the other side of the studio by the piano, Tilda in near apoplexy. The soft, wispy voice she’d been singing in could now cut through “PLATINUM!”

“I told you,” Freddy said, trying to calm her down, “he’s not taking any money for the session because of this.”

“So WHAT?” she yelled. “That’s YOUR department. What does it do for ME?”

Andy kept his head lowered and continued to pull out patch cords and stash his pedals in their case. Ike and J.C. hovered next to him, watching in amusement.

“Another false idol,” J.C. observed, “shattering a teenager’s dreams.”

“Please, Tilda,” said Freddy, looking worriedly in their direction, “keep your voice down.”

“Keep your voice down!” she mimicked. “You sound like my fucking father!”

“That’d be the same father that abused her by making her listen to your albums,” Ike put in.

Andy zipped up his guitar bag and hefted it over his shoulder. “Okay, take care now!” he called out, giving a cheery wave toward Tilda, who glared at him, and Freddy, who looked miserable. He turned and headed for the door.

“Hey,” J.C. called after him, “if you run into Margo trying to snatch the kid, tell her I said ‘hi.’”

* * *

            It was also approaching 2:30 at the boutique, which was now filled with customers. The delivery truck from Bob Mackie stood outside, and two beefy, sweaty men were off-loading several large cartons and stacking them on the sidewalk.

Cheryl and Margo stood in a corner near the changing room in an intense, low-voiced conversation.

“For God’s sake, don’t do this to me!” Cheryl said in a barely controlled whisper.

“I can’t help it,” Margo nearly sobbed. “It’s my little girl.”

“Excuse me,” an elderly woman interrupted them, “is the price on this blouse correct?”

Cheryl turned on a sunny smile and looked at it. “Why, yes, it is,” she said.

“Hmmf,” said the woman and moved on.

“You’re going to ruin me!” Cheryl said, her eyes blazing.

“I’m sorry,” said Margo, as she started to edge away. “You don’t have to pay me for today. In fact, you don’t have to pay me for the whole week. I’ll work overtime tomorrow. I’ll…”

“You’re insane!” Cheryl hissed.

“Yes, right, thank you,” Margo said distractedly, checking her watch. She turned and began excusing her way through the customers toward the door.

* * *

            At the Baynor School on 9th Avenue and West 36th Street, Lisa Ginsberg’s third-grade class clattered down the hallway in double file, following their teacher toward the front entrance, where the school buses waited. Lisa and her friend Karen Schwartz held hands. They were both taking the same bus, the one that went to the after-school program at the community center a few blocks away.

They’d just learned about the Great Wall of China this afternoon, and now Lisa regarded Karen’s Asian appearance out of the corner of her eye. She’d been surprised to see the resemblance between her friend and the pictures in the book. It made her think for the first time about the oddity of Karen’s parents, who picked her up each afternoon at the community center. They looked nothing like that. In fact, they looked “regular,” like her own parents.

“How come you don’t look like your mommy and daddy?” she asked.

“It’s ’cause I’m adopted,” Karen said matter-of-factly.

“Adopted? What’s that?”

“It means my mommy and daddy picked me out. Did yours?”

Lisa considered it. “I don’t think so.”

“Well, mine did,” Karen said.

They’d reached the entrance, and the kids began to charge raucously down the front steps. Karen disengaged her hand from Lisa’s.

“I’m gonna sit in the front!” she hollered and took off.

Lisa was about to follow when she was brought up short. Her parents were standing next to the bus. This was strange because they never came for her at school. One of them always came to the community center at five o’clock. She was never sure which one it would be lately, since her daddy moved out, but it was always later, not at the school, and not now.

They hadn’t noticed her yet. They were busy talking to each other, and it looked like they were real angry. She was about to call out to them, but, suddenly, she was scared to. Their faces were so twisted and ugly. It was like they wanted to kill each other.

A feeling of nausea crept into her stomach. She had an overwhelming urge to turn and run, but she didn’t know where. Helplessly, she stood rooted to the spot. Then she began to cry.

The sound somehow reached Andy and Margo. They stopped in mid-accusation and turned toward it.

“Oh, my God!” they said at the same time.

They ran and bent down on either side of her, as she stood there weeping.

“Hey, it’s all right,” said Andy, as Margo stroked her hair and murmured, “It’s okay, baby.”

It made her cry harder.

“I wanna be adopted!” she wailed.

They drew back and stared at her. “What?” said Andy.

“I want a mommy and daddy who picked me out, like Karen’s parents, not like you!” she sobbed.

“Oh, honey,” said Margo, “of course, we picked you out.”

“Sure, we did,” said Andy. “We never wanted anyone but you.”

“No, you didn’t!” cried Lisa. “You probably didn’t even pick each other out. That’s why you’re always fighting.”

They were silent.

“I want a mommy and daddy that love each other.”

Andy leaned over and kissed the top of her head. “I know,” he whispered.

Margo gave her a kiss from the other side. “I know too,” she said.

They stayed that way, until Lisa’s tears finally subsided. Then Andy got to his feet, using his guitar bag to help himself up.

“What do you say we grab some pizza, the three of us?” He looked at Margo with a timid smile.

“Sounds great,” she said, forcing a smile of her own. “What do you think, Lisa?”

“Sure,” she said with a sniffle.

They took her hands on either side. As they walked down the block toward the pizzeria, Andy looked over her head at Margo and mouthed the words, “Joint custody?”

Margo nodded, then sighed. “I guess, sometimes, kids can be more grown up than adults.”

Lisa kicked at a pebble and sent it skittering down the pavement. “I don’t want to be an adult,” she announced.

Andy gave her hand a squeeze. “Welcome to the club,” he told her.


3 Responses to Dyscustody

  1. Caren Kaye says:

    I enjoyed the essay- I would have liked to hear more about the characters although you were able to tell a lot in a short amount of time. The parents got the message really fast- a happy ending is always nice- good work

  2. Keep up the incredible job !! Lovin’ it! http://bit.ly/2f0xJ92

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