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Chapter 2

SHE'S ONLY TWELVE YEARS OLD!

"She's only twelve years old!"

The two plump girls gnashed gum and glared five rows down in the dark theatre at the phosphorescent glow of a frizzy golden head. Its owner, her gaze never leaving the screen, lifted full child lips to receive by proxy from the boy bending over her the kiss Douglas Fairbanks was giving to Doris Kenyon.

I wish, she thought, I could feel like fainting.

The boy breathed deeply the intoxicating scent of Sweetheart Soap and Houbigant's Quelque Fleurs emanating from the mysterious being in his arms and brushed his lips sensuously on her cool cheek.

"Lucy," he murmured tremblingly, "oh Luce!"

Lucy moved her golden head up and down against his lips accommodatingly. After all, he had taken her to the movie and it was only polite to show appreciation.

My goodness, he certainly likes this, she observed to herself, regretting that she never experienced the shivering thrill he did, or the swooning trembling heroines in the movies showed when they were kissed. It was nice to be kissed by a boy you liked but not exciting. She was hungry and wanted a strawberry soda. Mother said sodas were nourishing and fruit was good for you. So, not to disappoint Frank, who was trembling, she too shivered delicately.

She was so soft she reminded Frank of a little bird he had killed with a slingshot and for a moment he wanted to see how hard he could squeeze her to him without killing her. The small boys around them pretended noisily not to see and punched each other and whistled to conceal embarrassment. Grownups had their own island in the center section to avoid the restless, noisy young ones.

The two plump girls sat close together, a bulwark of self-righteous feline jealousy.

"You'd think she was eighteen the way she dresses, high heels and bleached hair and all that lipstick. And only twelve years old! I could get boys that way too. Ma won't let Molly walk to school with her."

The harassed theatre manager walked down the side aisle peering at the young people and snapped his fingers to quiet the boys. Lucy and Frank, sensing his approach, separated. Irritated, the manager turned back and snapped splenetically at the two plump girls.

"And you two, all you can do is to chew gum and talk, talk, talk—Keep quiet!"

They looked at him dumbfounded, jaws drooping. Self-pity accented their torment. All night they would dream—not of Douglas Fairbanks but that they were being kissed like Lucy Claudel.

When the lights came up Frank ran his hand over his dark brown hair and glanced about uneasily to make certain there were no grownups he knew.

"Let's go out the side door," he said.

Lucy laughed a disappearing mockingbird trill, a mischievous sparkle in the enormous slanting blue eyes that gave her pale oval face its precocious beauty.

"You've lipstick on your chin."

He wiped it furtively with his hand so there would be no telltale marks on his handkerchief for his mother to discover. Gee, Ma didn't miss a thing.

Lucy rose lazily, cool and fresh.

In the alley she drew on an exaggerated cupid's bow with a dimestore lipstick. Frank watched her fascinated, unaware it was a signal that kisses were over.

"I'm awfully hungry." Her voice was coaxing as she put her arm through his. "Buy me a soda?"

All I would have to do to make her scream would be to crush her arm on my ribs. Maybe it wouldn't break. Maybe it'd just bend like—like a wet wishbone, thought Frank. I'd like to take her arm like a wishbone and wish and wish. I'll bite off her lip so no one else will kiss her.

He pressed his foot down on a big June bug and squashed it with a long, grating drag along the pavement. Lucy shuddered, and drew her arm from his.

"You're nasty!" She stuck out her little pink tongue in distaste.

The drugstore was crowded with boys and girls at the soda counter and grownups sitting round twisted wire tables. The air was sticky with sirupy sweetness.

As Lucy slid onto a wire stool the noisy chatter stopped abruptly and she lowered her eyes. In her demeanor she might have been some well-known actress who, entering a public place and knowing herself to be the center of attention, pretends unobtrusiveness. The outrageous peroxided frizzy hair and pasty lipstick made her appear more rather than less childlike. A little girl made up for playacting. But when at last she raised the long brown fringes to reveal her startling eyes, every eye in the place strained to discover the secret of her beauty.

Many girls are beautiful but Lucy Claudel was beauty. Young, forming beauty. Her straight slender body, a little unsteady on too-high heels, gave the impression of a stem that might snap under the weight of those eyes and the dandelion fluff of hair. The translucent magnolia petal face was molded with delicate calm from high cheekbones and the slope of a small straight nose given hint of a tilt by the perfectly planned V which held it above lips pursed as though to receive a hummingbird's kiss. A young, tendriled vine that aroused thirst for its ultimate fruit.

Every girl, woman, felt herself a clod and vowed next day to use drugstore alchemy to rid herself of freckles, pimples, or red healthy cheeks.

Frank, conscious he was envied by the other boys and suddenly attractive to the girls, was about to swagger when he caught the mocking eye of his sister Opal, seated at the end of the counter. His face reddened and he hastily turned away. Would Opal tell at home after he had promised not to see Lucy any more? How could you keep such a promise? He saw her all the time, night and day. You're too young, Pa told him. Ma and Opal had it in for Lucy. I'm fifteen. Why didn't Opal stick with her own bunch, she's eight-teen? Fatty Opal, damn her.

Lucy drew on the straw with intent application. The ashy silence as she entered the store and Opal's spiteful laugh, igniting high-keyed chatter, was the way it was at school. Her thoughts probed along familiar byways.

It's funny, she thought, girls hate it when a girl is alone with a boy. Why can't they fix themselves up a little instead of wearing those kid clothes?

The white coat of the druggist rounded into the frilly bosom and confined waist of pretty Miss Shaver, who, at school, was always cut off like a dressmaker's dummy between her desk and blackboard.

Miss Shaver isn't exactly stylish, like Mode magazine, but I'll bet she has a lot of fellas with all that soft brown hair and big brown eyes like Marie Doro. Of course, her hair is neater than Marie Doro's because she is a teacher. Her hand is so graceful when she bends her wrist to look at her gold wrist watch. A wrist watch makes hands look pretty.

The line of Miss Shaver's tapering fingers pointed down to the streaked marble counter and the subject at hand.

What are the girls scared of? Boys are just—boys. Even Opal, and she's grown up, eighteen, is scared. I don't like her Freddie. His mouth looks wet and slippery.

She knew Freddie was looking at her. In fact all the kids were watching her. A mirrored row of round faces like dolls at the Amusement Park waiting to be knocked down. The last suck was clogged by a strawberry and she put the other end of the straw in her mouth to draw it out. The little seeds tickled her tongue and she bit them and rubbed them on the roof of her mouth for the feeling. Apple seeds taste good too. But peach fuzz gives me the creeps. Sometimes she deliberately bit into a peach to make herself shake.

Oh boy, I bet Mother will have the new Mode when I get home.

"Hurry up, Frank, you're such a slowpoke."

Frank doggedly finished his soda and swaggered after her. The chatter died until they were out of sight. Opal crushed the cherry' of her banana split with her small square front teeth, pursing her thin lips into a shrewish pucker. That Lucy Claudel was the limit, all made up like that. Only twelve years, and no good.

Opal was cross. The new brown linen dress on which she had embroidered scallops at neck and sleeves looked now like towel edging instead of its model in The Gentlewoman. Linen always wrinkles so. The pale blue silk side-drape that caressed Lucy's thigh raised peevish hackles.

That snot, I bet she doesn't wear anything under that crazy dress. Some floozie. She thinks she's so smart but she'll never get a husband. Fellas hate girls who throw themselves at fellas that way. She glanced at Freddie uncertainly, and her dislike stretched to include him. She straightened, pulled in her belly, lifted her chin and smiled disdainfully at a fifteen-year-old girl still staring openmouthed at the door through which Lucy had left.

"Catching flies, Dora?"

The girl flushed. It was awful to be mocked by Opal, the acknowledged Queen of the after-the-movie bunch at Drake's.

Opal, her self-confidence restored by the humble smile of a subject, led the chorus of jeering laughter, then yawned, tapping the fingers of her right hand to her mouth genteelly albeit belatedly in a gesture of refinement recommended by The Gentlewoman.

"I get awfully tired of Drake's. It's such a kid hangout," she said to Freddie as they were leaving.

Freddie looked at her, perplexed. Not to want to come to Drake's after a movie was heretical. Where else was there to go except—Except was a ramshackle street where to jangle, bang, and saxa-moan that razzle dazzle 1919 jazz beat out a new syncopatic rhythm.

"

I wanta go back
I wanta go back
I wanta go back to the farm—"

wailed those who had no such intention.

But you didn't take the girl you're going to marry to honkytonks, decided Freddie. A hot chick like that Lucy now—imagine a squirt like Frank with a hot number like her on a dark street.

Oh, Boy!


Ghostly vapor from paleozoic chasms crept through Denver's streets to penetrate Lucy's ribs. She quickened her pace knowing it annoyed Frank. The patent leather pumps, a little small for Mother and a little large for herself, kept slipping and she clenched her toes to hold them. Heel clatter resounded in the thin mountain air.

"My goodness, I'll wake the whole neighborhood. Hurry up, Frank, I'm cold."

To bridle her haste he took off his coat and put it around her shoulders and felt her snuggle into his warmth. He wanted to talk to her but could think of nothing to say because his only tongue-tying thought was would she let him kiss her again. She seemed to like it. When he took his coat that would be the time to do it. When he was with the kids there was always a lot to say. You know, kidding the girls, feeling them in roughhousing, yelling, singing. He took two sticks of gum from his pants' pocket, handed her one, and they walked just a little slower along the cobbled street chewing, he with nervous grinding and she with delicate small bites as though nibbling a piece of chocolate.

In the railroad yards an engine toiled and panted in labor of shifting freight cars. The sky was a big blue-black grape.

Lucy's street, indifferently sentineled by a few wornout elms, was at the foot of a descent from the city's business center. After a cleanup by the City Fathers the once splendid palaces of faro and prostitution had become a motley of grey stone and red brick hulks. Into these a gang of landladies had crawled, converting them into barracks for poverty's lodgers. Excepting, that is, one mansion referred to ambiguously as "The Club."

But, despite the now drab crumbling lodginghouse appearance of the street, to Frank and his fellows, like tourists sniffing at hints made by guides in Pompeii's ruins, an aroma of forbidden delights still clung to the street. Many boys had become men on this street for a dollar or even fifty cents. It was here, even more than when Lucy was in his arms at the movies, that Frank felt what it must be like to be a man.

At the foot of the steps leading to the door of a faded red brick roominghouse Lucy took off Frank's coat and thrust it at him. Clumsily, he tried to put his arm around her but she gave him a little push.

"Listen, Frank, do you want to wake Mrs. Murphy? She hates me anyway already. Besides I promised Mother not to be late—go on home now. See you after school tomorrow."

He might have been a little puppy, he thought, deflated.


It was long past eleven and Lucy stood at the foot of the creaky staircase peering up to the next landing, listening intently. She rubbed off part of the lipstick with a finger and wiped it on the doormat. Mother didn't like her to use too much lipstick. The low gaslight flickered concealing the spaces beyond its orbit, and the ground floor left front roomer snored as if in agony.

Lucy took a deep breath and, two at a time, spanned the first flight of stairs, her eyes uneasily fixed on a door to the right. Creepy silence weighted the musty air.

She always tiptoed, holding her breath, past this second-floor door ever since smelly old Mr. Schmidt had invited her in to have some chocolates. Payment had been seized in flesh-creeping touchings from which she escaped only after a bloodletting bite into the wheezing fat man's thick-veined wrist. She had to spit out a hair. Next time she passed he whined he had only tried to be nice because she didn't have a father, and showed her silk stockings and pink underwear, but she said No, thank you, and didn't even stop.

Lucy didn't tell Mother, not wanting to scare her. After all, not only fat old Mr. Schmidt wanted to touch her. Men and boys always did. What's the matter with them? With boys like Frank it wasn't so bad to be kissed or hugged when they were nice and clean and smelled of soap. In a way it was like playing a game. But with Mr. Schmidt, and those men on street corners who rubbed up against you, it was different. Dirty old Mr. Schmidt. She crinkled her nose, the memory of his smell disgusted her.

But why did Mr. Schmidt and Frank and boys want to? She never wanted to touch boys—anybody. Look how excited they got. She must be missing something. She had stood before the mirror and looked at herself, touching the soft pink tips of her budding breasts. They felt soft, but that was all.

Sometimes she hugged herself to discover what Frank felt when he squeezed her so tight, held her hard, and breathed pantingly as if choking. His arm was round and firm but not nearly so hard as the trees in the park whose rough unyielding trunks stirred in her a sensation she could not define. A sensation of telegraphing an undecipherable message of electric warmth to the reaches of her body, even to the tips of her breasts which seemed then to swell.

A woman sitting on a bench had bared her full breast for her baby. Frank was more the clamoring baby than the—giving—tree. Her eyes had traveled down to the hillock with the small well whose source, she knew from her mother's blushing stammering explanation, was the channel of prenatal nourishment. When she was eight she had thought the navel opened and a baby popped out.

The purpose of what was lower down she had learned intuitively, an intuition guided by restless fumbling fingers of boys who seemed to go crazy.

She ran up another flight and down the hall to the door numbered 9.

On the inside of the door dresses hanging under a faded cretonne cover stirred as she turned the black china knob. From a flyspecked gilded spray of ancanthus leaves, in which little jets of gas once had lighted bawdy-house joys rehearsed in this room, now dangled a single feeble electric bulb.

The white enamel arabesques of a sagging bed chalk-lined a spotted paperbag-tan wall, and nomadic disorder gave the room an appearance of a tent which at a moment's notice could be folded and transported. A white hand basin with cold and lukewarm water taps hung to the wall under a threatening sign warning against wastage of water and light. And, in the sticking bottom drawer of the cheap warping bureau, a cockroach feasted on cracker crumbs.

Mae Claudel, nee Welland, sat in a low spindly rocker, crescented over sewing. In the diffuse light her hair resembled a ball of fuzz gathered under the misshapen bed. The sickly light exaggerated her waning prettiness, magnifying into valleys the dimples of her marshmallow cheeks. A pretty, nondescript face requiring makeup to restore character to indefinite lips and eyebrows. Her small pointed chin seemed in danger of melting into the thin neck from the downward pressure while sewing. At thirty-four her concave seamstress's body was uneven in contour from work. Her demeanor was of a woman slowly dehydrating from some vital lack, a demeanor concealing singleminded purposeful love for her daughter.

The needle rested against her pricked thorny thumb as her feather grey eyes crinkled with a wan soft greeting. "How was the movie, dearest?"

Lucy kicked off her patent leather slippers and sat crosslegged on the bed.

"All right. Douglas Fairbanks looks wonderful in tights but I don't think those old-fashioned wigs look good on women." She yawned with luxurious abandon. "That Frank, he's an awful kid. All he wants to do is pet. I made him buy me a soda."

Mae smiled indulgently at her darling growing up so fast. Lucy, she thought modestly, looked like Charles. Blond, handsome Charles Claudel from New Orleans, who had swooped her up from Congress, Nebraska, like a tornado twister, and, depositing her on the chilly edge of Salt Lake City, had gone and come so many times that at last she prayed he would leave her and their child in peace. Since his last departure five years ago, and no word from or news of him in all that time, her wedding ring had become loose. She would have taken it off but for Lucy. People might think … Besides, it was protection against other men. She neither had need nor desire for men, except of course as employers. The pleasure of Charles' lovemaking had been slight compared to Lucy's companionship. She marveled at the girl's good sense and trusted her implicitly. She did not even regret having married Charles, for then she might never have had Lucy.

"You know," said Lucy as she pulled off her stockings, "I like boys who don't just want to pet but who can tell me things. I just love people to tell me things. I guess that's why I like arithmetic, the problems always come out right. That's why I love to look at Mode. It tells you all the latest styles and shows you pictures of people all over. Did you bring the new Mode?"

"Not yet, I'll get it Friday."

Friday was payday at the shirt factory. Mae put aside the dress she was lengthening and began to undress.

Lucy stood hesitant. The thought of the toilet down the hall and a cockroach scurrying into a hole next to the pipes repelled her. She pulled up her skirts and jumped onto the hand basin.

"I might as well go here. I hate that dirty old toilet."

Mae counted the rag curlers into her hand.

"Hurry up and brush your teeth so I can do your hair," she said.


It was almost time for the one o'clock bell to call the pupils back for afternoon classes. Lucy got up from the window ledge of the basement manual-training room and brushed off the seat of her sky-blue dress. Stray lambkin clouds drifted lazily in the early June sky. She blew up the paper bag which had contained her lunch and, raising her left leg high like the dancers at the Empire, exploded the balloon under the knee.

The trick was to lift the leg slowly.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk," rebuked girls, who would fail at high kicks in their bedrooms that night. The boys missed catches in their ball throwing because their eyes traveled over the hypnotizing territory between the pointed toe and the pink span of a 90-degree angle.

After the 3:30 bell rang and the 7th grade pupils sat awaiting release, Miss Shaver hesitated before giving the word. Those whose conduct or lessons had been reprehensible squirmed for fear they would be called upon to remain for punishment. But Lucy, calm in the knowledge that she had been as always an exemplary student, sat confident that in a moment she would be on her way to watch the performers at the Empire Theatre rushing out of the stage entrance alley to Child's for between-shows coffee.

She did this often, having discovered this past year the semiweekly change of faces in the endless parade of dancers passing through Denver. Dancers with candy-pink cheeks and black eyelashes that stuck straight out. Mother said it was cascara—no, mascara—made them so black. And that beautiful twilight blue around their eyes. Their hats were fancier and curls curlier than those of the plain women on the street. Except those seen going in and out of that queer house "The Club" near home. The dancers were like cloth flowers on the millinery counters at Riland's big store. To be up there on the stage, her arms entwined with theirs, and dance back and forth with high kicks to the latest popular music would be the most wonderful thing in the world. Much better than being rich and riding around in an automobile. Of course everything at the Empire wasn't as good as the dancers. Those singers who always sang another chorus when you thought at last they were finished. And those men who talked and talked and talked because people laughed. That act in which a man dressed like a woman dancer in tights with a big train that swept the floor like the society women wore in Mode. He swished on with the silk train moving around behind in jerks and the audience laughed. Then he leaned over the footlights and he said to the orchestra leader, "What're all these people doing here—haven't they got homes?" and the audience laughed even more. Then he said how his silk train got dirty on Times Square as he crossed the street and everyone laughed some more because he said that when he stopped to lift his silk train from the gutter he heard a man—"I think it was a man"—say, "You little witch you" and, as people seemed to go crazy laughing, explained, as if talking confidentially to the whole audience, "I think he said a—witch" His name was Jimmy Watts.

"Lucy, you will please remain after class."

Miss Shaver's voice was stern but she looked down when Lucy, surprised, stared at her.

Serves her right, thought the girls as they swarmed out, Miss Shaver doesn't like her either.

Miss Shaver went to wash her hands while the two monitors for the day cleaned the blackboard. When she returned they still were beating chalk dust out the window and she sat waiting for them to leave, nervously sliding her thumbs over her clean smooth fingertips. She could not bear the feeling of chalk grit on her fingers or under pointed nails, and by the end of each afternoon the chalk dust accentuated her grating dislike of the pupils. Especially the boys, with their broken grimy nails, and their surreptitious leers at Lucy Claudel. Were it not that, of all positions open to a sensitive woman, teaching afforded the long summer vacation, she would have given it up long ago. The wide nostrils of her short upturned nose dilated, and as she pursed her full dark lips, the faint brown hair above her upper lip stood out straight like the first fuzz of an adolescent boy. The lids of her large brown eyes drooped and her voice was low and husky.

"Come here, Lucy."

My goodness, what did I do now? Lucy walked from her seat in the rear toward her teacher.

Miss Shaver raised her head wearily, her thick black brows like outstretched wings of a bird. Her voice was sad and her tapering white fingers lay helpless on the green desk blotter.

What's the matter with her? wondered Lucy.

Miss Shaver's nostrils contracted and expanded and the organdy and Valenciennes lace jabot quivered. But she didn't seem angry.

"I was standing," she spoke slowly as if in revery, "at the window when the one o'clock bell rang and saw you lift your leg. I wonder whether you realize what an unladylike gesture that was?"

"I was just practicing a dance step I saw at the Empire last week."

"Let me see."

Miss Shaver's voice was toneless as she drew Lucy to her, lifted the blue skirt, and stared at the short pink tight pants. A flush began under the escaping curls at the nape of her neck and spread over her face. She pulled the dress down roughly and her fingers caressed Lucy's cheeks and slid to her shoulder.

She's pretty and smells good too, Lucy thought, and said, "Did you think I didn't have any pants on?"

Sharp nails dug into her shoulder as Miss Shaver pulled her so close Lucy could smell face powder.

For heaven's sake, she's going to kiss me.

Obediently she raised her head and felt the hot lips smother her. Then the claws spun her around and sent her off with a pat on the bottom.

"You little—devil, don't you dare do that again!"

Now what on earth was all that about? Lucy hastened, pleasantly stimulated, deciding to become friends with Miss Shaver who reminded her of Rudolph Valentino.

I guess it's her nostrils, she reflected.