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Chapter 21

THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER

Vida Bertrand not only had graduated with honors but, more important, $150—first prize for the State's High Schools short story contest.

"Who'd have thought the sleighride party would have so much money in it?" she had said to Clem.

Congress, to say nothing of Ma and Pa, had been shocked by the story; luckily two of the three judges knew all about Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and one of those two even knew Theodore Dreiser personally. Semy Klug, unlike Clem, hadn't been pleased but had pretended to be. He'd hated having to reprint it in the Husker-Sun.

Lucy's invitation, plus the $150, was a sign from heaven.

"I may never have another chance like this. If I don't take a sleeper berth I have enough for a round trip and the twenty-five dollars from addressing envelopes for spending money." No point telling Ma she had no intention of returning to Congress.

"It's extravagant. You ought to save for a rainy day," Ma had said.

"I like rain, it makes things grow," she had retorted sassily and got her face slapped.

"You're too young to go gallivanting around New York City."

"I'll be old enough to be married without consent in two months."

"You're too smart to get a husband. You may be smart enough to win a prize for writing an immoral story but you can't even get a fella."

Aunt Mabel turned the trick. When Mae wrote she couldn't come unless someone she trusted like Vida stayed with Lucy, Aunt Mabel knew just how to manipulate Ma.

Two weeks of preparation was a lifetime of nightmare, except for Clem's encouragement, as her going decided his own great leap into a New York exhibition. Semy, on the contrary, made snide remarks about the farmer's daughter going in search of the city slicker. He seemed to take her going as a personal affront. "Don't give my regards to Broadway," he said.

Her heavy coat, which she might need, had a moth hole. The garden string beans were wormy because she never helped pick bugs. Ma remembered every grievance, real and imaginary. Anything and everything to make her miserable, self-conscious, selfish. And the same chores as though she weren't going to leave at all. "Vida, let Tina out. Vida, let Tina in. Vida, give Tina this bone." What a garbage can! Pa drunk and smelling like an old beer barrel. "A great big eighteen-year-old girl who never helps her poor hardworking mother." Too young to leave, too old to leave. Eighteen in two months. Ma with her whine, Pa with his smell, holding her in a vise. Do not honor thy Father and Mother. Oh my!

When the train at last pulled out she felt herself a criminal.

The scenery was as she had envisaged it. The change at Chicago early next morning a jumble. Clattering elevated, slimy cobbles, grimy people; though toward what turned out to be the Lake, buildings were high and glinted excitingly in the early morning sun. But who would think a big city wouldn't be ashamed to have trains ride through awful falling-down slums? At least in Main Street there was nothing as ugly. And in this criminal poverty, feeding on its despair, so many big churches. Michigan Central. The conductor said it went through Canada. Women were dirty, the toilet was a mess. In the scummy light of the "Women's" she looked as though she'd been punched in the eyes. Old. Hurry, hurry, so I'm not too old. The Hudson glittered. The cliffs across were romantic. Someone complained it was going to be hot. Thirsty, the drinking cups were gone. Away from the river, miles of red brick. The train was high up on a trestle, then in a tunnel. Miles. Everyone pulled down bags, wanting to be first. All out—New York.

Lucy's apartment was on a clean broad street. A solid mass of exactly spaced windows near the Grand Central Station. Tip the taximan ten cents, Clem had said. A man in plum color had given her to another in plum color and the elevator made her squeamish.

"She'll be home after the matinee, she's gone for a fittin', would you like cupa coffee an' some juice an' n'egg?" a friendly Negress asked.

"If it's not too much trouble." What did one say to a maid?

"Mek yo'seff at home, I'm goin' out. If anyone phones, say Miss Lucy won't be back until late. You don't know when an' he should leave his name."

She looked out the window, washed her dishes so as not to impose, took a long hot bath, looked out the window again at the people, bugs all of seven floors below, read Mode including the ads, Harper's Bazaar including the ads, gave up the unintelligible innuendoes of "Town Topics," filed her nails, and was rereading Black Oxen when Lucy came. Alice-blue chiffoned perfumed Lucy. A little taller and more beautiful than she remembered.

"Oh boy! I'm certainly glad you could come. I missed you. Tell me all the news. I haven't done a thing but work since I last saw you."

"I don't want to remember a thing. I just want to soak in New York."

"That's just how I felt. The first day is the most exciting."

Cleo fed them and was ready to leave for the theatre.

"That spot won't come outa yo' beige crepe."

"You take it then. I'll have to be more careful, that's the third you got this month. First thing you know I'll have to borrow from you."

"Oh Miss Lucy, yo' gonna own this town one of these days."

"That's what you say," she trilled. "Vida, let's us walk. I shouldn't have eaten so much—I hope I can make all my fouettés tonight."

The July city was sunset wine with effervescent electric-light bubbles and backstage was a dazzle.

Lucy with mascaraed and blue-shaded eyes and in tantalizing flesh tarlatan and tights, her hair gilt dusted, became transformed before her eyes into an apotheosis of such seductive beauty that Vida could not restrain a twinge of jealousy as she saw herself in the merciless makeup mirror. She felt envy too—Lucy unexcited, taking the star-attention for granted, what a perfect satisfying life.

"I really envy you all you learned. You're going to have to help me study and catch up. You don't use makeup, do you?"

"I do too," said Vida defensively, "I just haven't had time today." As she sat in the seat down in front among all the people in evening dress she could hardly breathe waiting for the effect of Lucy on the audience. To her astonishment, across the footlights Lucy was not the exotic dressing room stranger but the friend she knew in Congress. Beautiful, of course, but more like a child dressed up to be a ravishing woman. I'm just jealous, she told herself as the audience applauded during the final turns which seemed to have to go on and on for more applause.

After this night it became routine to be backstage.

One evening she arrived, after an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum and a long bus ride, to find Cleo in the stage door alley talking to a boy friend. It was too early to hook up Lucy. As she approached the dressing room the door opened and Veme, one of the chorus boys, shot out wild-eyed with only a bath towel around his loins.

"Jesus Christ," he shrieked, counterpointed by Lucy's high trill.