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Chapter 10

SOFT SHOE VS. ART OF THE BALLET

To Lucy, 410 Brick had become the special property of Clem and herself. On afternoons when Clem was otherwise engaged she would shove aside the wicker chairs of the first-floor clubroom to practice.

Ever since the sleighride she had avoided Harry despite his sheepish attempts to date her. And for several weeks it seemed as if Vida was avoiding her. Did she see her father that night? Poor Vida. It wasn't my fault. If she feels like that I can't help it. I don't blame her. Trouble with Vida is she's such a kid. Men are like that. Not Clem. Guess I'd feel the same way about a father like Vida's.

Her own father was a haze on a little-girl horizon, someone who made mother cry.


Vida was not so easily delivered. The morning after witnessing her father embracing Lucy she could not release herself from nightmare sleep. Mrs. Bertrand had to pull off the covers to shake her awake.

"Get up, get up, or you'll be late for school."

Vida avoided looking at her mother, wondering miserably whether she knew. She could not erase the image of the two embracing figures in the moonlit snow.

"I'm not hungry," she said bleakly, pulling the shaggy red tarn over her ears for fear of what she might hear. But the rasping voice penetrated.

"Don't blame me if you get sick because you're too lazy to get up for breakfast. And another thing. Your pa says he don't want to catch you having anything to do with that—floozie—next door. You're to stay away from her—hear!"

At the kitchen door Tina whined as Vida slammed the door.

Don't worry I won't, she thought. Ma didn't have to tell her to stay away from Lucy Claudel. She hated her. Everything they said was true. Going off with Harry after the sleighride, and then what happened with Pa. Nothing but trouble ever since Lucy came to live next door. Before that life had been wonderful. Afternoons of reading books and books and eating as she read. Or digging dandelions in the front lawn for supper salad, or playing games at recess with other girls. No fussing about clothes. Or boys. Tears rolled down her carelessly washed cheeks. If only she never would have to face her father again.

She took the long way around and was three minutes late, glad because it meant staying after school. Lucy looked sidelong at Vida but did not try to speak to her during recess. Though it wasn't posing day, she'd go to the studio and practice.

But after two weeks Vida's anguish ran its course. Separation from Lucy became unbearable. She began to wonder whether she had not imagined the meaning of the silhouette against the snow. There had been no sign of the break she thought inevitable between her father and mother. Perplexingly Mr. Bertrand even had brought a flush to his wife's face by saying after supper one night that she was the best housekeeper on Twelfth Street and gave Vida an extra quarter with her week's allowance. A gesture which made her feel ashamed of her evil thoughts about him. In released energy she abandoned the surly slouch of past weeks and drew heads of Lucy in the manner of Nell Brinkley beauties gracing the Husker-Sun.

By the time an early thaw set in the two girls resumed their walks to school. Neither mentioned the nightmarish January night but their friendship had acquired a wary overtone of sharing a sinister secret.

Vida wondered why Lucy never invited her to Clem Brush's studio. This building in which Lucy had a separate being became a goal for which she prepared herself by showing Lucy the Nell Brinkleyish drawings, hoping they would open her elusive friend's eyes to the realization that she too was an artist. It never occurred to Lucy to invite Vida to the studio. Vida was a girl who lived next door. A girl she liked, though funny because always reading poetry about love. You couldn't learn anything about it that way. Boys, and even smelly Mr. Bertrand, weren't like that—when. And Semy, spouting poetry, and peeking.

It's nice though having a friend like Vida who's smart, she thought. But the poetry doesn't mean anything. I liked that library book of stories she gave me to read when I was home with a cold. Foreigners are interesting, especially about love, though hard to understand. Always saying something not written down.

"Did you ever read a book by a man called—Mapp-assant?" she asked Clem one afternoon during rest period.

"Mean to tell me—you—read Maupassant! Isn't that kind of—strong—for you?"

"Oh, I don't know. It isn't hard to read. I think he's interesting, don't you?" She felt a new respect for Vida. Not only did Vida read the same books as Clem but could draw too, even clearer.

This thought emboldened a critical foray against his latest painting of her. Mystified that he never "finished" a painting or drawing but left a vague indentification of her appearance, she preferred Vida's drawings. She was considering one afternoon, alone in the studio, "finishing" one of his drawings, a collaboration prevented by Clem's unexpected arrival.

"You don't bother to paint eyelashes?" she hinted.

The implied criticism annoyed him. Why did every model or non-painter have to express an opinion! "It's unnecessary because I suggest them by the general form," he said stiffly, feeling his answer unsatisfactory.

I guess artists just don't see things like people do, Lucy thought, tactfully ending this aesthetic discussion with an "Oh!"


Toward the end of March a brother and sister act was booked into the Orpheum. They were Nebraskans and Congress had legitimate state pride in their growing fame.

This is something Lucy will want to see, thought Semy, going to the studio with a yellow jonquil in his hand, dividend from the florist where he had ordered a funeral wreath on behalf of the Husker-Sun for the funeral of a staff member.

Lucy as usual was exercising at the mantel which she used as a ballet bar.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

She looked at the flower. A dance costume like it would be beautiful, especially with green tights—but what did it have to do with a rose! Semy liked to say things no one could understand. She wouldn't let on. "It's pretty."

Semy twirled the stem and wished it was her neck. A wasted poetic twist. "I bought it for you because it's the color of your hair."

Lucy burst out laughing. "Looks more like yellow crepe paper."

"You're absolutely right." The little dope always made him feel silly. "How's the dance coming along?"

"Fine, except there isn't much room to practice tours jetés and fouettés."

"Ever heard of The Starlings."

"Who?"

"Couple of Nebraska kids hitting the big time."

Semy's newly acquired Broadway phrase impressed her more than any poetic one. Oh dear me, she thought, here I am wasting my time posing while even Nebraska kids are on the stage. Omaha—over there toward Chicago—loomed, a metropolis. Maybe Mother and she could move to Omaha.

"Ballet dancers?"

"No. Soft shoe and singing."

"Oh." Relief. Not real dancers.

"Perhaps you ought to see them—I've tickets for Friday night." He paused. It should be her idea that he take her.

Why didn't he hand over the tickets? She really ought to see what those kids from Omaha did to get an Orpheum job. "I'll probably go with Mother Saturday afternoon."

He'd have to risk a turndown, damn her. "Why spend money when you can go with me and sit down front? We could eat at the Bohemian Cellar before. You might learn something from them."

To learn was irresistible. "I'll have to ask Mother." A safeguard in case she didn't have to go with him.

She didn't like being alone in the building with him and invented a reason for going upstairs. But he started to accompany her and stood aside for her to go first, saying he wanted to get a book he'd left in the studio.

"Then you go first so you can't look up my skirts again."

He crimsoned angrily at her bluntness in saying what was in his mind. He'd get even with her.


During a rest period from posing Lucy bent forward on the edge of a paint-spotted chair, her knees opened to an almost horizontal line, forcing the vertical arches of her feet. Rest from posing was time to practice.

How could she get out of going to see The Starlings with Semy? My goodness, what was money for if not to spend, and it would be more fun seeing the Nebraska dancers with Mother.

"Is Semy's sister pretty?"

"Well, no—well, yes—in a way. I've only seen her once from across the street." What, he thought, is pretty? An in-between word. What was beauty? Degas's ballet girls weren't beautiful—like Lucy—but, boy, he knew how to draw! An artist should see beauty in anything. "She's handsome rather than pretty."

Lucy was puzzled, because everyone knows men are handsome or not, and women are pretty or homely. "Oh! How old is she?"

"I don't know, year or two older than Semy—about twenty-two." Well, for goodness sake, she was old. She must be a brunette because Clem said handsome. Brunettes are interesting. Even in the movies. Vamps. I wish I were a brunette. Anyway, I'm glad I'm not a red head. They're so pale and freckled and haven't eyelashes.

"Did you ever notice redheads never have eyelashes? Oh, I forgot you don't care about eyelashes."

Clem smiled and put down his palette knife and the handle fell into a chrome-yellow worm. He was inclined to give a redhead at least two looks, and not in the interest of art. He looked at her and then down to break an electric charge. "Damn," he muttered to the blobbed yellow.

"You're almost a redhead but you're not pale and have eyelashes. They're sort of stubby," she went on.

He avoided her gaze not to be further confused by the sparkle in her gentian eyes, more dazzling than sun on the sea.

"How would you like to break off this fascinating subject and get back to work?"

She jumped up obediently and resumed her pose. Better not laugh, because he's blushing. "Is this right?"

"Yes."

"Semy asked me to go to the Orpheum Friday night."

"Fine—why don't you?"

"I am. Wouldn't it be fun if we all went? You and mother too."

For God's sake, how old does she think I am? Must be the beard.

"The light's gone—let's stop for the day."


Lucy got to the studio early the next afternoon with a plan. She hoped Semy would come before Clem. Luckily he did.

"Look, Semy, I could go if we took Mother. Wouldn't it be fun if mother and Clem came with us?"

Ah, she regarded Clem as an old man.

In the end, with Semy sulky because of Lucy's manipulations, it was decided that she, her mother and himself would be Clem's guests at the Bohemian Cellar.

From an old evening dress, discarded by a rich client of the Bittner Sisters, Mae made Lucy an outfit for the occasion. The first sight of ten-minute-late Lucy at the entrance of the smoky beery room unsettled its patrons.

She entered, slender as a fashion plate, wrapped in a night-blue velvet coat from chin to ankles, her extravagant eyes searching out Clem and Semy from under a large same-blue velvet hat with a small pair of scarlet wings in flight. Beside her was shadowy woolen unfeathered Mae. Clem, in tumult, blinked. How was I to know from school clothes and dance costume she isn't a child?

The room stopped its buzzing and openmouthed watched the strangers go to the table of the painter fellow and the guy from the Husker-Sun. Some chicken! O boy!

A table of four home for the week end from the "U" at Lincoln ogled. Who is she? "I'll find out, that guy works for my dad," offered Herold Lauter.

"Your daughter is wonderful to paint," Clem told Mae. A fine mother. Sweet. Nice-looking, too.

Lucy smiled affectionately because he was being so nice to Mother. Mae nodded serenely, sipped near beer politely, and ate with her best company manners. Always put down your knife across your plate when you are finished cutting. She was happily content that the artist, such a nice gentleman, appreciated Pussy. Semy was the man with the tickets.

Semy was sullen. Ruth had wept because he had said two weeks ago he would take her to see those Omaha dancers. Now Lucy laughed and joked with old Clem while her pouter-pigeon mother preened. And they all ignored him.

A juvenile cock's crow sideswiped their table and Clem, halting his first carefree bantering in years, glanced at the raucous college boys' table behind theirs. "Isn't that Lauter's son?" he asked Semy.

"Yes, Herold. A nitwit." Semy drained the imitation rathskeller mug and set it on the planked table with a dictatorial thump. "Let's go"

"I haven't finished my ice cream," said Lucy.

"Well, you'll have to decide which you prefer—ice cream, or seeing The Starlings."

"Don't listen to Semy—he's a Machiavelli." Clem laughed.

"One of these days I'm going to cut off your beard," Lucy said, ignoring Machiavelli and Semanter Klug.

Machiavelli—how is it I've neglected to read him? ruminated Semy.

"Harya, Klug," young Lauter said, clapping him on the shoulder.

Semy sprang up obsequiously. "Oh hello, I'm just fine, thanks. How are you?"

"Fine. Home for the week end. Thought I'd say hello to you and your friends." He eyed Lucy with unmistakable interest.

"Oh, excuse me," Semy said, flustered, introducing everyone.

"Very pleased to meet you," beamed Herold at an unsmiling Lucy. "My friends and I wondered if you wouldn't join us. We've a flask."

"We're just leaving," Clem said with finality, standing up, his hand on Lucy's chair.

Herold ignored him. "Haven't I seen you in Lincoln or Omaha?" he persisted to Lucy.

"No." The idea of trying that on her, he must think her a child. She turned to Clem and winked.

"We'll have to hurry or we'll be late," Clem cooperated.

"Well, nice to have met you," Herold said to her, ignoring the others, returning discomfited to his table.

"Nice of you to have stopped by," Semy called as they started to leave. "What do you want to do, lose me my job, that's my boss's son," he said irritably to Lucy.

"I don't like him, and you said yourself he's a dope."

"He could be very useful. His father owns the paper. He might even get you a job on the stage here."

"Ha!—ha!—ha!—" she jeered.

At that moment Semanter Klug never had hated anyone as much as Lucy Claudel, whose ridicule forced him to see the picture of his obsequiousness to Lauter, and son.


The opening acrobatic act was on when they arrived.

"Oh dear, they make you wait so long for the star act," Lucy sighed during the forced encores.

Then a man in a straw hat and brown striped suit told jokes, some about Congress. In Denver the jokes were about Denver. How do they know? But the man who took off Charlie Chaplin was almost as funny, especially when his little mustache fell off. Next came a woman singer in a tight black spangled dress. Women look homely when they yell and breathe so hard. Lucy leaned across Semy to speak to Clem. How did Semy get the seat next to her? "Psst, Clem. Such a fatty. How would you like to paint her?"

The woman in back of her said sh-sh loudly. The idea of talking out loud. Glaring at Lucy, she applauded the singer through the last bow. The name of the singer disappeared from the lighted glass case above the bass fiddle. The Starlings. Lucy rolled her gum into a ball and stuck it under the arm of her seat so nothing would deflect her from study.

A slender long-jawed sleek young man, with a piano accordion for a body, and lithe cream flannel legs, moved easily across the stage, followed by a girl, as thin and almost his height, with light-brown, no, dark-blonde, hair, wearing a dress more like an actual dress than a stage costume. Not even silk!

For heaven's sake! He's kind of cute. Is that all they do? Just those softshoe steps back and forth? Not even using a whole stage, only that narrow space in front of that street scene. I can do harder things. You need a whole stage for tours jetés and fouettés. The intricate rhythmical pattern, the result of invention, trial, elimination, endless practice, the nervous sense of timing and personal projection which gave the audience spontaneous pleasure, were lost on Lucy. A dancer, she thought, should do things not everyone could do. Leaps, spins, and certainly wear a stunning costume. I'll bet he's a swell ballroom dancer. They'd be better if they did a ballroom act. She'd look prettier in a chiffon dress.

She had applauded hard at the end of each previous act but this time patronizingly because she was better than these two Nebraskans everyone was so crazy about. When the last bow was taken Lucy leaned back and beamed contentedly, tapping her foot in time to the vamp for the next act because she couldn't wait to practice.

The Starlings' drop rose to reveal a full stage. Two carpenters appeared. She nudged Mae. "This is old stuff. We saw this in Denver—remember? They build a house and then it falls down."


"Well," Lucy said as she and Mae lay in bed rehearsing the evening, "so that's what they think is wonderful in Omaha. How do you suppose they got their first job? That's the hard part—to find someone who'll give you a job. Maybe we ought to go to Omaha."

"Oh Pussy, it would be a shame to spend what we've saved on Omaha."

"Let's get up and count how much we've saved."

"Not now, it's chilly—you'll catch cold."

"I won't, and I'm wide awake. I feel like practicing."

"And wake Mabel! It's about a hundred dollars. Tomorrow is payday, we'll count it tomorrow night."

"A hundred dollars! Oh boy, we're rich. I think I'll ask Clem if he knows an artist in New York City I can pose for. If I pose for Clem until June we'll have a lot more. Isn't he nice? But I am surprised he didn't have better table manners than to keep his knife in his right hand like that and eat with his left. Semy's table manners were better. He noticed Clem's table manners too. Well, I like Clem best anyway. Let's not spend another cent on perfume until we get to New York City. Anyway we have enough until then."


Nicolo Machiavelli
to
Semanter The Magnificent

My God, this book is a gold mine. A Bible.

Semanter King scanned the table of contents of The Prince. It was unbelievable. One scarcely knew where to begin. He flipped open the book. Each page was crowded with personal messages and confirmations. Take this from Chapter 10.

"Of all men who have been eulogized those who deserve it most have been authors and founders of religions. Next come such as have established Republics or Kingdoms. After these the most celebrated are those who have commanded armies, and have extended the possessions of their kingdoms or country. (Skip this—but no—the next line.) To these may be added literary men, but as these are of different kinds, they are celebrated according to their respective degrees of excellence. All others—(Well, who cares about them, Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, etc.—But Chapter 11 now) Whoever had to contend against many enemies may nevertheless overcome them, though he may be inferior in power, provided he is able to resist their first efforts … Deceit in the conduct of war is meritorious."

Also, at this time, he read Krafft-Ebing and, erotically obsessed, acquired a technical patter astounding Clem who in Paris had toyed with the notion of joining that new group of surrealists in their Freudian expositions. Semy's erotic studies aggravated his itch for Lucy and he could not stay away from 410 Brick when after school hours she practiced.

A few days after they had seen The Starlings, Semy tiptoed into the studio hoping to take her unawares. Resting from intense practice, she was covered with a sweet mist that atomized the air with her perfume. A glistening drop rolled from the inner corner of an outrageous eye coolly regarding him, meandered around the half-heart cheek, and dropped between her pointed breasts. Would it settle in her navel, or go on down? Jesus, she's filled out since she first came to the studio.

My goodness, he wants to touch me but if I keep on practicing he can't. Changements are good to keep hands off.

She drew her legs into a protective single column, feet at right angles for base, and curved her arms downward making a finger basket for the bud at the juncture of her thighs. Not that this final subtlety had occurred to her. With a slight bend of the knees in preparation for propulsion, she shot straight upward changing right heel front, left heel front, back and forth. Her eyes glowed victoriously.

"Hello, Semy."

Indulgently he waited for her up-down to cease but their continuous course outran his patience.

"God dammit, you'll drop!"

She stopped and stared, pursing her soft pink lips primly. Why did men always swear? Boys too?

Taking the fresh white handkerchief from his pocket he wiped her forehead. A look in her eyes paralyzed his hand. He could go no farther.

Through the cambric she felt the smoothness of his pulpy fingertips, like a spoiling plum, and, sliding from him, ran upstairs. At the top she turned and saw him looking up. In case he came up after her, she called, "Clem'll be here in a minute."

He forced his voice to casualness. "I wouldn't want to keep you from old Clem."

"What do you mean, old Clem? I bet he isn't so much older than you."

"That's just an expression between men—like old boy."

"Clem isn't old—it's that old beard."

Semy felt better, delighted to discover a vulnerable word with which to burrow at Lucy's regard for Clem. Did high-lighted noses and cheekbones that shone in the sepia prints of Rembrandt paintings, dismissed in passing glances when first seen on classroom walls, the Beatrice profile, or the violent angles of which Clem spoke with such respect, have the importance of any well-turned phrase? The books on art insisted painting was more important than literature but, looking at the reproductions, he felt nothing. Naturally, one couldn't admit this.