|Oct/Nov 2010 Fiction|
Marriage, to women as to men, must be a luxury, not a necessity; an incident of life, not all of it. And the only possible way to accomplish this great change is to accord to women equal power in the making, shaping and controlling of the circumstances of life.
—Susan B. Anthony, Speech on Social Purity
1. 1922—Velma Flirts with Trouble.
More than anything Velma Bernard loved about being an usher was the gardenia she wore in her lapel each Saturday night. A scrawny high school girl dressed as a French maid would come around to all of the Millerettes in the lounge and pin to their lapels one of the aromatic blooms shipped to Wichita from Alabama. Every weekend since the Miller had opened, Velma would take the trolley home and hang her gardenia by a thread. When she had dried a half dozen, she would arrange them in a milk glass bowl and placed it on the vanity in her room. Though the white petals turned brown, a certain aspect of the gardenia's beauty would remain. Prior to opening, Mr. Miller had given the girls patterns for black satin pants and fitted jackets of black gabardine. Giggling, they had shopped together at Innes Mercantile to obtain the material, the same fussy white blouses, identical black bow ties and Mary Janes. The cumulative effect was that the Millerettes looked cute as penguins, so cute that their picture had made the paper.
Guiding customers to their seats was an occupation that might have been beneath the dignity of a recent college graduate like Velma, if hadn't been for Mr. Miller's kind attentions: a tempting leer thrown over his shoulder, caressing her posterior on the sly. While thrilling to each flirtation, she had serious intentions that did not include Mr. Miller. And yet there was a strong pull toward both, as if she were being grabbed on either hand by enthusiastic friends: one you liked and one you did not.
At Fairmount College, Velma Bernard had trained in business administration, to please her mother, but her real dream was to become a film star. Yes, Velma Bernard. Her name had a certain heft to it; she wouldn't need to phony one up like a Pole or Czech, with a thirteen-letter name ending in "z." She was pretty, but her lips were thin, and so to disguise the fact, she reddened the skin above her lip line in two curves. They gave her mouth the shape of a little heart, like the mouth of Clara Bow, whom she had admired since high school. Velma possessed short, wavy hair of blonde and projected a smile that could be seen from the back row. Her boyish body could sport a shimmering chemise like a mannequin in one of the windows along Douglas Avenue. It gave her a vague sense of power over women, who tended to befriend her, and men, who wanted to possess her (it was an old story). But most important, she had certain other talents. She could sing rather well, having soloed in the Fairmount choir. She could perform simple tap steps (and was a quick study for more difficult routines). Returning home from an evening of lessons, she would flop down on her bed, her muscles quivering from overuse. And at the same time, it would take hours for her heart to slow, for her brain to go black so she could sleep. Sometimes she didn't. Sometimes, her mind contrived beautiful scenarios, whereby she would build her own home in Los Angeles. She would marry another film star. They would have lovely children. But all that those scenarios did, at times, was stir the beating of her heart.
On a mild May evening in 1922, the night after Velma collected her diploma, the Miller had opened with great fanfare. The temple to filmdom had been built by an attorney, Jacob Miller from Chicago, and it towered three stories above the street at 115 North Broadway. The cost of his venue had amounted to a sum of $750,000. "Such a high price tag," the Wichita Eagle quoted Miller, "is due to the extensive use of brass for railings, the staircase built of Tavernelle marble, and a ventilating system that refrigerates the air." Opening night Mr. Miller had gathered his Millerettes on the draperied mezzanine and pointed down to the crowd queued up outside; Velma heard the murmur of voices growing. She saw one boxy limousine after another drop off yet another privileged party (the mayor and such), who were ushered in early. Those less fortunate hoofed it to the end of the line, which snaked its way around two blocks (10,000 customers had competed for over 2,000 seats). As the place opened, she watched footmen open doors to carriages, Cadillacs, and Packards. Doormen greeted theater goers, and directors showed customers to the aisle, where she and other Millerettes would escort them to their seats. The console of an eleven-rank Wurlitzer was sunken in the orchestra pit, the squalling pipes located three stories up behind two decorative grilles. A funny little man named Shelley Hand was playing "Yes sir, That's My Baby," and it quickened Velma's step. Mr. Hand received a score for every film and was paid to make sure he ended when the movie did. When the showing was over, he would sometimes bow to great applause.
"You are their gateway to Heaven... at least for tonight," Jacob Miller had told them all. "Make sure not to disappoint." His baritone voice was sure and strong, his consonants clearly enunciated. He didn't run his words together like some of the galoots she had gone to school with.
Velma's father had died when she was a baby, and so her voice softened when she spoke of Mr. Miller. "He treats us as if we were his daughters," she said one night before heading off to work. Her mother rolled her eyes, and Velma's thoughts drifted to Mr. Miller and a whiff of his wool jacket, which always seemed redolent of his musky perspiration—so unlike the smell of college boys.
"Oh, Velma," her mother lamented. "I wish you weren't working at that awful place. It's so common, so ungodly."
"Do we have any cheddar?" Velma asked.
"Hm, I suppose I forgot to put it out. Check." Her mother sniffed a handkerchief she held perpetually in her hand, like a figure from an old painting.
Velma stood and opened the white enamel cabinet, whose galvanized compartment held a block of ice the man had just delivered. On the top shelf, she spotted the big orange wedge. Velma removed it and cut herself a slice to put on her roast beef sandwich. She grabbed a jar of bread-and-butter pickles. "Anything else you want, Mother?" Velma asked, winking over her shoulder.
"Oh, no, dear." Her mother sat and toyed with some potato salad on her plate, forking out the purple chips of red onion. Because her father had died when she was so young, Velma had grown up helping her mother do most everything. Velma didn't mind, but she wondered how her mother would handle that large house once she left town. And she had determined that she would leave, that she would have her own house one day—on a hill faraway, and across its ridge would be nestled the dazzling letters that spelled out HOLLYWOODLAND. She had clipped a photograph from a magazine and taped it to her dresser mirror. The letters, soon to be lit with four thousand light bulbs, represented a future of freedom, of recognition, of visible means.
"All you'll find in that outfit is trouble," Vivian Bernard said, her eyes flitting toward Velma's form-fitting jacket. "If I'd known how lewd you were going to look, I'd have refused to make it for you."
Velma fussed with the jacket, which fit her torso to perfection, exploiting her modest bosom, her boyish waist. "Oh, Mother, you have no idea! The customers go wild over us," Velma said.
"That's because you're a vixen."
Satisfied with her pronouncement, her mother cooled herself with a fan she had been given by her Sunday school class. Furnished with an ivory handle and stiff yellow paper tinctured with an image of Christ in faded ochers and browns, it was a prop Vivian Bernard swung with great gusto. She often told Velma that, if she would only pray, there wasn't a problem God couldn't handle for her. At the same time, she was terribly fatalistic. "August will be murder if it's this hot already. I don't know if I'm up to it."
"It's cool at the Miller," Velma said, trying to cheer her mother. "It feels like an autumn day. You almost need a sweater."
"I never heard of such a thing. Only God can cool the air."
"You should come down," Velma said. "I have an extra pass!"
"'Conditioning' the air!" her mother said. "That's as sinful as bobbing your hair, wearing dresses above the knee."
"Oh, Jeez," Velma said, swallowing her last bite. "I'm going to be late."
And with that, she ran to the front hall, grabbed a wrap, and soon caught a trolley that clattered down the tracks embedded in the brick pavement. The windows were open and the wind blew her hair; she liked the feel of it, the sense that she was moving through time and space at a faster rate than most folks. After the short ride down Douglas, past manicured lawns, she hopped off at Broadway, not far from the theatre. As her heels clicked along the sidewalk, she studied the marquee.
Beyond the Rocks had been held over. Velma had seen it so many times that she was able to mouth Miss Swanson's parts, and she could have given a synopsis to anyone who asked. Gloria Swanson is on her honeymoon with her husband (you see), who is older than she, when she becomes infatuated with a younger man, Rudolph Valentino (don't you know). It only gets better from there. Six reels, an act per reel, the film unfolded like a stage play. Something about staring up at the huge screen gave her a thrill, as if she, too, were participating in the intrigue of infidelity. Some day others would gaze up at screens all across America and admire her, participate vicariously in her deadly sins. Yes, she could see herself flirting with that imaginary (but very real) audience.
Sometimes, when Velma's attention waned, her gaze was drawn from the screen to the gossamer curtains appliquéd with silver stars, or to the dozen or so chandeliers made of brass and crystal. To her, the Miller was not just a theatre. With all its glittering bric-a-brac, it was a palace. The fact that she worked all week long made it seem as if it were her home; she had sat in nearly every row; she had climbed among the ropes and curtains backstage, helping with live productions; she had visited the projection room and the concession stand, to see how popcorn and cotton candy were made. Usually she stood throughout her shift, swinging a leather swagger stick Mr. Miller had checked out to each of the girls; in the dark she sometimes twirled it, toddling like Chaplin down the aisle, instead of fending off an aggressive customer, as Miller had suggested. On that evening, however, Velma sat in one of the red-cushioned chairs, trimmed in ivory and gilt paint. The Miller Theatre was far grander than any place in town. In the future she expected to appear on large screens like the one in front of her and captivate audiences from coast to coast. In California she would stand under a marquee outside an even grander theatre, like Grauman's Egyptian, and experience the thrill of her own success. Velma Bernard Held Over for Fifth Week!
"I like the way you work," came a voice.
Velma looked over her shoulder. "Oh, Mr. Miller, I didn't see you standing there," she gushed, feeling as if she had done something stupid. She jumped up, holding the swagger stick behind her back.
"Call me Jake, Doll. Come, I want to speak to you in my office."
Velma drew in a quick breath. It was the only place in the theatre she had not visited. She turned and followed him, handing her stick to one of the other girls, who would pick up the slack in her area. From the mezzanine they began to climb stairs.
They rose past the little lounge where the Millerettes took respite—puffing on Chesterfields, sipping Coca-Colas—up the burgundy carpeted stairs, to the very top, where he opened a dark oak door. Inside, Mr. Miller switched on a green library lamp over his desk. He opened a small window in the wall, and Velma could hear the click of the projector in the next room. The projectionist, an old man she had met once, sat and stared at the screen through that square in the wall. He was smoking a cigarette.
"I've told you not to light up in there," Mr. Miller spoke gruffly into the square. "You're going to burn the place down." He slammed the little window and nudged a red leather bench with his leg. "Sit over here, Doll." If it hadn't been for a chipped tooth and an oblong mustache that engulfed his mouth, his smile would have been boyish. Yet the pores in his face were big, as if he had already lived a full life somewhere else, as if he were only biding his time in a jerkwater town like Wichita.
On the bench they both watched the movie, like the projectionist, through a window facing the screen. Mr. Miller put his arm around her, and Velma sighed. She liked the gingery smell of his talc and leaned into his shoulder. She had heard rumors about Mr. Miller, that he had been banned from practicing law in Illinois. That's why he had set up shop in the hinterlands, where dopes like her weren't supposed to know the difference (she did try to think the best of people). She snuggled further into his prickly wool shoulder. Pulling her toward him, he kissed her hard, snaking his fingers inside her blouse where they kneaded her breast, sliding his other hand down past her waist band. When he finally released her, her lips felt as if they had been sucked by a leech, and a wonderful ooze flowed from her like a fountain. She felt on the verge of doing something, and though her mother had warned against its hazards, she knew exactly what that something was. Mr. Miller stood her like a big doll against the door and undid the cord of her slacks, and they, along with her undergarments, rather floated to the floor without a sound. Velma gasped. When Mr. Miller's pants fell, she hopped up and wrapped her legs around him (it felt quite natural). With their complementary parts so close, Miller thrust his hips, and Velma emitted a little cry (she could feel the letting of blood). All she had been taught told her not to go on, not to let him finish, but the world was changing. Women smoked in public; they swore; they earned their own living. And this, too.
All through the evening, Velma felt little trickles, cold and river-like, running down her legs, and she would run to the ushers' lounge. "Here, take this," said Gladys Gorges, a large girl with a knowing look. She handed Velma a fluffy handkerchief, whispering something into her ear. Velma blushed but entered the bathroom and closed the door. The thought she would have to staunch the flow of Mr. Miller's attentions never occurred to her (she thought she knew the score), but the handkerchief seemed to do the trick (when the evening was over Gladys told her to throw it away).
After the final showing flickered to an end, Shelly the organist bowed, and the crowd applauded. Cleaning up her station, Velma realized she was the last Millerette to leave the lounge.
"Hey, Doll, this way."
And Mr. Miller guided her to the alley. From there he drove her home in a long black Packard, where she sat snuggled against his shoulder. He pulled over and stopped under a tree whose limbs drifted down over the car, the long fronds of a weeping mulberry gently lapping the surface, as if sheltering them inside its arms.
Miller said in very soft voice, "God you're so beautiful," and his fingers once again found themselves going straight up her skirt, inside her; she moaned as he kissed her deep and pulled her close. "I think I love... ." He remained inside her for the longest time, as they listened to the wind rustle branches against the car. Finally, he sat up straight, as if something had just occurred to him. "If you get preggers, kiddo, you're on your own."
His pronouncement sounded so logical at first, but it was like yelling King's X during a game of tag. It protected you somehow, but from what, getting tagged? For some reason she was not frightened. If life without a father had taught her one thing, it was that fear was not a luxury one could indulge in. No siree.
Velma accepted a cigarette Miller offered her and lit it. She coughed on the first inhalation. "It's the wrong time of the month," she said, looking up at him, letting the cigarette burn. "Miss Dunne taught us to calculate our safe days. The only sensible thing I learned in her health class at Fairmount."
The big-boned woman with the bronze skin had told them in a tightly shut classroom how to arrive at such a deduction based on one's cycle, and she had said if they ever told, she would deny every word of it. As Velma smiled up at Miller, she tried to count days, but her head spun. She would have to check her diary. She blinked, trying again to remember how many days it had been since her last time, but the information seemed just out of reach, like a dream you try to recall. Mr. Miller turned and leaned against her one final time. His was a dry, sour kiss, and of a sudden she couldn't wait to reach the safety of her own room. As her Mary Janes clicked up the front walk of her mother's home (a three-story Victorian painted a sad, pale sage trimmed in lavender), Velma felt as if she had never been there before in her life. It was a fleeting feeling, about as quick as a sigh of wind, but it was sure. Once inside, she removed her shoes and tiptoed up the carpeted stairs that knew no quiet way. Squeaks in the floor usually woke her mother, who would call out and Velma would have to answer, but that night Velma could hear her mother's snoring as she passed her door. She padded down the hall to her room and placed her newest gardenia in the milk glass bowl, where it would brown and curl up immediately.
After that, whenever Velma worked, she headed straight to her station. No matter what, she had determined she would not leave it, not even if Mr. Miller begged her to follow him upstairs again. At the same time, she dreamed of doing exactly that, yes, of course, refusing at first and then, after exacting a promise of marriage from him, fleeing with him on a train headed for Florida or California. Imagine her chagrin, when, on the Monday following their tryst, Mr. Miller and his family set off on a month-long trip to Chicago and New York. (If she had had any idea he was married, would she have carried on so? It was hard to say now. Should she have asked him of his status?) The theatre's management was handed over to a young man who hadn't yet finished high school. The red-headed fool gave orders that no one followed; they all did their jobs without being told and the life of the Miller went on without Jacob Miller.
When her Aunt Flo (such a vapid term) failed to arrive on time, just prior to Miller's return, Velma dismissed it; often she had been late in college. To get over the thrills Mr. Miller gave her, she had spent the entire month of his absence flirting with men on the trolley. She had been a trolley's trollop, that's what, and she had loved it, plopping down next to a dapper man in a pin-striped suit and derby. Some of the young men even followed her home, making breathing difficult, but she would ditch them at the door. Why don't you invite your young admirers inside? her mother had asked. Each time, Velma would shriek, as if laughing at the devil himself and hurry up the stairs before such a devil seduced her into doing his more daring work, like bank robbery or embezzlement. Removing her uniform and a layer of underwear, she would study her form. Yes, she still looked the same; she must look the same.
After Jacob Miller returned to work, Velma often sat in the same chair where he had first approached her, hoping upon hope that he would tap her shoulder again, but all she got for her efforts was a reprimand from the red-headed manager. To emphasize his point, the lad took his swagger stick and tapped her knee. One evening, Velma felt his hand on her shoulder, and well, his hand grazing her breast.
"Don't touch me," she said, slapping it away.
"Shhh," he said, digging his fingers into her shoulder, looking up about the crowd, some of whom turned their heads to see what the fuss was about.
"I said, take your hands off me." The louder she spoke the deeper his fingers dug into her shoulder. "Stop."
"You're finished, Lassie," he whispered, leaning over. "Clean out your locker and be on your way."
"You fool. You know that's what everyone calls you, don't you? Wait till I tell Mr. Miller of your overtures."
"Who do you think sent me here?"
Velma stood and rushed past him to the rear door, up the staircase, past the mezzanine, to the top of the stairs. When no one answered the door, she turned the knob and entered Miller's office. Light from the film flickered across the darkened room. She heard a giggle, a definite slap, and a little whimper.
"Care to make it three?" came his voice.
Velma couldn't see Miller's face. If she had been able to, perhaps she could have communicated to him her desperation, the great desire that welled up inside her.
"Either join us or scram," shot Miller's voice through the dark. Yes, a certain something about his invitation was tempting, but the thought of sharing him with another woman made Velma's blood curdle.
She thudded noisily down the entire staircase, out the door, and to her trolley stop. Fire me? she thought, smacking her hand with the leather-covered stick. Had the red-headed fool not noticed she had worn a bulky cardigan all evening? How could he fire me, when I planned all along to quit? As she ran up her street and opened the front door, she realized she had left her swagger stick on the trolley, but it was too late. By now it had gone on without her, toward the far reaches of town. The conductor would by now have picked it up and kept it as his own.
Each day Velma viewed in the mirror the changes overtaking her body: the widening of her hips, how her abdomen protruded, how her breasts drooped like pears. The larger Velma became, the lighter she felt, the lovelier her aspect (so she believed). She ingested more and more meat and cheese and refused to leave the house. She wore Vivian's discarded Mother Hubbards, blousy frocks that engulfed her, even as a woman in her condition. Theirs was a tacit truce. Her mother would say nothing, because if she did, Velma would flee the house forever. In return, Vivian would quietly knit tiny items of clothing, stitch little quilts. She repapered and repainted Velma's room in dark pinks, setting up Velma's old crib in there. The sun would strike its new white paint, and its cheerfulness would propel Velma through another day of gestation, where she did little more than stare out the window at birds nesting in the elm beyond her window. How do they do it, blindly laying eggs and feeding one season after another till they die? No recognition. No one to help. One morning, when it was chilly and gray, her mother knocked and entered. She sat in the rocker and began a slow steady rhythm of movement, her chin always level with the floor.
"Your dear father had so many plans for you, plans I've not been able to fulfill. Before he passed, he would hold you in his arms and tell you of trips we all would take around the world. He wanted you to marry, but he'd hoped you might station yourself above us. On one of his marryin' trips, as he called them, you would be introduced to a German baron or a wealthy London merchant, and be set for life. Of course, that was before the Huns went crazy, before your dear father took a deep sigh and fell over in his chair. Had it not been for that, he'd have taken you round the world. He'd have married you off fine, by now."
"That's a lovely story," Velma said. "It becomes lovelier every time you tell it." If it hadn't been for a hint of longing in her own voice, her statement might have sounded like a reproach. At any rate, her mother left her alone after that.
The night Velma's baby was born, Vivian Bernard attended her. With contractions increasing, Velma spoke. "Oh, I do hope you know what you're doing, Mother."
"I witnessed more barnyard births than you can shake a stick at, not to mention the birthing of ten brothers and sisters. Every spring I watched and learned as hands pulled and tugged at flesh reluctant to enter the world. I used to feel as at home between two spread legs as I do in the kitchen. It's what women do," Vivian said. Wiping her brow, she appeared as tired as Velma. "All, it seems, we're good for." After thirty more minutes of contractions, Vivian stood poised, a frown upon her face. With little struggle, however, Velma's cavity opened wide. She didn't scream, as Vivian had predicted she would. Her mother grabbed the scrawny, squalling red lump and placed it inside a soft towel in her arms. She cut the cord; with what Velma could not see.
"Oh, Mother," Velma sighed, pulling baby Vera close to her in bed, "she's so beautiful." She was exhausted, and the center of her body, not just the obvious place, hurt terribly. She had been stretched beyond endurance, and it was as if she had evacuated something awful, something wild. As she spoke, her mother cleaned blood and goo from the baby's skin, rubbing oil over the tiny body that squirmed in perpetual motion. Velma wanted to be left in peace with her baby nestled in her arms, and they would both fall asleep. Perhaps, she mused, they would wake up in a dense quiet forest, where they where they would live for the rest of their lives, undisturbed.
"Why don't you get up so I can wash the sheets?" Vivian said.
"She's going to be hungry soon, can't I lie here and enjoy her awhile?"
"It'll be the last bit of enjoyment you have for a long time, girl." Vivian laughed and began to pull sheets from the corner. Exhausted and woozy, Velma rose, holding her baby. "If I get them in cold water now," her mother said, "they won't stain. You can rest with her over there in granny's rocker. A lot of babies were nursed in that chair."
In her weakened state, Velma hobbled over to the wooden rocker with its thick gingham cushions and nearly fell into the chair. She almost panicked, when baby Vera refused to take hold of her nipple. It was as if the infant didn't know what to do with her mouth, worming her little lips in and out, twisting her head.
"Was it worth it, my daughter?" Vivian asked, huffing her way back in from the laundry room, smelling of lilac water she sprinkled over her linens.
"Mother, she won't nurse," Velma said.
Vivian gently but firmly took the babe's head and made sure it latched on to Velma's nipple, as if she were attaching a trailer to its hitch. Velma sucked air against her teeth upon the little mouth's contact with her breast; the sensation at first was nearly erotic but gave way to a contentment she had never felt before. Their communion caused her mind time to flop from one silly thought to another. Her mother. Her father. Miller. Her career. The letter V: it was a naturally strong consonant that overtook her mind. It stood for victory, valor, even vengeance, and she would continue the family tradition: Vivian, Velma, and now baby Vera.
"Mr. Miller was so strong, so sure of himself. I couldn't have stopped him if I'd wanted to." It seemed a lifetime ago, since she had allowed him his way.
"The act is a sacrament shared between a man and a woman in the sight of God."
"Yes, that would have been best," Velma said, toying with her daughter's fine hair, kissing her soft little head. "But I'm so happy now, it doesn't matter."
Vivian sighed and walked over to the chair, placing one hand on Velma's head and one on Vera's. "God help you." The hand felt cold and moist against Velma's scalp. She shivered, in fact.
"Mother, I've come to a decision. I shall raise Vera in California."
"Gal, you can't be serious." Her mother dropped her arms and bowed her head, her eyes dead.
"I've made up my mind. I'm taking the train as soon as Vera's able to travel, as soon as I work off a little of this fat. I must make a career, and I must prepare her for a bitter world."
"Oh, I don't want a delinquent for a grandchild," Vivian said, placing a hand over her chest and grimacing as if she had gas. For the first time in Velma's life, her mother appeared old. For so long her mother had looked the same, slightly gray, slightly large, but active, always alive. But now she looked old, more of her life behind than ahead.
"I only meant that with my love, Vera can shoulder the strength to fight anything. Knowing she's loved will save my little Vera."
"Has it saved you?"
Velma raised her head and smiled at her mother. "Why, yes. Yes, it has."
Vivian Bernard, whose parents, the Himmlers, had hailed from the Austrian Alps, carried a hundred and fifty pounds on her tiny frame and had done so for as long as Velma could remember. Her grandparents had both died young of vague heart problems. So she wasn't surprised when one morning she found her mother stiff and blue, lying in bed with her eyes wide open. During her night's sleep, which had been fitful, though baby Vera slept quite peaceably, Velma had felt nauseous, her head swimming. She had heard of such things, experiencing the same symptoms as a loved one at the very instant she was slipping into the next world, but she had never expected it to happen to her. It was mildly unsettling that she had done nothing about it, but had she risen, the baby would have cried. And anyway, what action could she have possibly taken to save her mother?
Vivian's portly body was taken away by the mortuary and prepared for the funeral, which was set for Friday. Her mother's people were all gone; it would only be Velma, baby Vera, the pastor, and a few souls from Grace Methodist-Episcopal who would appear at the service to come to grips with Vivian's death. She was barely sixty-three.
Velma stood with the others in the warm June mist of 1923 and half listened to the words any pastor would have spoken at a burial—words gleaned from books with torn leather covers. She was already thinking ahead, to a place where fresh words were spoken with each reel. She couldn't help it. A new life was creeping into view, and in it she would be freer than she had ever been! She could barely contain her excitement, as the first clod of dirt was thrown in on her mother. Yes, she was sad, but her mother had made what she could of her life, and Velma was about to do the same, only with much more zest, much more direction.
Following the service at the cemetery on a steep hill dotted with stone markers dated no earlier than 1849, the funeral director dropped Velma and her daughter at the house. Velma put Vera to sleep, and, with a strange new energy, envisioned putting Vivian's things out on the large front porch: clothing, books, furniture she had never liked as a child. The house would look bare, but if she was moving to California, she would need to rid herself of it all. She would sell the large house, take the proceeds and begin a new life. In the midst of her quandary, the phone rang. Expecting yet another solicitous caller, she sighed and ran down the hall. "Yes, hello?"
It was Clive Prince, a fellow member of Grace Church, who was also a vice-president of their bank. A thin, prissy man married to a dark-haired woman much like himself, Clive and his wife had no issue of their own.
"You'll need an income," he said.
"Yes?" Velma said.
"We have a repossession, an odd case really. The building is located on Douglas, not far from your home. The gentleman's mortgage account is in arrears. If you can come up with the last three payments, and pay them up from now on, it can be yours. It's a sweet brick building with a large front window, perfect for a dress shop."
"Mr. Prince, I know nothing about making dresses," Velma said.
"Your mother left you a sum, I guess you know," he said, "untouched from the day your father bequeathed it to you. Mrs. Bernard always lived off her parents' money, which is almost kaput. What your papa left is a rather modest sum, but with it you could pay this merchant's debt, pick up the payments, and as soon as you start bringing in an income, you wouldn't need to rely on Vivian's sums anyway."
Velma held the phone tight to her chin. "Mother never said a thing about it." In a twinkling, she saw herself with Vera, taking that train to California. Yes, along with this windfall, she would sell the house and its goods, gather all her things, her daughter, and make a new life where no one knew them. She would tell people she was a widow, her husband having been killed in a train accident.
"Velma," he said, "let me speak frankly, if I may. In your position, you won't be able to teach school. You won't be able to do secretarial work. Most places won't hire you, once they discover you've had a child... ."
"We're headed for California. Hollywoodland to be exact."
She could hear him take a breath. "Do you know how many people out there actually make a living worth spitting at?" Velma let the time pass without an answer. "Precious few, that's how many," he said. "Here you can set up almost any kind of business you want."
"Yes," she said. "I do see what you mean. Give me a day to think about it, and I shall call you tomorrow."
"That's fine," he said, "but don't take too long. I've got a line stretching around the block. I'm holding off the others, because I think you deserve this repossession more than anybody else." He paused. "They all seem to have a leg up on you."
"Yes, thank you, Mr. Prince, I surely do appreciate it."
After she had hung up, Velma dug into a cinnamon roll some callers had left, pulling it away from the other dozen, swallowing before she had actually chewed the first bite, so that she could devour the next. With such sweetness rolling about her mouth, her feelings turned a complete one hundred eighty degrees. As she consumed whole pieces of a second roll, she mused. It was as if she had become, for a short while, someone new, but because she was now coming to her senses, she was reverting to her old self. Yes, she could always sell the business, or at least the building, if it didn't satisfy her, or if the enterprise failed. She could still go to California if she wished, but she had to be realistic. She was no longer a girl; she had another mouth to feed. She became giddy with the thought of her decision, wearing it like a warm stole around her shoulders. The shop would insure a roof over their heads, money coming in. Gosh, she was so relieved to be doing the right thing. Sure, evenings she could do community theatre, to keep her hand in. There was a part of her that would never relinquish the thrill an audience gave her, but for now her own desires would have to wait. Her mother had provided little earthly guidance, allowing her to do as she pleased, while admonishing her of God's wrath if she took the wrong path. Yes, she would provide Vera with what had been missing in her own life. If she succeeded in her work, then how could little Vera do no less?
The next day, without calling, she and Vera rode a trolley to the bank, and she signed all the papers. Everything was typewritten neatly in triplicate—two for the bank and one for her—triple proof that she was now a merchant. With threatening skies all around, she contacted a sitter and spent the rest of the day making preparations to remodel her building. It would drip with lavender: the main showroom, the dressing cubicles, her desk, which, instead of being shoved into the back, would be set up center stage, near the front window, where she stood staring into the street. From there, she would conduct trade; after all, business was what she had majored in. Oh, she had never sold dresses before, but she could have sold clams if that was what she had decided to do. At that moment Velma witnessed a change in the light, a flicker. Then a jagged line of electricity split the sky in half, slicing the trunk of a huge elm across the street as if it were a simple log. The smoldering disaster was followed by a bomb of thunder. She stared at the subsequent streaks of lightning illuminating her shop like ten thousand bulbs—as if they were a minor disturbance—and returned to her work.
2. 1944-48—Vera Seeks Her Fortune, Too.
Vera Bernard had concluded you couldn't just be a good actress; you had to offer something extra, a quality that the other beautiful girls didn't have, something her mother called flair. Her mother couldn't really define flair, but Vera continued to imagine what it might be: a fur wrap thrown over her shoulder, a pair of heels made from alligator, a silk purse. In addition to helping out at her mother's dress shop, Vera worked at the Miller in the concession stand evenings and weekends. At home, she kept her earnings in a cigar box, with a rubber band wrapped around a wad of cash that continued to grow. Wartime had done away with half the ushers and all the directors, so there was stiff competition to be the pretty face that sat in the glass cage and took in nickels. As Vera tore the customers' tickets, she would smile and tempt them to buy popcorn or a bottle of Coca-Cola in the lobby. And since she had worked there, concession sales had risen threefold. The job was dull, but when her shift was over, she would head for the third balcony, stepping over the rope that closed it to the public, and watch every film that came through town. She had seen Ann Sothern's Maisie movies a dozen times each. She knew the patter of the sassy, ambitious blonde: the plots, make-up, costumes, how the scenes faded from one to the next. She had no grasp of the technical jargon, but she believed she could move freely in front of a camera, and when she got to Hollywood, it would be as if the fish out of water had finally found the Pacific Ocean. From reading the magazines, she knew that thousands of starlets came to Hollywood every year and failed, but she was one of the few who knew she was going to make it.
When she was little, and with great patience and verve, her mother had taught her how to sing and dance. Vera had demonstrated a great aptitude for entertaining and soon outgrew her mother's teaching abilities. She had participated in community theatre, playing every little girl part that came along (one time opposite her mother), but now each day she spent in Wichita made her feel as if she were breathing through voile. Her mother had gone on and on about her days at the Miller—almost fairy tale in nature, as she raved about marble stairs, gossamer curtains, brass handrails—and it was a pleasant enough place, but Vera often wanted to break out of the ticket booth that made her feel as if she were in jail. She would be smothered, completely suffocated, if she didn't get out soon; a tiny fan humming like a bird overhead did little to freshen her mood.
Vera was taller than her mother, nearly as large as her father (she had been told). Though her mother remained vague about who he was, Vera often looked at her face in the mirror and tried to imagine what a father of hers could have looked like. Yes, she had some of her mother's traits: light hair, average breasts, good hips. But where her mother was petite, Vera was statuesque. Her feet had pounded as she hurried down the two flights of stairs at home. She had had to duck to get through certain doorways. Though she had towered over a number of leading men, she was undeterred. She would be marvelous. Where her mother had been soft and afraid, Vera would be hard-nosed and courageous. On her final night at work, three Millerettes, who now wore black slacks and any old sweater (it made her mother's blood boil), had thrown her a party. After one sip, however, she had given her glass of "firewater punch" to the girl replacing her and left. At home Vera packed, while Velma ironed her clothes and recalled lines from roles she had done in community theatre: Pygmalion, Eagerheart—roles that Vera thought vilely tame for herself.
At midnight, Vera witnessed Velma's stoic good-bye on their broad front porch. Vera then hoofed it alone to Union Station, swinging her suitcase as if it were a bundle of school books. She arrived with a thin layer of perspiration on her forehead and bought a ticket. Sitting in a coach that was packed, she stared into the darkness speeding past her and thanked God she was leaving this utterly flat land behind. It was as if she had been born in the wrong place, and now she was correcting that cosmic error.
Vera had been extremely thrifty, stashing away her earnings like an animal living in the ground. And at age twenty-two (she had refused to go to college), with her mother smiling and crying both as she released her hand, Vera was chugging westward through the large ranches of western Kansas. Yes, she was headed for Los Angeles with one cloth suitcase to her name—several hundreds coiled inside an empty lipstick tube and a fifty-dollar bill her mother had slipped her at the last minute.
"Here, take this," her mother had blubbered. "If you don't need it to eat, buy something nice for yourself."
As the train clucked along, Vera kept thinking of the bill which she clutched inside her glove. After the conductor took her ticket, she made her way to the rest room and folded the fifty into fours, placing it in a compartment behind the mirror in her compact. She wouldn't spend it until she absolutely had to, until she was near death, if it came to that. After changing trains in Albuquerque, Vera met a rather rotund man returning to California. They were located in the club car, he slouched in an upholstered chair that sat next to hers.
"Uncanny," she said, lighting a Lucky he proffered, his greasy eyes glimmering like a toad's. "Uncanny that I would meet a director right here, on the train to Los Angeles. What do you direct, traffic?" She flashed her eyes at him and laughed. He was uglier than a stump, but Vera had learned that if she only smiled and lured him in with her eyes, she could get almost any man to do anything she wanted him to (although a rich boy at school had once told her to piss off when she asked for a dime to buy lunch). After several rounds of drinks, the man invited her to his compartment, and on their way, they bounced off the narrow corridor walls through several cars, laughing at their trouble. She vaguely recognized him, having seen his picture in Movie Talk: he had been posed with several starlets, a guy she assumed was at least second from the top on some kind of celluloid totem pole. On a tiny bunk, the man nearly squashed her to death as he splayed himself across her, and she squealed.
"Wait," she said, squeezing her way out from under him. "My time of the month." She then coaxed him into placing himself inside her mouth and she took care of his rampant, coarse needs that way.
"Ah, dear, what can I do for you?" he sighed, when he was finished. It was almost too easy. In the tiny private bath, Vera hawked into the corner sink the residue of his passion and washed up. Entering the compartment again, she remained saucily quiet until the man was ready to retire.
"Well," she said, toying with the buttons of his pajama fly, arousing him into another frenzy, "there is one teensy thing you could do for little Vera." And she whispered it in his ear.
"My child, if you can improvise like you did tonight, you can play any role you like," he said, with a quick wink. And Vera threw her head back and laughed. Twenty-four hours later, when they rode into Los Angeles Union, and the train chuffed to a stop, the director sent her in a taxi to the Dormitory for Young Actresses (That's where all the starlets begin, he told her). The DYA was a nickel's throw from his studio. She couldn't have written the script better herself.
For weeks she made the rounds with a number of other girls. They would pay a cabbie fivers up front, and he would take them from studio to studio. It seemed there was more flirting involved than actual acting, but sometimes the line between the two became blurred. She learned to let her stance speak for itself, as she lifted her chin and smiled. She had already landed a few bit parts, which was better than being an extra, which was what most of the DYA girls wound up doing before heading back to places like Des Moines.
In her off hours, Vera sold stockings at the oldest department store in Los Angeles. From the dorm she would take a smoky old bus downtown in the morning, and if she were lucky, she would hitch a ride back in the afternoon. Having worked in her mother's shop, she knew how to approach a customer. You didn't want to scare one away by talking too much or too loudly. You held the silk stockings over your arm so that the women could feel the luxuriousness themselves. Or you were allowed to don a pair and raise your skirt an inch above your knee to show off the sheen they made in the low ochre lights. After wearing them for a week, you were given the pair to take home. By then there was usually a runner in one of them, but you didn't care. You were in a land that never turned cold. The sun shone more than it didn't. And there was often a delicious breeze that seemed to come out of nowhere. It seemed like a kind of heaven.
Vera sat perched on a stone wall, legs crossed, smoking a Lucky she had bummed from the best boy. Bub was a short pudgy man of fifty years with kids her age, and he always managed to cast her a leer that gave her a shiver of revulsion. But still, she hit him up for cigarettes, Coca-Colas, even cash (he didn't tell her to piss off). Vera exhaled, waiting for the director to make up his mind. The script suggested she enter the yard from the main walk to the residence on the hill; then the camera would follow her up to the front door. But the director had gotten a wild hair up his ass that she should sneak onto the lawn from a side gate, tiptoeing with her shoes off. She didn't get it. The character was coming to baby sit. Why would she want to sneak in from the side? She wouldn't find out until the film was in the can that the babysitter was only a vixen in disguise. A trollop, as her mother would have said. The script had not revealed what she would become in the mind of the director. Your last part often became your next—a certain director liking you as a French maid or a trollop—and so you had to be careful.
"Oh, Miss Vera, Miss Vera," came a voice. It was Bitzy, who minced her way up the sidewalk in mousey steps that made Vera laugh. "Mister Man's ready fo' yo' shot. Let me freshen yo' face, and take that cig'rette out yo' mouth."
Vera took one more drag, flattened the end, and saved it in a metal case for later; she jumped down from the wall. "Oh, Bitzy, I don't think I can do one more thing. I'm sick sick sick of that man, I really am. He's not near as good as you-know-who." She was referring to the pig she had met on the train, the clod she hadn't heard from in weeks.
"But Mr. Man's a fine director, too. You jus' need t'let him does his job an' you does yours. I knows 'cause I played a slave for him las' year. He knows what he knows."
"You're the best part of impossible, aren't you?" Vera said, as Bitzy reached up and dabbed Vera's face with a powder puff. There was a gentleness, a softness Vera felt when Bitzy touched her, and Vera patted her hand. Bitzy smiled, and, with a pencil darkened Vera's eyebrows, which tended to thin out in the light. The little woman had to be fifty, if she was a day, but she seemed ageless. Wearing a sparkle in the corner of each eye, she walked miles to and from the studio daily. Though Vera felt odd about expressing it, she had great admiration for Bitzy. At home she had been told varyingly different stories about negroes (a subject on which her mother had been strangely silent). There were those whose kin had been abolitionists; they said you had to be fair. If they were on the school board, they hired them as teachers. Others less couth called them names and derided their so-called smell. Bitzy had shown Vera nothing but kindness and bore only a redolence of mandarin oranges and jasmine, a scent she left as a trace of her love and good will for others. Yes, Vera was in the right place, where people could be free, regardless of their rearing, their skin color.
Still, the City of Angels was a funny place. Vera had lived there six months and still didn't know her neighbors, yet people like Bitzy, Lillian in Wardrobe, Guy at the commissary, were all family now. They greeted one another heartily. They joked and laughed. They commiserated over their plight during breaks. Not enough wages, not enough tips, but Vera could only listen to so much. Her experience was rather different. Winning bit parts (quite different from minor roles) had seemed almost too easy. Then three minors in a row. Her mother had feared she might be destitute in six months, and yet here she was with a featured role—little Vera Bernard from Wichita, Kansas. This was her fourth film, and this time her name would be listed in the credits. If she wished, she would be able to live in a bigger place, but her mother's business sense bore too strong an influence. Like Velma, she put all her earnings in the bank. Occasionally, she footed someone desperate a small loan, but other than that, she lived like a church mouse. In her cigar box she kept a little cash for emergencies. Before stashing a few ones in her lipstick tube, she kept the box itself hidden deep within a hole in her mattress.
Still waiting to take direction, Vera straightened the stockings that the studio had provided for her (she had quit selling nylons). If she had forgotten to take them off, Leaping Lillian would have chased her down the street and ripped them off in ten seconds flat. They belonged to Wardrobe, and they were to be checked in at the end of each day. Lillian's proprietary nature irritated Vera so much that one evening, when Lillian went to tinkle, Vera lifted a new pair, still in the wrapper with the beautiful red-head on the pasteboard, and slid them down into her slacks. Lillian was a stooped reptile of a woman with gray curls falling across her brow. With a cigarette dangling from her lip, smoke enshrouded her like a fog, creating a permanent frown.
Back in her apartment, Vera removed the hosiery from the packaging and rolled the stockings into the toes of some ugly green pumps that had come from her mother's shop in Wichita. She was saving the stockings for a particularly swell evening. In her plan, she would make a date with some hotshot producer... or rather, he would make a date with her... and she would borrow a gown from Wardrobe and pull out the nylons. She would be wined and dined and before morning, if she were lucky, she might become the next Mrs. Pudgy Producer, or at least, his fiancée. After that, her stardom would light the night sky like a comet.
Her roommates, Alexis and Marion, drew straight dark lines for one another up the back of their legs to simulate seams, but when Alexis offered to share her skills on the back of Vera's legs, she laughed.
"Whom do you think you're kidding?"
"Where do you get off with this 'whom' crap?" Alexis said. "You're just a kid from Kanz-ass." They all laughed.
"I may be from Kansas," she said, "but don't try to hustle me. My legs look great without faking a seam."
"Oh, you think so?" Marion said, falling to her knees and kissing Vera's feet. Then they all plopped in a heap on an oval rag rug, laughing like school girls. They were as different as they could be. Alexis was barely five feet: a fierce redhead with freckles, and Marion was not much taller, dark-headed and plump, already testing for more matronly roles. And Vera had bleached her hair platinum. Unlike her mother's, her lips were voluptuous, and she kept them dabbed with oily red lipstick. She often sat and rolled the tip in and out, in and out of the golden tube, for the fun of it.
"I'm so sick of this war, I could jump off a bridge," Vera said, her head on Alexis's stomach. "I hate going without stockings."
"Quit your gripin'," said Alexis (nee Allred Kognowski, from Brooklyn). "At least we're all workin'. Compared to our GIs overseas, we've got it made. And you should remember that." She smacked Vera's leg.
"See, kid," Marion said, popping her gum and pointing a thumb at Alexis, "that's how this one stays happy. With low expectations she'll always be surprised. She'll marry the guy down the block and have twelve kids."
"Not me," Vera said. "If I expect the very best, then that's what I'll always get. Look at me. I fully believed I'd come this far in six months. A year from now I'll be starring in my own film, and Joan Crawford had better look out."
A silence fell over the three of them, as they stood and went about their business, Alexis taking over the shower, Marion sitting down to write home to Michigan, and Vera studying her lines. She knew them cold, but she felt that she could improve her delivery, her character's aspect. After the long trip out, trapped with that walrus in his compartment, Vera had seen that she had some currency with the men in charge. As long as she didn't spend too much in one place, she would be able to get almost anything she wanted. The rest would have to come from a dark little part of her—she pictured it behind her liver—that she had yet to unleash before the camera. She imagined the spot as a cavern, from which she could mine whatever she needed: anger, frustration, humor, even murderous hatred. When she used these things, they felt real, but when she put them away, she felt a certain falseness about herself. At times, she dreamt of the hours she had spent viewing cinema at the Miller. If she had never seen all those films, she might not have been making movies, and, though she wasn't religious like her mother, she thanked God for her fortune. Just in case.
For all her optimism, her valor, 1947 found Vera in a four-year rut of accepting minor roles: French maids (twice), chorus parts (three, one with Crosby), the gangster's moll (a scene that lasted twenty seconds), the dishrag behind the diner counter (she told Clark Gable, I'm out of pie and what are ya gonna do about it). She had played parts in several Boston Blackie films, which were not exactly high art, but the elemental detective stories were viewed in wide release. People all over the country had seen her face as she raced from set to set, handing Blackie a gun from her purse; she had even received a few fan letters (mostly from young girls who wanted to know how you got started in Hollywood and she hadn't even answered them). Combined with a job as a Loews usher, Vera barely made the rent some months. Frugal as she was, she had gone through her savings, and there was always something nagging at her coin purse: dental work, underwear, a new set of head shots for her portfolio. Still, she pretended like the fifty in her compact did not exist. To spend it would have been admitting defeat.
Vera believed the Blackie films were only the beginning of her Big Time. The ratty bombshell role featured her name in the credits, but when she made the rounds, she felt the receptionists' cold stares attempting to drive her away. She thought of Alexis and Marion, who had moved home to live with their respective parents, the dozens of roommates had come and gone. She had even typed out rules for the bathroom and kitchen and made new lessees sign an agreement before she allowed the landlord to rent to them. (She kept him in her thrall by summoning him to her apartment to check her plumbing. Ha, that's what he told the wife. He'd been a handsome man when young, she could tell, but all he had left was a hardy and hail technique that scarcely left her breathless.)
Recently, she had met an actor, Perry Mitchell. Such an encounter was not that unusual; she met actors all the time. Unlike the women she knew—self-sufficient and strong—actors seemed to crave attention like beautiful dogs. Thankfully Perry was different. He was actually good, excellent, in fact, a quality that spread to others in the cast. In a screen test, he had opened Vera up so much that, when she got a callback, he began to give her the rush. Though she didn't land the part, she was, at least, worthy of his company. She was no longer alone.
Perry took her to restaurants where waiters wore tuxedos, and they sat in ocher-lit booths with individual telephones. His hair was slick with a vanilla pomade, his eyebrows still black with pencil. Women, and not a few men, eyed him, as they entered those establishments. Keeping the interest in her own apartment, she all but moved in with Perry, a very serviceable Bauhaus on La Cienaga. The light streaming in four square windows was warm and cheerful. Perry kept her in stockings and lipstick and champagne and magazines, too.
"I've been offered a big part, I have to go to Yuma," he told her one night.
"The desert," he said. Perry wasn't much taller than she, but on the screen, his figure always loomed large.
"Want some company?" she asked, intertwining her fingers with his.
He exhaled smoke from his cigarette. "If you can stand a month in all that heat," he said. "I've let a place for the duration."
On a dry hazy day, they followed a line of cars and trucks from the studio all the way to Arizona, with only a few stops to restore water to the radiators. When Vera wasn't roaming Yuma's dusty streets and peeping inside filmy shop windows, she was at home in a concrete bungalow, tidying up, making curtains from dishtowels, cooking meals that Perry often came home too late to eat. (She knew how shooting schedules went, or she would have been jealous of Malva Staves his leading lady, another slick one right off the train.) Late into the night Vera did scenes with Perry. Compared to theatre, film was a strange kind of performing. On stage (even theatre in Wichita), you were kinetic, alive as lightning. On the set, you were more like a stone, waiting to be thrown across a pond. You waited and waited and waited for the director. While you waited, you memorized your lines, the lines of your film lover, the lines of someone you might stand in for should she get killed. You played cards. You smoked your brains out. But since Vera was only visiting, she wasn't allowed on the set. And though she knew what Perry was going through, it didn't alleviate her boredom. She was meant to act, too. She believed it was why she had been born.
"I want to go back to Los Angeles," she finally told Perry one night.
He shook the hair out of his eyes, staring past her. "A bus leaves the depot every day at six," he said, lighting a Camel.
Vera glared at him, hoping he might disappear for a few seconds, so that she could think of a zingy comeback. But none was forthcoming.
Day after day, she continued to help him rehearse, bring him lunch, submit to his feral desires (when his moment arrived, he went writhing wild if she gouged his back with her fingernails). Because Perry refused to use protection, she employed the ways of rhythm, something Alexis had taught her, for if he came at her, with his member at a sharp angle, she couldn't say no. It was, after all, a big reason she had made the trip.
"Perry," she told him one night, "I'm late, me and my little friend."
"Verie, the shoot's almost over. I'm headed for New York in a few days, and I've only booked a single."
She sat up in bed and gave him a good whack across the chest. When he didn't flinch, she began to laugh. Perry sat up, shook his jowls like Moe, and turned his back to her. She climbed on and he carried her around the room, both of them laughing like hyenas before sleeping in one another's arms through a short night. The next day, when the picture was in the can, Vera hitched a ride to LA, and Perry boarded the Super Chief to New York. He did not say good bye, but neither did she. She should have felt anger, but all she could muster was a deep sorrow that she kept hidden, stashed in the little cave behind her liver, until it was needed.
Though her figure was still relatively slim, it was as if the casting directors knew there was life inside her, knew from her vague expressions that her mind was trying to make sense of it all. And so, finding herself in such a tenuous position, Vera considered having it taken care of. Girls were sent downtown all the time, to a disheveled midget they called Doctor Dirty. His method was actually quite antiseptic. With his buggy eyes roaming the ceiling, Doctor Dirty would stand above the examining table on a stool. Wearing a thin rubber glove over his tiny fist, which shoved its way inside a woman's womb, he would remove her issue (usually quite early) as if snapping a grape from a vine. Vera had accompanied Marion once, who rose from Dirty's table (squeezed into some sort of a janitor's closet) acting as if she had only had a molar pulled: she said she was slightly nauseated but headed back to work.
Yet, since conceiving, Vera had acquired a visceral desire to give birth to her child. It surprised her, but she really wanted to experience what it felt like to carry the baby to term. It might help her play a part some day. More to the point, perhaps Perry would take her back if she could call him and tell him she had had a boy. After the third month, she wore blouses with the tail out and sat around with Lillian, watching the matron check costumes in and out. But Lillian had become gruff and aloof. "You keep your filthy hands off those nylons," she snapped at Vera more than once, staring out through her toady cloud of smoke. Finally, when Lillian disappeared for only a moment to speak with the director, Vera slipped her hand into a jewelry box, grabbed a plain gold band, and crept out of the building.
When she was down to her last dollar and nothing could hide the truth, Vera waited tables at a sad chrome diner at the far end of Sunset, to pay the rent, making sure that the ring gleamed in the eye of anyone who might wonder. "My husband's overseas," she declared more than once, though the war was over. "Merchant marines," she said, when one woman gave her the fish-eye. After a few weeks, when she had enough cash, Vera waddled toward Union Station (she wasn't going to waste money on cab fare). Along the way, to rest, she would lean against a store front and stare into windows, missing the merchandise entirely, seeing a noose around her neck instead. When she finally arrived at Union, she purchased her ticket. She went straight to the bathroom and pulled out her compact. Yes, it was still there. She would have a little nest egg; she wouldn't be forced to work right away. She smiled and ran a damp towel over face and reapplied rouge and powder. Her face was puffy, but she was beautiful, still.
On the train, through endless miles of the western landscape, miles and miles of nothing but stunted yellow grass and cactus and sage, Vera tried to think of a way she could have stayed. The rhythm of the train told her no, no, there was nothing you could do, nothing you could do, nothing you could do. She could no longer work, and she had no one to support her, and so she would return to Wichita. Going to Dr. Dirty would have been an easy choice but for one thing.
Over the phone one day, her mother had finally, in a rather brazen tone, revealed to her who "Mr. Miller" was, his advances, and how Velma had allowed her physical desires to cloud her judgment. Vera now snorted, looking out the window as they chugged up a stark dry mountain in New Mexico. What was judgment? Reading past the present to see the future? Denying yourself pleasure to prevent pain? Dying so you could live? There was only one person who might understand her plight, one who could have easily flushed Vera down the toilet. She stared at the seat in front of her to keep from crying.
As the train chuffed into Wichita's Union Station, amid dozens of parallel tracks, Vera pulled her collar around her neck, straightening the band on her finger; gold had begun to flake off one side, so she twirled it under. She almost felt sorry for Lillian, who would be held responsible for its disappearance. Vera was now so large that it hurt her to move about. She desired to stand up straight, but the child within seemed to be climbing up her spine and wrapping its little fingers around her throat. The cloth suitcase she carried loosely at her side contained precious little: her head shots, scripts she had toted around for auditions long since past, and some cosmetics she had lifted from the studio.
The March day was a foggy one, a gray haze that held the buildings, the trees, even the people, in its control. Funny, how she hadn't missed that aroma, wheat dust and mold spores mixed with a cool desperation. During the years she had spent in California, everyone had seemed so optimistic, even amid war. She had come to associate the warm scent of oranges with dreams that the studio made come true. But she learned the hard way that in Hollywood there were no parts for desperate actors. If a director needed an expectant mother, Wardrobe put a fitted piece of rubber under the actress's dress. In utter defeat, Vera was returning, just a few blocks from her mother's home, and she strode the sidewalk along Douglas, as if she had never left town, as if she were hoofing it home from a shift at the Miller. How simple life had been then, tripping along beneath elms and cottonwoods that, in places, met overhead in a canopy—patches of irises and tulips growing between the walk and the curb. Showing up at noon for a long day of hawking tickets and popcorn, she had tested seat after seat to see which one offered her the best view. Maybe she could get her old job back; maybe she could move up to manager. When her mother opened the front door and saw her state, she fell to Vera's knees and cried with joy. "Oh, Vera, I knew you'd come home."
Velma bought Vera all the latest magazines, though the last thing she wanted to read about was the life she had left behind. Velma closed up her shop and came home each noon to make lunch for them both. She spent her evenings taking Vera out to various cafés and tea rooms. One night it was the Orpheum with its phony Spanish garden motif; the next night at the Miller with a fat girl in the ticket booth. They saw films that nearly crushed Vera with their familiarity. She had read for any number of them. She knew the words that were about to come out of an actress's mouth before she said them, and she knew she had enunciated them better during her reading. Such injustice made her angry, because she was not finished. Women in Hollywood had babies all the time. They slimmed down; they returned to work. No one ever knew. Not really, not unless the mags made an issue of it. For three months, Velma treated Vera as an honored guest, and, of course, Vera didn't fully appreciate it. She knew she was using her mother, but what else was she to do?
A night in June, when Vera felt as if a large dog had crawled inside her to die, Velma rushed her to Wesley Hospital in her black Chevy coupe. As the doctor slid his cold stethoscope along her belly, she made some calculations. Grammy Viv, whose walnut-framed portrait hung in the upstairs hall, had been born in 1859. Her mother Velma, in another oval frame a bit farther down the wall, had entered the world in 1900. Vera, in the next portrait, 1922. And now her babe, if it made it through alive, 1948. In more than one movie she had seen, months flew off the calendar to indicate the passage of time. That's how she felt, that the pages of her life were flying off at gale force. Before she knew it, her kid would be one, then five, ten, fifteen, twenty, and she would be an old woman. It made her sick to be part of that kind of parade. She was not meant for this petit bourguignon, as Perry had sneeringly referred to a life of regular hours and acceptable mores. She was different, special.
At three in the morning, she began to contract violently. She screamed. Amid the hospital's broken hush, the doctor was called. In less than an hour, he appeared and examined the space between her splayed legs.
"The baby's breached," he told her. "We shall have to call upon our friend, Caesar." His black hair was slicked down, and he frowned as he spoke.
"Christ, I'd rather die," Vera said, flailing her head.
"You don't mean that," Velma said, seizing her daughter's hand.
"Oh, don't I!"
But while the doctor nodded, glaring down at her through his thick glasses, he injected her with something that made the room tilt. Yes, the room was spinning like a film sequence indicating a character's dream. When she woke hours later to see a nurse holding a bundle of pink skin in her face, Vera knew what was real and stared outside into the gray afternoon. Perry, Perry, Perry. Velma finally held the baby in her arms.
"Daughter, you've got to take her, or she'll go hungry."
"I can't look," Vera said. "If I do, I'll never be able to stop."
"Yes," Velma said, looking outside where the light had faded. "It's true."
A woman in a stiff white uniform and winged cap took the girl from Velma's arms. "I'll just start her on her formula then," the nurse said.
Velma sat on her daughter's bed. "You could name her at least."
"Ma," Vera said, "I couldn't name a cat."
"You look so tired."
"Yeah, well, I've just been butchered like a goddamn hog."
"In my day, the baby would've died. The mother, too."
Vera closed her eyes. "I only wish." She visualized her mother having died young, Vera smothering inside her mother's womb, dying inside, yet dying to fight her way out, to live the life she was destined to live, and it made her glad she had had the little thing. Like her, it would now have a chance. But in that second, a certain other vision made her feel quite exuberant, something neither Velma nor anyone else could see. The vision of leaving the baby behind, well, it rather lifted her spirits—like reading the call board that she won the part Bette Davis had tested for.
"Be back tomorrow, dear heart," Velma said. "I'm opening the shop early for my yearly sale. If I'm lucky I'll make half my yearly take."
"Yeah, you go on," Vera said, waving her hand, blowing her nose after her mother left. She sat on the edge of the bed and grimaced as she padded across the floor. Without all that extra weight, her balance was off. Instead of bracing her weight on the front of her feet, she felt it shift once again to her heels. But she was unaccustomed to it, and she felt for a moment as if she might fall backward. Then she envisioned her escape again, and she convinced herself that she felt fine. Closing the door to the clanks and smells of the hallway, she groaned, as she learned to walk again, across the room to her bath, where she lifted her gown before lowering herself to the toilet. She touched the bandage they had fastened over her wound. The nurses had also encircled her tightly with long pieces of gauze taped down with wide strips of adhesive. She peed and fell into a snooze, until the rim of the toilet began to press hard into her legs. She woke with a start and stood, stumbling into the room where her mother had left a new outfit, fresh from her shop.
Vera slipped on new lavender panties that were way too tight, as well as the rest of her ensemble: a snug lavender slip and bra, the dress of purple velvet that, when she zipped it up the side, kept her guts in place, the purple hat with a veil, dark purple heels and matching handbag. She supposed her mother had seen something similar to it on the cover of Vogue and copied it, but it was like trying to build your own Cadillac; people would know the difference. Snapping her fingers, she recalled another pair of silk stockings she had lifted from Wardrobe and went to her bag. Kicking her shoes off, she gingerly pulled the beige nylons up her legs, smoothing them out, binding them down with a couple of garters. She transferred all her worldly goods into the purple bag and placed it on a metal chest of drawers. Above it hung a scratched tin mirror, but it was enough for Vera to stare at her transformation.
Her brown roots were at least a half inch long, her platinum tresses dulled from days of abuse, but she did her best to comb the mess into place. She penciled her eyebrows and put on a layer of dark lipstick. Then she powdered her face and rouged her cheeks, slipping into her shoes. Last, she took the pill box hat and nestled it on her head, arranging it over her hair. Now she looked like a citizen of the world. She would make damned sure that anyone who saw her in the hall believed she was just another visitor leaving for the night. She pulled the same gag she had seen in one of her films, building the bed up with pillows to make it look like she was turned on her side. With the dark veil pulled down and her shoulders thrown back, Vera squeaked open her door, prepared to play the role of her life. As it turned out, the hall was empty, and no one at the nurse's station gave her a glance as she escaped into the night.
On the street Vera walked in slow, measured steps down Douglas toward the station. Several cabs stopped, but she waved them away. She continued on past the street where Velma slept, scuffling toward her mother's business. There she stopped and stared into the window. A purple ensemble like hers was featured on the stiff white mannequin in the window, and, for a moment, she glanced at it, wishing she had died in childbirth, rather than look like anyone else on the planet, particularly a stiff plaster figure featured in a second-rate shop. As she hurried on, she felt as if her intestines were going to spill onto the pavement, yet, with her arms crossed over her middle, she walked till the marble columns of Union Station came into view. Though it was far less imposing than the Union in Los Angeles, it was as if she had come upon the Pyramids, after traveling miles and miles between the humps of a camel.
She tripped over a raised section of sidewalk, and, recovering with only a mild stab of pain, she crossed at a light. She stared at the large columns and, pulling at one of the heavy doors, stumbled into the station. Dabbing at the perspiration on her face, she thought of the fifty dollar bill behind her compact mirror. It was enough to buy her fare. The question was, would it be a ticket to New York or the City of Angels? She waited behind two or three others, and by the time it was her turn, she had made up her mind. She opened her bag and pulled out her compact: round, gold-plated, but scratched like a radiator cap. From behind the mirror, she removed the fifty her mother had given her long ago. Many times she had unfolded it, tempted to spend the money on frocks, a dye job, a voyage to Hawaii, but she had withstood the torture of her own desires. After a short man with a red face sold her a ticket, Vera bought a couple of packs of Luckies and slumped on a bench. She had enough left to let a cheap room when she got off at Grand Central and packed the cash away. Using her purse as a pillow, Vera lay down and stared up into the rotunda, dimly lit at dawn with dull yellow lights. The words scripted there were as hard to read as her future, where she would pound the streets of Manhattan. Her life had become a series of scattered puzzle pieces, pieces she was desperately trying to put into place, to form a picture. And the missing piece, the one that would put it all together, seemed to be Perry.
Velma had insisted Vera not smoke until after the baby was born. But now she tapped out a Lucky and lit it. In her dizziness, she was transported, for a second, back to California, where she had bummed cigarettes from Bub and pilfered loot out from under Lillian's bulbous nose. With her head barely erect, she shuffled back to the ticket window, where the same man stared at her and then allowed her to exchange her ticket. She waddled to a stand and bought a hot dog, loading it with mustard, relish, and onions. She gobbled it down and sucked on the straw stuck in her Coca-Cola bottle. She burped and sighed and found a bench where she could nap until her train was called.
The next day she switched trains in Albuquerque. And after that, she curled up in her chair and slept the entire way, except for moments when, forgetting her wound, she would move the wrong way and suffer a short stab of pain. Though she dreamed on and off, confusing conversations that wafted about her with the words in her head, the dreams were happy: she was surrounded by babbling children in one, floating above a field of wheat in another, reading with a dark-headed man for a part. As the train pulled into her city of angels, Vera was mesmerized by the western sun, how it created an aura of light around a palm tree, and how, for a time, its radiance blinded her.
3. 1970—Violet Makes a Heroic Effort.
"I got wind of the news," Violet said before the crowd. She had heard it, coming out of her voice lesson on campus—her head full of French and German lyrics learned by rote—but still, the information had startled her. Her auburn hair, straight and halfway down her back, blew about her face, and she threw her head back to shake them away. Poised on the bed of an old red pick-up half on, half off the sidewalk, holding her speech in one hand, a bullhorn in the other, she spoke with a slight tremor in her voice. "As you know, officers at Fourth National have made plans to build a parking garage where the Miller has stood for almost fifty years."
The crowd booed, giving Violet confidence. She was most at home when on a stage, certainly not as herself—tall, gangly, shy and awkward. Yes, today she was one of the Weathermen, a war protester, at the very least a spokesperson.
"When I saw the truth corroborated in the Eagle, I knew I had to join in to save this place." Her voice echoed across a small canyon of buildings, and her words might have been tinged with a bit of self importance, if it hadn't been for the hundreds gathered around. "I see before me fans of all ages—men and women who have worked at the Miller through the years. There are people from the historic society. The press. Thank you all for coming." As she spoke, the protestors formed an orderly loop and passed back and forth under the marquee. It created a whoosh that beat against the magnification of her voice. "My grandmother was a Millerette. She worked here on the opening night in 1922. She carried a leather stick and guided patrons to their seats. The way she described the whole deal, it was quite glamorous. Most of that glamour disappeared a long time ago, but it doesn't mean we have to tear down this wonderful building. Even if it's 1970, we can bring it back to life!"
Violet lowered her bullhorn and jumped down to stand in front of a big bulldozer. She was taller than her grandmother, heavier, and her feet hit the ground with a thud. The crowd came to her defense with another cheer, and she picked up a sign she had made and held it over her head. IF YOU LOVE MOVIES, YOU'LL SAVE THE MILLER. The words lacked the power she had wanted to convey, but she hadn't the cleverness to come up with something more dynamic—not on the fly, not as quickly as that disaster had descended upon them all. The bulldozer's engine was reduced to a rough idle, and its exhaust pipe released a vertical puff of black smoke.
The operator, a porky, bald man, jumped down. "You can't stay here," he said. His voice almost quivered; you could tell he wasn't accustomed to such interference. "If you don't move, I'll have to call the cops." He reached up into the cab and drew out a microphone connected to a curly black cord. "I have direct radio contact with my boss."
Violet threw her sign down and jumped once again onto the back of the pick-up. Using the bullhorn, she said, "My whole family has worked at the Miller. I put myself through college working here. You can't tear it down now. Not without a fight."
The operator shook his head and spoke into his radio. You could hear a static-filled response, and the man backed up and drove the bulldozer south on Broadway. The small crowd cheered, and the sound soon faded as their feet shuffled on the pavement.
It seemed that most of Violet's dreams met with disappointment. Every show she was in, every honor she had received, seemed to have been tinged with some kind of flaw. The third grade play, where she played a princess, fell apart the night of the performance, when the prince vomited all over her. She'd played Lola in Damn Yankees at East High, and the local critic had said her voice cadenced itself like a frog with laryngitis. She had perfected that throaty, sexy voice and he hadn't appreciated it!
Realizing that they must organize further, protesters quickly agreed to meet Saturdays at the home of Gladys Gorges Harrell. "They called me Gorgeous Glad," she said, announcing her address into the bullhorn.
At their next gathering, fifty some showed. A gruesome group of people sat on Gladys Harrell's white furniture and mingled among her many antiques, including Persian rugs upon which they trod like cattle. But you could feel a power in their presence, something that might move others out of their complacency concerning the Miller.
"You're so pretty, what with Velma's eyes, so dark, too," Gladys said to Violet, handing her a glass of punch.
Violet took a sip. "My mother sold tickets at the Miller, and I've been working there since I was sixteen."
"Yes, I heard you say," Gladys said, taking her arm. She pulled out a photograph album of stark black-and-white photographs. There were shots of young women on the stairs, on the stage, behind the concession counter making popcorn. In one photograph, over forty employees stood out front under the marquee. You could make out ––dolph Valentino.
"Yes, that's Mama Vee," Violet said. Knowing that Gladys and her grandmother had worked together gave Violet a warm feeling, as if she'd just discovered a long lost relation.
"Always admired Velma's spunk," Gladys said. "I know what a burden life was for her. How is she, by the way?"
Violet looked at Gladys. Hers was not one of those faces dull with pity for a girl who had grown up without a father around the house. "Still working in her shop down on Douglas. Says she'll never retire."
Gladys smiled and said, "I'll bet some of that spunk got handed down. We need a young one like you. You want to help out with what they call the nitty gritty?"
"What will it involve?"
"Oh, just most of your time till we get those so-and-sos at the bank to come to their senses." She grinned and Violet grinned back. "Such a beautiful complexion you have, too." Violet could feel herself blush. Mama Vee always made her play down her looks. Vera and I both learned that a pretty face isn't enough. It might have been a perfect face—straight nose, high cheekbones, smooth forehead—if it hadn't been for eyebrows that were just a tad too thick.
After that Violet was busy night and day, fired by the kind of energy that only someone under twenty-five could muster. She typed letters to officials at city hall. She occasionally cut classes at the university to demonstrate in front of the theatre, sometimes having to fall out of line so she could enter and work her shift. On a spring evening, as she stood before a group of people picketing, Violet recalled, for people she hardly knew, an earlier scene at the theatre; maybe it would soften them, make them see how important the Miller was, even to the young.
"It happened only a few years ago," she began. "I was crazy about a boy named Miguel Montemayor, a nice boy who lived not far from Mama Vee and me."
Miguel—with black hair slicked down—had been the boy all the girls wanted to date. He'd had high cheekbones, skin like velvet, and black eyes that snapped at the suggestion of fun. Violet had known him since the sixth grade (he had dubbed her Nana's Girl), where they had surreptitiously passed answers under their desks until they were caught, but in three years he had burgeoned from a skinny worm into a figure of young manhood. He was president of the tennis club, sang in ninth grade boys glee club, and played football. The fact that he had lowered himself to recall Violet into his life drove her wild with competing feelings: one, that she was totally unworthy and two, that she was the hottest thing going at Alexander Junior High. For hours she would sit in front of the mirror of an antique vanity (the room had belonged to her mother) and comb the auburn hair she'd fashioned to look as much like Annette Funicello's as she could; more than one girl had asked her how she got it to look so shiny. (Mama Vee had bought her a bottle of White Rain conditioner, which she sprayed on during her daily bath but told no one of its powers.)
The October nights were turning cool, and Violet shivered in the open window of her bedroom as she dialed Miguel's number. The white sheers blew around her, caressing her skin like a lover's fingers.
"Hola," Miguel's mother said, calling him to the phone. Violet heard her say, No hablan demasiado largo. Sí, sí, sí, Miguel responded.
"You want to see West Side Story Friday night?" Violet said, shoving the sheer out of her way. She had checked the Eagle; the movie was playing three times daily, including 8:30. She added, nearly gasping for air, "It won ten Oscars, and it's probably going to close soon."
"Who is this?" Miguel said.
"Huh?" Violet said, and Miguel giggled the same way he had in the sixth grade.
"How're we going to get there, Nana's Girl? I still can't drive, can you?"
"I hadn't thought that far ahead."
"There might be a way," he said. "Robert Stanley and a bunch of kids are going, too. And at lunch yesterday, he said I could too if I could find a date. He's throwing a party afterward."
"Wow, to think I almost didn't call."
"Yeah, his brother's got a big old hearse. It'll hold about ten of us."
"Sounds great, but... I'll have to meet you."
"Robert's going to stop at my house," Miguel said. "Be here at eight sharp."
The thought of misrepresenting the truth to Mama Vee made the hair on Violet's arms stand on end. She had never been successful at such an enterprise, but perhaps she would have to learn to be more convincing. She had been named Violet after her great grandmother, Vivian Violet Himmler Bernard—a sour looking woman (in the upstairs hall, Violet passed the 1920s photo each time she went to the bathroom). Violet had been told a million times how the woman could read Mama Vee's mind, no matter how hard she tried to trick her. Worst thing was that Mama Vee had inherited her namesake's tendencies.
"Okay, see you tomorrow night," she said.
Violet hung up. Ciao. When she opened her door and returned the phone to its nook in the wall, Mama Vee stood perched on the stairway with her arms crossed.
"Something you'd like to share, little Missy?" she said, peering up at Violet over her half-moons studded with rhinestones. Because Mama Vee kept up with women's fashions and maintained her petite nature, she always seemed younger than she was.
"Well," Violet said, "I've never lied to you before. Guess I won't start now."
"A wise decision," she said, heading down the stairs. "I've just frosted a cake. You can spill your guts at the kitchen table."
After she had heard Violet's story, Mama Vee said, "I shall deliver you and Miguel, and that's that. You'll have plenty of time to date, once you're sixteen."
Violet felt her eyes pleading with Mama Vee, but whenever the woman insinuated herself into Violet's plans, she was helpless to change her mind. She was tough that way.
"You have to drop us off at Douglas, and we'll walk the rest of the way."
"Don't be ridiculous," Mama Vee said. "Might as well let you walk."
"Why can't I ever do what my friends do?" she asked. "They're not criminals, you know."
"All it takes is one mistake. Believe me, I know from personal experience."
Violet knew what she meant. "Yes, but do I have to pay for her mistakes?"
Mama Vee smacked Violet's head and smiled. "Most probably."
Outside the garage on Saturday night, Violet and Miguel stood and watched Mama Vee start her '55 Bel Air, as it coughed up a cloud of smoke. A mechanic had told her she needed to keep it tuned up, but she claimed she didn't have the money. When it fell apart, she said, she would get a new car, which made even less sense to Violet. Velma put the car in reverse, and Violet and Miguel crawled in back and slid across the straw mat upholstery. Velma looked over her shoulder. She had told Violet she had her mother's hair, the dark, narrow eyes of her crafty grandfather, and Velma's very own lips, which had flattened even more through the years. What about my father, do I look like him? she had asked as a small child. I don't think we'll ever know, Mama Vee had told her. Vera never sent us a picture. "Vera" was an endearment Violet's grandmother tossed around like "Preacher Adam" or "Aunt Tilde." Violet couldn't quite "see" any of those persons Mama Vee was talking about, but she had stared at pictures of "Vera" in the photo albums until the face was frozen in her mind forever.
"You know I worked opening night at the Miller, don't you?" Velma said.
"Yes, Mama Vee." Though Velma's stories of sacrifice were often tedious, Violet liked the ones she told about the Miller. Filled with a sad but light-hearted nostalgia, the stories intrigued Violet. Her grandmother had watched the construction, the raising of black and gold marble walls of the lobby, the brass handrails being installed, little escapades of workmen running up and down the double staircase, the narrow one that led to the third balcony. There were other narratives hidden in her grandmother's words, but she usually only went so far, before her eyes widened and returned to the present.
Violet examined the back of her grandmother's head. The woman's hair was still blond, streaked evenly with strands of silver white and sprayed into a flip. She possessed a timeless quality, unlike Miguel's graying and wrinkled abuela, who sat and rocked with a tattered lace shawl pulled over her shoulders, a white mantilla heaped over her head. She felt, for a moment, that she was lucky, then Mama Vee began to drone over the facts again.
"Well, it was a grand building, what with those marble stairs... ."
"Refreshingly Cool," Violet said, referring to the photograph Mama Vee hung in the upstairs hallway. There her grandmother and the Millerettes posed under the bubbly marquee, all of them raising the cuffs of their shiny slacks to show a little ankle. Refreshingly cool beamed over their heads in bright lights.
"You young people take air conditioning for granted, but in those days the Miller was the only cool place in town."
"The coolest," Violet said, and Miguel snickered.
"Hundreds of people lined up to spend a hot summer evening. Charlie Chaplin did his vaudeville act down there once. Will Rogers spoke to a packed house, and Eleanor Roosevelt talked about the New Deal. I didn't work there all that long," she added. "Had to find a real career, so's I could support a family."
She scanned the mirror, neither smiling nor frowning, as if she were searching for a wayward child. When she turned the corner at Broadway and stopped in front of the Miller, she put the car in Park and whirled around to face them both.
"Call me when it's over, and so we're clear, you are never to get in a car with a teen-age driver. Under no circumstances are you to consume alcohol, little Missy. And Miguel, I have your mother's number, too. Understand?" Mama Vee was, if nothing else, thorough.
"Ah, I live the life of a princess," Violet said.
"Don't get smart, or I'll turn this tub around and you and Miguel can do your smoochin' in my parlor."
Violet grimaced and opened the door, holding Miguel's hand as she stepped onto the curb. When Mama Vee lingered, Violet tapped on the window, and her grandmother slowly pulled away, leaving them standing in a mist of blue exhaust. The lobby was already packed, and, after paying for their tickets, they headed across the worn floral carpet for the main staircase. Anyone who was anyone at Alexander Junior High planned to meet in the third balcony. It would be a riot. As Violet held Miguel's hand and they climbed the broad double staircase to the mezzanine, Violet said, "I love it up there, it feels like you're leaning out over a cliff." Throughout her childhood, the only section she hadn't occupied was one of three box seats, but only because they had been blocked off. She wished she could have been sequestered in one of them with Miguel, together on a red velvet couch, curtains drawn.
For weeks, thoughts of being with Miguel were usurped only by the coming of West Side Story. In fact, pondering the musical helped to sidetrack Violet's desires a bit. She had bought the songbook from Jenkins, and on Mama Vee's upright accompanied herself on all of Maria's solos. And as soon as she had been able to get her hands on it, she had acquired the LP of the soundtrack, too. As she watched the film, Violet would know all the lyrics! The overture. The entr'acte. The closing strains. She couldn't wait. Miguel had teased her about her enthusiasm, but she had told him, "I'm going to be on that screen some day, you just watch. I'll be in musicals that haven't even been written yet." She felt he had looked at her differently after that, as if he might stick around to see if her prediction came true. When Violet had been awarded a solo in the ninth grade program, Lila Cain had tapped Violet on the shoulder and called her a cunt licker. Violet had turned around and knocked out one of Lila's front teeth. Aghast, the teacher had seen to it that Violet was expelled and had taken the part away from her, but no one doubted Violet's strength after that, nor her seriousness. Especially not Lila Cain, who, even a month after Violet was readmitted to school, cut her a wide berth as they passed one another in the hall outside the gym.
Miguel now guided her up the marble stairs, where the hollows of a million footsteps swallowed their shoes. What a fuss Mama Vee always made over the place, as if it were the Taj Mahal. All Violet could see were long dull scratches in the brass rails, dingy yellow light falling from fixtures with tiny white bulbs. As they climbed the winding narrow stairs, she sensed only a bit of remaining life in the wood that creaked under faded wool carpet. Moreover, the air seemed stale, like that of an old cave. The third balcony was almost full, and Miguel waved at his friends, who had saved them both a couple of spots on the front row. Every step they took creaked the bare wood. The sound gave her a chilling vertigo, made her feet tingle. What if the balcony caved in?
Miguel took Violet's hand, and she squeezed it. It gave her confidence, a quality that had been lacking as a child, when she realized she didn't have a father like her friends. Mama Vee had said her father was an actor, but that was all Violet knew. Every time she watched something on Saturday Night at the Movies, she wondered if the leading man was her father. Mama Vee had admonished her: "If you get pregnant, even by our precious Mr. Miguel, as much as I adore him, you'll either live with his family or you'll be on your own. I shall not raise another child. No matter how much I love you." Her eyes had sparkled with tears.
"Yes, Mama," she had said. And she knew Mama Vee spoke the truth. Violet owned a box of condoms... just in case. Yes, she had proudly marched into the pharmacist's and demanded to buy a box of Trojans. She didn't figure on getting pregnant. Not now, and furthermore, when she went to high school she planned to take birth control pills if she could procure them.
Violet sat with her arm around Miguel. Particularly amorous, she cuddled and put her head next to his and encountered a scent she had never smelled before, a sweet aroma that made her temperature rise. She stared up into the gilded dome, as if there were an answer there.
Miguel spoke up. "Hey, earth to Violet, earth to Violet." She giggled. "Here comes Robert."
Robert Stanley was student council president, a kid with slicked-back hair, making him seem like an Elvis midget. "Sorry your granny wouldn't let you ride with us, but you can still come by the house after the movie. It'll be over by ten."
In her confession, Violet had also asked Mama Vee if she could attend Robert's party. "With no chaperones? You're some kind of crazy, Missy, if you think you're going to carry on like that." In Violet's mind her grandmother was going too far, but Violet could never seem to muster the power to overcome her will.
"The movie's not over till late," Violet argued. "I called the box office."
"Look, Violet, the party has to end by midnight, before my parents get home," Robert said. "See you there, or see you bare." And Robert left them to muddle it over.
"We have to go," Miguel said, taking Violet's arm.
Violet shrugged. "You heard what Mama Vee said."
"If you don't go to that party with me, I'll find another girl."
"Miguel," Violet said sweetly, touching his arm in hopes that it would quash his threat. "Did you know that dome up there was originally lit up like a rainbow? Mama Vee says the curtains shimmered like diamonds. There even used to be these huge chandeliers." Most of the large fixtures had been replaced with cheap white globes, ones like you saw in school hallways.
"This place is a wreck," Miguel said, looking over the crowd below. "They should tear it down before it falls down."
"Maybe, but this is where I want my movie to be shown when I make it big," Violet said, squeezing his hand. He looked at her and rolled his eyes. "I'm going to be an usher as soon as I turn sixteen."
"I'm going to work at McDonalds," Miguel declared, "so I can eat free." Then he laughed.
For a second, Violet felt the way she always did when someone (particularly a male) debased her. She was big enough, yes, she could have tossed his scrawny carcass over the side, but then she remembered what had happened to her when she knocked someone's tooth out. Retribution always seemed to backfire on her.
As the lights went down and Violet's anger diminished, the overture began, and Violet felt like jumping up and singing. Through large speakers along the wall and behind the curtain, the overture blared out the melodies she had committed to memory, and, as flecks in the screen flitted before her eyes, she sank into her chair and squeezed Miguel's hand. The lights came down all the way, and Miguel squeezed back. His fingers were thick but smooth, and Violet forgave him. She watched the screen fade from one abstract pastel panel to the next, as the orchestra modulated from song to song. On the last chord, the screen transformed itself into the New York skyline.
As a child Violet had decided she was going to succeed in show business, where both her mother and grandmother had petered out. She had calculated that the mother who had abandoned Violet was about the same age as Donna Reed, and she sometimes dreamed Vera would get her own show on CBS, yes, The Vera Bernard Hour, and that she would insist on having Violet portray her daughter. She was certainly capable of following in her footsteps. She had studied piano since she was four, tap since she was eight, and had recently begun voice; Mama Vee had insisted, almost as if it had been she receiving the benefit. At the upright, Violet had rehearsed "Tonight" so many times it came to her as easily as a nursery rhyme. And her voice would fill the room as she hit the last note, overpowering the one dubbed over Natalie Wood's, which, she believed, was breathy and tight as a drum. Her eyes began to follow the action on the screen, as if it were she up there. "J-E-T-S" was chalked onto the asphalt in big white letters, and it was as if you were viewing the scene from a helicopter.
The Jets started to fight the Sharks, only it was choreographed into a dance, like a jazz routine Violet had learned at the studio. She imagined it was she with the twitching butt dancing across the screen, attracting attention of all the boys, but especially Miguel. No one would get into trouble, if they kept dancing.
"Why don't they fight like men," came a voice down the row. It was David Kane, quarterback, and the other guys laughed. His girlfriend went "Shhh."
On screen Tony began to sing, "Something's Coming." Violet often attributed a personal kind of meaning to the lyrics of show tunes. Unlike Mama Vee's church hymns, theatrical songs could guide and predict Violet's life. Something was coming, even if she couldn't see it.
"That Tony sure is cute," Violet whispered. As the two gangs were conned by the police into attending a function together, they danced something like a pavane Violet had learned in class.
Everyone in the balcony seemed to be sitting on springs, whispering, waiting for the action to pick up, but Violet ignored them. Her world was up on the screen.
Tony and Maria "danced" in their minds, because neither family would allow them to see one another. And Violet now had to admit that the movie dragged. She wanted the characters to get on with it.
"Fags," she could hear Robert's voice say, as three Puerto Rican guys "danced" together, though they were really just mimicking their girl friends.
Some other guys snickered, and it was tempting to shush them. After the Officer Krupke song and dance, Maria sang, "I Feel Pretty." A girl—a large girl with a big voice—had used that song in the Alexander Junior High talent show, and it had tainted the lyrics for Violet.
"Hey, we're getting out of here," came a voice over their backs. It was Robert. "My brother's circling the block."
"Come on, it'll be fun," Miguel whispered, squeezing Violet's hand. "Robert's going to have beer and everything."
"If you want a ride to the party, you got to come now," Robert said. "We don't have room for all these kids." Some of Violet's schoolmates stood and began to follow Robert out as if he were a magic piper.
"No," Violet said, taking Miguel's hand. "We have to wait for Mama Vee."
"Nana's Girl, if we don't leave now, I'm going to drop you like a hot tortilla," Miguel said.
Violet stood as if she were wobbling on someone else's legs, and, looking over her shoulder at the screen, longed with all her heart to remain behind. She wasn't crazy about riding home with her grandmother, but she did want to see the end of the movie; she had been waiting for weeks. She stood at the exit until Miguel finally grabbed her hand and their feet pummeled the stairs, past the mezzanine, to the lobby. Having left that other world abruptly, Violet pulled away.
"I have to use the rest room," she said, and she took off toward the basement. Maybe when she was through, the crowd would have gone, and she and Miguel could sneak back to the balcony—maybe he would still be standing by the life-sized cutout of Natalie Wood running with her arm extended. Maybe Miguel would leave her behind. Scooting down the stairs, she looked over her shoulder, as Miguel began to talk with some other boys. He was quite handsome, her Tony.
In the rest room, there were a million other girls, mostly from Alexander, milling around, some waiting for a free stall, but mostly smoking and fixing their hair. They laughed and joked, as Violet stepped into one at the end of the row and sat down to relieve herself. At first she thought it was only cigarette smoke, but when there was a loud whoosh and a series of raucous screams, the place cleared out fast. Violet felt a great heat and emerged from the stall.
"I know what I'm doing, I've been burning shit down since I was seven."
Robert Stanley, the shrimp, stood shielding his face from the heat. "If you don't get out of here, you're going to go up in smoke, just like this old firetrap." He laughed and dove for the door.
"You're an idiot!" she shrieked after him. Flames were now licking the ceiling, shooting out in all directions, and Violet choked. As if the intense heat were a figment of her imagination, she leapt through the inferno and flung herself through the door into the hall. She could smell singed cotton, the stench of burnt hair. At the bottom of the stairs, Robert stood alone, bent at the waist, laughing at her.
"Get out, Meez Bernard-o, while you still can."
"No, you get out," Violet said, "before I kill you." Flames licked the edges of the bathroom door, and Violet realized girls weren't as weak as people thought. As she reached for the fire alarm, the red box with a silver handle, Robert rushed up and grabbed her throat from behind, his squat body falling against her back.
"I started this fire," Robert said, "and there's nothing you can do about it."
Violet pictured the guy who was a full head shorter than she and reached around to grab his jacket, but she couldn't get hold of anything. She then kicked her foot backward, raking it upward, and heard Robert cry out. Violet whirled and kicked his groin again, and the kid fell against the stairs.
"You—bitch," Robert groaned.
On the wall, behind a glassed-in door of red, there hung a long fire hose coiled into a neat circle. Thoughts had never come so clearly to Violet before, and she pulled the fire alarm, breaking the glass on the door with her elbow. She realized she would have to unroll the thick heavy hose entirely before the water would flow. She kept pulling, but she could only get it partly unfurled. She could hear the roar of the fire, feel its heat about to destroy the door. She could hear a series of thudding steps, and she turned around to see Miguel. He had the most earnest look on his face. Together, without a word, they managed to free the long canvas hose. When they were finished, they stood holding the big nozzle and cranked the huge faucet to the left. Nothing happened, but before Violet realized it, the hose had jerked itself out of their hands. Squealing, she and Miguel stomped on it, as if it were a riotous snake. Water shot across the hall in a great thrust of power, and they kept working their hands up the hose until they could grab hold of the brass nozzle. Just then she heard the tiny wail of sirens outside and the power of the spray blew open what was left of the door. Holding the hose under her arm, and with Miguel directly behind her, Violet shot water at the fire, which had climbed up the oaken walls. She systematically kept imposing the rush of water on the fire, until it began to diminish. She couldn't believe how, in places, fire kept creeping back to life. She coughed as she sprayed the hose at little tongues of flame.
When firemen trampled down the stairs with their own hoses, Violet was almost sad. She had nearly become a hero. Firemen turned two more hoses on the flames, and in a little while the basement was a cave of soot and dripping water—smelling of petroleum that lingered like a bad cologne. A fireman thanked them and took the hose; he told them they should go outside. When Violet and Miguel emerged, they saw that the entire crowd had been evacuated and made to stand clear of the Miller. Miguel rushed up to Violet. "I thought you'd gone loco," he said. "But when I saw what you were doing, I couldn't just leave you there to fight alone." She threw herself into his arms and waited for Mama Vee to pick them up.
Later, when Violet told her who had started the fire, she said, "Ridiculous boy. Nothing could destroy the Miller."
"So you see, my friends, the only damage the Miller incurred, as it turned out, was to the women's bathroom, some charring along the walls and baseboards, a testament to its great strength and beauty. Management never remodeled, never replaced the oak, but we can do it now." With the aid of her bullhorn, Violet's voice rang across Broadway between the Miller and the Orpheum. The small but dedicated crowd had hung around, shoulders hunched over like people gathered for the burial of someone beloved.
"At sixteen I started as an usher here at the Miller. By the time I went to college, I'd worked my way up to manager and put myself through school. I often worked till midnight, studied, and went to classes in the morning so I could nap a little in the afternoons. This last spring, my sorority sisters and I went to see 'The Happy Ending.' It wasn't much more than a soap opera, but on that huge screen, it seemed like a saga. Jean Simmons, John Forsythe, they seemed like real people." She cleared her throat. "All the new theatres in town have screens the size of bedsheets. Is that how we want to see movies?" No, the crowd yelled. "We have to save the Miller, we just have to. Our group has collected over seven thousand dollars, but we need a great deal more. Wood has to be replaced and varnished. Marble steps have to be repaired. The brass handrails are scratched, hanging by a single screw in places. A few surviving chandeliers are shorting out, and the air-conditioning is nearly shot." She paused again, looking out over the crowd. "Underneath the shabbiness exists an elegance, and we must do everything we can to save it." Violet paused. "As you know, Fourth National Bank is making plans to demolish the Miller and put in a parking garage. Yes, it will hold hundreds of cars, but is that what we want to do with this bit of history?" No! "Can't they build it one block over?" Yes. Violet closed to great applause, and people passed around hats.
In all, the committee collected less than a thousand dollars, which bought them a few more weeks of legal help. They held additional demonstrations, until only a few weary people showed up. Weeks passed, quiet meetings took place at the bank, behind closed doors at city hall, and then the fight with Fourth National was over. The Miller would be demolished, and Violet went home to cry with Mama Vee. They swapped stories until it was time to go to bed, where Violet didn't sleep a wink all night.
Because of fruitless appeals, the demolition failed to occur until a couple of years later, just as Violet was finishing her graduate work in theatre. For months, Violet would make a daily trek by the scene of demolition. Each day, she would photograph the Miller, recording its demise. It had taken a long time to build, she mused, and the way things were going, it would take a long time to destroy.
Violet would sit across the street, watching, as the big ball struck the building repeatedly, unable to fell thick walls with just one blow; it would take several hits just to knock down one portion. Later, she would watch as Miller devotees were allowed to carry off pieces of carpet, blocks of marble. Light fixtures. It was as if her home was being torn down. It was true. Velma Bernard had scurried up the main staircase opening night. Violet's mother Vera had sat in the ticket cage and appeared onscreen as a loudmouthed blonde in a detective series. And she, Violet Bernard, had worked her way through school. It was wrong what those people were doing. Buildings got old and needed repair, but they didn't have to be destroyed. They could be revitalized. Unlike human beings, they could continue on forever.
Yet Violet, too, bought a chunk of marble, one about the size of a grave marker. She and a friend carried it to her car, and she stored it away. Years later, when Mama Vee would die in 1986, Violet would place it at the head of her plot, inscribed with the following words: Velma Agnes Bernard, Millerette Forever.
Velma Bernard left her granddaughter a bit of money, and with it Violet made her first jet flight to LA. Taking a shabby stucco bungalow near Grauman's, she spent months making daily trips to the library and city hall. But when she had searched the city archives for anything—voter registration, utility records, births and deaths—it was as if her mother, Vera Bernard, had walked into the Pacific and simply disappeared.
She spent evenings going to movies. She could see cinema in LA that she would never see in Wichita: foreign films, independent films, classics. She went to the Los Angeles Museum often enough to witness two show changes. She took trips down to various beaches, tanning her skin darker than she could get it in Wichita. One day, she wasn't sure why, for there was no logical reason for her to do so, Violet drove till she located a public cemetery downtown. There she walked and walked among yellowing palm fronds, dusty aisles. She read one granite marker after another, till she was dizzy. Then she spied the large granite mausoleum and pushed open a heavy door labeled the Pauper's Palace. The inside was lighted with skylights only, but Violet persevered, reading every row across, then down. When she saw the name, she drew her hand to her mouth, as if it couldn't be true. This couldn't be her mother's final stopping place: Vera Bernard, d. 1950. Violet would have been only two! She didn't believe in God, not like Mama Vee, but what was the force that had guided her unimpeded, to find her mother at last, nothing more than a pile of ash in a drawer?
The city her mother had so adored, her grandmother, too, became a depressing place to Violet. There were a thousand people gathered exactly where she wanted to be, whether it was the grocery, the queue for a film's opening, even the gym. In spite of her own ambitions, she didn't feel comfortable there, not as she had always believed she would. Often a brown smog enshrouded the city like a dingy veil, and on one of those days, Violet packed her bags and flew out of LAX. After connecting in Albuquerque, her plane bounced through fluffy clouds at Mid-Continent Airport and landed in Wichita.
When Violet later ventured by 115 N. Broadway in her grandmother's old Impala, she realized, in her months-long absence, that the parking ramp had been erected. She did a double take to make sure that the cylindrical concrete edifice wasn't a blunder of her imagination. In a fog, she drove back to the house she had inherited from Mama Vee and began to throw open windows. She trudged up the stairs. In the hallway, where she had never changed the arrangement of photographs, she stared at the one of her grandmother posed with the Millerettes—at young women eyes shining with hope, the daring bit of ankle they displayed, the gaiety of lights on the marquee. And Violet wept like a girl who had lost her best friend. She then wiped her eyes and stared some more. In the eternal vision of the photograph, Velma's gabardine still looked pressed, her wavy hair glorious. Her gardenia still shone from that opening night, the petals open and fully fragrant with possibility.
The author gratefully acknowledges the following sources:
"The Acme of Art and Science Combined." Wichita Beacon: Miller Theater Section. 30 April 1922: 3.
Hays, Jean. "Memories... The Miller Still Lives. Ex-Employees, Others Still Angry at Demise of Landmark Theater." Wichita Eagle-Beacon. 22 June 1982: 6Z+.
Tanner, Beccy. "Miller Theater was a Showcase: People Dressed Up to Attend Movies." Wichita Eagle. 11 July 1991, city ed.: 7N.