Among the Daughters/Chapter 3
THE BISON BALL
Lucy knew the store windows on both sides of the street and inspected their changes of display with the interest of a chronic shopper. With, or without, a few cents left from her noon milk money, she often wandered through the shops pricing articles, or sniffed along the toiletries counters seemingly oblivious to the watchfulness of the clerks. Sometimes a fallen sachet packet or dangling paper of pins called for rescue. It would have been wasteful not to pick them up. Finders, keepers. Mother just loved sachet and agreed it was a lucky find.
Two blocks from the Empire a fascinating rhythmic noise stopped her. It came from the fifth floor of the dark red brick, turreted Lode Building. This structure's first occupants had been mining magnates, engineers, assayers, lawyers, and stock manipulators. The turret once had been a symbolic crown overlooking their endless empire of gold, silver, and copper. But on this May 1919 day the luster had faded. The broad white marble staircase, still spotted at well-spaced strategic points with brass spittoons, was worn and dirty. Once spacious offices now were divided into cluttered cubicles of frenetic day-to-day schemings in pursuit of uncertain daily bread.
A black-meshed iron cage rattled up and down, and up on the top floor, at the lowest rent in the building's history, was the dance studio of Miss Ilona Klemper—"Formerly with Fokine."
"One two, one two," raindropped into Lucy's enchanted ears. She bobbed her head in accented rhythm, looked up to discover the source of the pitapat, and saw the lettering on the window.
"Well, I never," she said aloud, and took the elevator to see what made that fascinating noise.
Through the windowed door she saw an enormous room with a wall of mirrors and, reflected in the mirrors, some girls holding on to a long pole against one wall. They wore straight cheesecloth dresses which hung below their calves and were confined at their waists with cords. A gaunt youngish woman with fuzzy black hair, wearing the same costume, stood in the center of the room clacking time with little round black things in each hand while the girls kicked forward and backward.
Maybe this was a school where one could learn to dance like the dancers at the Empire.
I certainly learned a lot today, she thought walking home.
"What do you think, Mother, there's a school where they teach dancing. In the Lode Building. Not fox-trots or one-steps but steps dancers do at the Empire. Stage dancing."
Mae put down a knitting bag used as a subterfuge to carry the food brought after work. Landladies were unreasonable about cooking in your room.
"You don't say, Pussy. Oh, here's the new Mode."
Lucy clasped her hands behind her tousled head and rocked back and forth on the bed's edge.
"I had more fun today. Miss Shaver kept me after school because she thought I didn't have any pants, and then when she saw I did she kissed me. Isn't that something?"
Mae smiled. It was nice that Lucy's teacher was such a nice woman. She took out a Sterno and opened a can of vegetable soup. Vegetables are good for you. During the war she had learned that dark bread is more nourishing than white, and the delicatessen had some lovely fresh roast pork and potato salad.
"Don't forget mustard on mine," reminded Lucy.
Tomorrow was Saturday—Saturday and Sunday they splurged at Childs' because Friday was payday.
After the incriminating evidence was cleaned away and the refuse stored in the knitting bag to be discarded surreptitiously in a street garbage container, they divided a banana, a five-cent Hershey bar, and settled down to catch up on what was going on in the world of Mode.
It was a magical world's monthly greeting overflowing with glittering advertisements and fashions, inspiring designs for Lucy's wardrobe. Sometimes one could find wonderful bargains with which to approximate Mode fashions, clothes which made Lucy appear older than her approaching thirteenth year. Mother's companion.
Mae w'as vaguely aware that Lucy's dresses caused consternation among girl classmates, but dismissed this as envy. Illogically, she believed that wearing these concoctions might be the means for Lucy to meet nice people. Nice people who would do things for her in a still not to be too worried about future. Time enough to think about that when Lucy finished school. School was an institution at which attendance was required by authorities because—because that was how it was. Mae hardly remembered anything about her own elementary schooling, rarely wasting time about the past except to be thankful that Lucy and she did not have to live with her sister Mabel in the grey house on Twelfth Street in Congress, Nebraska, where she had been born. Old-maid Mabel whose grudgingly offered bounty she had determined never to accept. As for the future, she floundered helplessly in a daydream whose shining image was Lucy reposing on a downy apotheosis of adoration.
Lucy didn't care what girls said about her dresses or anything. She often had thought it would be fun to have a girl friend who, like herself, wore nice clothes and had boy friends. Then you could exchange bits of information. But the trouble was girls didn't know anything. It was from boys that you learned. So she had no feeling about what girls said except to be sorry for them because they didn't know how to act with boys. She noticed boys didn't like girls to talk about things that didn't have to do with petting and kissing. Kissing and going to school were almost the same. You learned about arithmetic the way you did about boys. If you did this or that, certain things happened. Sometimes she made Frank wait a few days before she let him kiss her.
"That's a beautiful dress." She leaned over Mae's shoulder. "I wonder if the actresses at the Empire ever have their pictures in Mode?"
"Well, I don't know—they aren't actresses exactly—they're dancers or singers."
Mae pondered the distinction. Actresses were really—women. She could not visualize Lucy a woman. Actresses were so—old. An actress had to cry and look ugly or, what was worse, be funny for people to laugh at. Dancing was lovely work for a girl, and could lead to many nice things. Toast of the Town.
Lucy flipped the pages of the magazine. A lot of things were in it she neither understood nor cared to.
"My goodness, they certainly have some crazy things in this magazine. Look at this crazy quilt. It says here it's a picture of a D-i-a-g-h-i-l-e-v Ballet. What's a ballet?"
Mae looked at the colored facets and black lines of a Picasso painting.
"Oh, a ballet is dancing on toes. Dancers have to have their toes broken to stand on them. It certainly is a crazy picture. Doesn't look like dancing to me."
"I wonder," said Lucy, frowning critically at the Picasso reproduction, "if it costs a lot to take dancing lessons. I'd love to learn to dance at that school in the Lode Building."
Mae considered. "That's funny, dear, I was thinking the same thing."
Lucy kicked high left and right in the glee of a young bacchante. "Oh, you and me always like the same things."
Mae beamed happily.
"I wonder if taking lessons is awfully dear," said Lucy.
The ever-present obstacle loomed. Tire soft contours of Mae's face sagged. Hard enough to scrape together Lucy's milk pennies. Mae did this by doing without lunch herself. Mae never had felt so helpless and alone, even when that man had evicted them from the roominghouse because she wouldn't, and they had to spend the night in the cold railroad station. An unsteady step creaked up the stairs outside their door. Why of course!—there was the little room upstairs.
"The back room upstairs is vacant—that's a dollar and a half cheaper," Mae said.
"Oh boy, what luck!"
They hugged each other happily in contemplation of the unexpected windfall.
On Saturday afternoon, when Mae came from work, they helped each other dress in their best and went to interview Miss Ilona Klemper—"Formerly with Fokine."
The skinny woman with the thin mouth and narrow-set eyes did not seem to believe that Lucy was only twelve. Mae's awe of the unfriendly teacher was multiplied by a kind of diffident dizziness at seeing Lucy and herself mirrored tinily across the vast expanse of the studio floor. Lucy's hem, she noted, distressed, dipped on the left. The reflected expanse unaccountably recalled frighteningly her wedding journey across the lonely flat unending plains and then up and up to the dizzying big city while the strange man found so much pleasure in giving her pain. When she grew big he began to leave her. Big things, big rooms, big spaces, always made her feel unprotected and defenseless.
But Lucy was immediately at home in the large room. The clean floor felt wonderful under the thin soles of her cheap high-heeled slippers and she sniffed happily the acrid perfume of resin and floor-mop oil. To Lucy, Miss Klemper was not a star but a teacher, like teachers at school, but not as pretty as Miss Shaver. Miss Klemper was a teacher who would teach her what to do in order to get a place in the Empire dance line.
Ilona Klemper had felt herself a star in the shabby mother's deference, but Lucy's matter-of-fact questions antagonized her. No girl under sixteen should bleach her hair or wear such a bizarre almost ankle-length draped skirt and put on lipstick. A beauty like this one, she thought, examining Lucy jealously, never would apply herself to work because anyone could see she was boy-crazy.
"The beginners' class is Fridays at four, but you may find it hard to catch up as it is the middle of the term."
"I can do some steps already, so maybe I don't have to start at the beginning. Shall I show you?"
"All right—you'll find slippers in the dressing room."
"Oh, these are O.K.," Lucy said. Walking to the center, she paused, nodded her head to set the tempo as she hummed a popular tune. Then she tapped lightly with the toe of her left foot in preparation and was off for a chorus of grapevines, high steps in place, a few hulas, and at last the slow high kicks she had seen at the Empire.
As Ilona Klemper watched, the floor seemed to become a stage. One would think the girl had stage experience, she thought, her jealousy blending with reluctant admiration. A natural sense of rhythm. But the girl's dancing was crude, the common type of theatrical dancing men liked. However, she showed promise. One day when she became a première ballerina she would say—"I owe it all to my great teacher, Ilona Klemper, a great dancer herself."
"Be careful," she called to Lucy, "be careful not to break your ankles in those slippers."
Most young girls have an element of beauty of one kind or another which with nurturing may, if they are not ambitious beyond their capabilities, help them through the agonizing years of post-adolescence. Ilona Klemper from childhood however had had a dry spinsterish appearance. Her timidity as a girl unattractive to boys made her strive to excel as leader of her high school gym class. In reward for her tireless application during senior year she was chosen to perform a strenuous Hungarian folk dance. As she stamped, leapt, and crouched she felt the most wonderful sensation of her life; the thunderous applause of students and faculty as she spread her arms at the end gave her the thrilling feeling of being loved, especially by the boys. You could, she discovered, express your inmost feelings unashamed before everyone in the dance. She decided then and there to continue dancing for audiences, even though first she had to become a gym teacher.
Of course, she had confided to herself in a mirror, I am not just pretty-pretty. I have an unusual face. Two woolly black tufts of hair bunching from a side part topping an arrow face cleft by a sharp aquiline nose nodded agreement, and she threw back her head to strengthen a slightly receding chin, a gesture she resolved to cultivate.
After her triumph with the Hungarian folk dance she had begun to explore the particular aesthetic world of the dance with the limited means at hand, chiefly magazines and books in the public library. Records of the scandalous Isadora Duncan and glowing accounts of Loie Fuller swirling in kaleidoscopically spotlighted great swaths of silks on Paris stages made dull indeed the prospect of teaching girls who considered gym a period of playful escape from more demanding studies.
A comfortable legacy from an uncle which her parents regarded as in the nature of heaven-sent bait to attract a worthy young man for their daughter, who lacked other attractions, seemed to Ilona a quite different sign from Heaven—that she was destined to be a dancer. Her father, the chief clerk of a large printing concern, was embarrassed by the revelation of this queer streak in an otherwise compliant daughter but, after mild objection, gave in to the persuasions of his wife.
"Ilona," Mrs. Klemper had said firmly, "is very artistic," adding as a clincher, "and a good sensible girl who won't do anything foolish."
The idea that a dancer might be one who created a style of her own never occurred to Ilona. At the end of her first year of teaching gym, she journeyed to New York and enrolled in the school of Morris Volkov, manufacturer and exporter of ready-made dances of all types to schools throughout the nation. At the term's end the world of professional dancing seemed farther away rather than nearer. Prepared with a Volkov repertoire, Ilona decided that the only path with which to launch herself in the foreign realm of professionalism was to emulate her teacher and open a school.
Her school was a success, but it brought her no closer to the role of professional dancer.
When the fabulous Diaghilev dancers touring the United States performed in Denver, leaving in their wake the phrase "art of the dance," Ilona, reinspired, again journeyed to New York, this time to work with the ballet masters who taught professionals. Devoid of a performer's native requisites, her dancing remained that of a conscientious gym student. Toward the end of the term Fokine used her with other students to dance in a Westchester charity pageant. For a few weeks thereafter she remained in a sweltering New York to see whether this was the beginning to a great future. But, at last, she returned to Denver where the words "Formerly with Fokine" transported her to the position she craved. She would instill into a benighted community appreciation for the finer things.
Alas, professional zeal was lacking in girls who thought dancing school fun once a week, or a place to learn a dance to show off at school entertainments.
But here was a girl with a natural rhythm, unlike the giggling awkward pupils who aroused exasperation she had to mask with a patient smile. Here was a young, ready-made performer who could make the name of Ilona Klemper famous.
"Of course," she said, with a foreign shrug acquired in New York, "if you want to be a real dancer you must study ballet."
"But doesn't that mean she has to have her toes broken?" Mae asked anxiously.
"Not at all," Miss Klemper reassured, "that is a mistaken belief."
At the Empire Lucy had seen toe dancers, and though she marveled at their ability, ballet, until this moment, had belonged to the category of acrobatic entertainers. Acrobatics to beautiful music—not nearly as exciting as dance steps to ragtime. Now, however, the prospect of learning to balance on the tips of her toes entranced her as she recalled a photograph in Mode of Marilyn Miller.
Need of a dancing costume and ballet slippers was unexpected expense.
"Stand in your stocking feet on a sheet of paper and draw around them with a pencil," said Miss Klemper. "Bring it to me with $3.50 and I will send to Capczio in New York for your toe slippers."
"My goodness, it certainly takes a lot of extra things to have dancing lessons," Lucy said on the way home. "It's going to cost too much. Maybe Aunt Mabel will send me some money for my thirteenth birthday."
"I wouldn't count on it," Mae said wryly.
Forbidding Mabel, self-righteously alone in the small Nebraska house in which she and Mae had been born, always saying no to everything nice, hating everyone, everything, even grudging a kitten a teaspoon of milk. She remembered how when they both were children Mabel used to wait for the kitten to reach the milk and, just as the sweet thing was about to lap, take the saucer away. She's not going to do that to my darling Pussy.
"Well, my goodness, I'd think she'd want to give her only niece a present."
"I guess she doesn't think about us—how could she know about us—I never write her."
Mabel, thought Mae, would write back saying—I expected it. I knew, sooner or later, you would come begging to me for money. Well, you can come back if you want to, you are my sister, and half of the house is yours, according to the will.
"Maybe you ought to write her," Lucy said.
"Oh no, dear. Mabel would think we ought to come and live with her in Congress." Live in the country—whatever for! Denver was a city, and you could learn ballet, and dance in the Empire line. What could you do in Congress? Lucy lost interest in Aunt Mabel.
The end of June Lucy was thirteen, promoted to 8th grade, and fairly steady on her toes.
Despite the strenuous practicing her body was rounding gently and Frank felt some day he would have to do something, beat her, to impress on her his growing self. It puzzled him that she had grown more rather than less remote each succeeding week, but he could not keep away from her. His parents, nagged by Opal, had ordered him to, and he had tried to out of pique. But she didn't seem to care. The other night he just touched her hand at the movie and she had looked at him as though he were a stranger. She hadn't said not to—but he couldn't touch her again that night. And telling him he acted young—why he was almost three years older!
Lucy now felt distaste for Frank's hot demands. Why couldn't he sit still and watch the movies, learn something about lovemaking from Milton Sills? Opal's Freddie too, trying to date her, telling her she was a hot number. She decided—pure speculation, as she knew none—she preferred older men.
She agreed with herself that she had learned a lot in the past year. Even Miss Shaver was more exciting than Frank or Freddie. The fuzz on Miss Shaver's upper lip was like a pussy willow. Her tight brown belt gave her a trim look—Lucy pulled her own imitation patent leather belt tighter to accent her new gentle swelling.
She had torn a page from her lesson book and, lingering after class, had asked Miss Shaver to draw around her stockinged foot.
"It's a pattern for made-to-order ballet slippers from New York," she said importantly.
Miss Shaver had ran her smooth clean hands down Lucy's legs to make certain she was standing straight and had squeezed her toes and they had laughed together. Miss Shaver's face was red. Frank never would think of anything like what Miss Shaver did, he was awfully clumsy.
Then, when school closed, Miss Shaver invited Lucy to lunch at the Brown Palace Hotel, an invitation which caused consternation because she didn't have a new dress ready. Only rich people went to the Brown Palace. There was no time to make a new dress, so Mae bravely opened a charge account to outfit Lucy for the important occasion.
"Don't forget, put your knife on your plate when you are finished cutting your meat, and don't leave your spoon in your cup."
At first Miss Shaver had been formal, almost strange, as they sat in the large dining room. Lucy hardly could pay any attention to her because there was so much to see. The napkins were bigger than towels, and Negro men carried big silver dishes to tables on which were flowers.
I wonder if I can take the flowers home? thought Lucy, longing to share with Mae at least part of these riches.
Miss Shaver didn't mention school but asked about Lucy's dancing and how she planned spending the summer. She reached across the table and touched Lucy's hand, like when she had smoothed her hands down my legs, thought Lucy.
"You're so pretty, Lucy. I wish I had a—little—girl like you."
That was funny for Miss Shaver to say, she didn't feel like a little girl.
"My goodness, I'm not a little girl—I'm in my teens."
Miss Shaver blushed. She seemed to have a hard time explaining.
"What I meant was, I wish I had a—friend—young—like you. How would you like to come to my place and spend the—afternoon—now and then this summer? I would show you many interesting—things." Her voice had become low and intimate, like when someone told you a secret.
"I guess I could do that," Lucy replied hesitantly because Miss Shaver was looking at her queerly, like Frank did.
"Shall we say next Wednesday?" coaxed Miss Shaver.
"I'll let you know after I ask Mother," Lucy said guardedly.
That night Lucy let Frank kiss her. Yes, Miss Shaver was gentler when she kissed you, more like Rudolph Valentino probably would be.
Later the same evening she told Mae about Miss Shaver, but only to persuade Mae to pull her belt tighter so as to have more shape. Lucy was surprised that Mother was embarrassed at mention of her large full breasts. She said, kind of flustered, a tight belt made her ache when she bent at work. Lucy thought not only boys but women were queer about themselves. Miss Shaver wanted you to see her breasts; Mother didn't like to be reminded of hers. And boys were always trying to touch you there.
She gave it up and stretched luxuriously. It was more exciting to think about dancing. Bending, stretching, and kicking is easy. Miss Klemper scolded when a grand battement went too high because it made a bad line. It was hard though to finish each step exactly, or not wobble after a tour jeté.
"Pas de bourrée assemble—pas de bourse assemblé." All those elegant French words.
"Turn out, keep your knees straight, keep your arms in first, second, third, fourth, oi fifth. Watch your balance. Watch your line. Keep your leg at waist level, turn out, smile," Miss Klemper kept saying. After three weeks of waiting for the pink satin slippers she was only allowed to roll up and down at the bar! Who would have thought little fast beats and steps would be harder to do than a split or high kick?
"You can't practice during my other classes," Miss Klemper said. But there were other hours while mother was working and there were no classes and sometimes Miss Klemper danced with her. Of course Miss Klemper could do hard steps and never lost her balance. Miss Klemper wore pink cotton bloomers and a cotton chemise under her costume—and even though she was skinny she looked bunchy. One day she saw Miss Klemper looking at her in the mirror the way Opal did and when their eyes met she bit her lip and asked what Lucy was thinking about.
"I was wondering how old you are," Lucy said.
"I'm only twenty-four, if you must know," Miss Klemper snapped crossly.
She seemed older than Miss Shaver or Mother, too old for a beau or to be a dancer at the Empire. But there was one thing about ballet, you could hardly keep up with all the things to learn. Not like with boys when all you got out of that was a soda. But ragtime was fun too. Dance hall managers were mean, throwing you out because you were too young. What did that mean, too young for what?
Lucy jumped up and did a few changements, and the clerk in the room below pounded on the ceiling with his umbrella.
"Relevé, relevé, assemblé."
They went to bed. After a while they stopped whispering, just like sisters, Mae thought, except that Mabel never was sweet like her darling Pussy. Then it was quiet in the dark corner of the rancid hall which was Lucy's home, nurturing and protecting her, a white orchid feeding on shaded humid air.
An upheaval knocked down the protecting thin walls of their dark corner and they found themselves stranded on starvation's shoals. The word "strike" was incomprehensible to Mae. To her an employer was a benefactor who in exchange for a day's work made possible slow migration to the magnetic East—the world of Mode awaiting Lucy. She agreed with her employer who said if he didn't give work how could the ungrateful strikers live. Imagine the strike leader saying if they didn't work how could the employers make money! How could you work without an employer? She didn't mind the long hours. She resented the strikers as plotters against Lucy's present and future. Food became scarcer in their corner, and there was no money for ballet lessons. The strikers, Mae explained to Lucy, hungry all the time now, were a menace called Bolsheviki. Mae often had been obliged to get a new job when one of her employers, at a moment's notice, ceased his benefactions—but what bewildered her now was the changes in times. What caused "hard times"—a change which made a job, any job, impossible to find?
To Lucy this crisis was signal for change. What did she care about those old Bolsheviki with long beards and bombs? She had planned all along to work this summer, before school started again. Wasn't she thirteen and grown up? She was going to help tired Mother who worked so hard and never had any fun.
With each technical advance at Miss Klemper's she viewed the dancers at the Empire in new perspective. The chorus line, foremost last year in her vision, now faded into a mass background for the specialty dancers, those comets who, only a year ago, were too remote for emulation. One day she said to herself in surprise as she watched—"Why, I can do more than the chorus and some of what the soloists do."
One afternoon while Mae was out looking for work, Lucy, in her best dress, high-heeled slippers, and patent leather belt pulled tight, went to call on Mr. Brady, manager of the Empire Theatre.
"Walk across the room and pick up your skirt," said the big potbellied man.
Lucy hesitated and then lifted her dress slowly. She couldn't understand why she felt so afraid as this fat man's beady eyes seemed to suck in—they were such sticky eyes—her legs. How else could he see her legs, Lucy reassured herself. My goodness, it's lucky I've my best panties on.
Then the man said, "Higher, higher."
Suddenly Lucy wasn't afraid. Why he's just like Frank!
"How old are you?"
Lucy dropped her skirt and said, "Seventeen."
Mr. Brady said nothing but just looked.
He smiled, thinking, what a looker, and said, "Let's see what you can do."
With a wall of photographs of luminaries as background, she kicked off her slippers and broke into a routine of her accomplishments, as though she, with fixed smile, and he, with unsmiling sticky eyes, were adversaries. Finished, she pulled down her dress, adjusted her belt, and awaited his comment. He tapped a pencil which had been doodling on an engagement calendar. She eyed him inquiringly in the first wait of her life, a frightening, unfamiliar feeling to a hitherto confident Lucy. The world in the potbellied beady-eyed form of Mr. Brady had caught up with her.
"You're okay, girlie, but you need experience."
Lucy didn't think she needed experience but said, "I guess maybe you're right, and that's why I came for a job at the Empire."
"You don't get me, kid—after you get experience somewhere come back and see me."
Uncomprehending, Lucy looked at Mr. Brady who didn't seem interested any more. But now she understood why Mother was so helpless and weepy about getting a job. Where else could she get experience in Denver?
"You see, Mr. Brady, it isn't just that I want to be a dancer, my mother hasn't a job now, and we need the money, and if I could be in the chorus line," Lucy demoted herself from being a soloist, "I wouldn't expect what you pay the other girls—at first."
Mr. Brady said nothing, his eyes expressionless. What a looker! Mr. Brady's thick fingers itched to fondle that young flesh, but he was afraid. Mr. Brady only recently had evaded jail by paying off a dancer he had—overfondled. This kid was jailbait. Mr. Brady banished temptation.
"Sorry, kid," he said, "but leave your name and address."
Lucy, fighting back an unfamiliar impulse to weep, noticed how Mr. Brady was looking at her. That was familiar.
She sat down to put on her shoes, and as she lifted her leg her dress fell back. Mr. Brady saw a tender white thigh and pink panties.
"Girlie," he was breathing hard, "how would you like to dance at the annual ball of the Bison Lodge?"
Lucy's tears retreated. She smoothed her dress over her knees and considered.
"It's a chance," urged Mr. Brady, who had decided there might be a chance for him too, "and I'll give you five dollars out of my own pocket. How's that?"
Mr. Brady, a Bison because it was good for business at the Empire, had been drafted Chairman for the annual Ladies Night Ball. Chairman meant he had to provide free entertainment, but he was having difficulty. Performers could be persuaded to appear at benefits in New York or Chicago where publicity might lead to other jobs. So far he had only recruited one good-natured comic, a souse promised all he could drink.
Lucy accepted. Mr. Brady could not resist squeezing her arm.
To Mae, dangling on starvation's fringe, the Bisons represented wealth, security, open sesame to that fabulous Mode world awaiting Lucy. She knew nothing about the Bisons but, being rich people, surely they were a source from whom Heaven Only Knew what benevolence might flow.
She divided their few dollars, half for food, half for rent. It must last until Lucy, like a blue fairy, fluttered into Mr. Brady's heart. The food money would keep Lucy strong until her dance, and the rent money would buy a forget-me-not blue tarlatan sparkling with a Roman candle shower of sequins.
The squat sloppy landlady, hardened to appeals from the weird beings who existed furtively in her malodorous cubbyholes, unceremoniously opened their door with a pass key. Her gimlet eyes glittered as, undecided about waiting a little longer for her rent, she studied the sparkling sequins. She would just as soon throw that Lucy out into the gutter where she belonged. Making hard-working Mr. Schmidt buy her candy.
Mae, meekly accepting the intrusion, sought to embroider the sequins' significance.
"Mr. Brady—of the Empire—himself engaged Lucy," she pleaded. Where could they go if the landlady evicted them?
Lucy, though used to brutal invasions of their privacy by landladies, glared at Mrs. Murphy. If she says one more mean thing to Mother I'll scratch her eyes out.
"Well," said Mrs. Murphy, seduced by the sequin sparkle, "I'll expect my money Sunday morning, before Mass."
Mae's small semi-transparent teeth glistened in a relieved grimace. Reprieve until the morning after Lucy's dance. Even, she persuaded herself, if Mr. Brady cannot engage Lucy right away, maybe he can hire me to take care of costumes. She dashed cold water in her tired eyes and hummed happily in a faint high voice.
At word of Lucy's engagement other fingers of ambition reached out to participate.
At last, thought Ilona Klemper, she would be accorded professional recognition and be asked to supply groups of dancers who would make her famous. In anticipation she taught Lucy a creation for beginners by Morris Volkov entitled "Doll Dance."
Miss Eckles, the accompanist, thought she would escape the anonymity of playing endless exercises for Miss Klemper's classes, assuming she would be Lucy's accompanist and perhaps play a solo. Lucy disillusioned her without trying to soften the blow. Four men from the Empire orchestra had agreed to play. Mr. Brady said, "Gus can play the piano like anything, just tell him what you want." Miss Eckles was used to disappointment and spent a wonderful evening at home by herself playing at her upright piano from Etude without interruption from Miss Klemper and out-of-step brats.
Lucy was not to dance until eleven but by seven, bathed, her curls released from kid curlers knobbing her head, and having supped on cereal and milk, she was impatient to leave. Mae washed down a slice of bread and apple butter with a cup of tea, more nervous than Lucy.
Lucy wanted to put on her makeup at home. The girls at the Empire wore their makeup dashing out between acts for coffee. But Mae's timidity overruled Lucy who stormed how would anyone know she was a dancer, if she didn't have on makeup? Lucy had to carry her theatrical face in a heavy red metal box, an arsenal recommended by the druggist who supplied Empire showfolk. Sticks of greasepaint in varied blatant flesh tones, a box of thick clinging powder to mask her perfect skin, black mascara to bead her long caressing lashes, blue paint to bruise the tender lids of her enormous slanting eyes, black crayon to draw a frame above them, pasty Valentine red to cupid-bow her rose petal lips.
Young Aphrodite rising from the sea of childhood weighted with Max Factor cosmetics.
To keep it fresh and uncreased the sparkling costume was cradled in a sheet from their bed, with the stiff new pink ballet slippers and new pink tights.
The Bison Lodge was ten blocks from their roominghouse. They walked because they didn't have a single coin left for carfare. Through the violet evening Mae carried the ballooned sheet and her shabby black handbag wadded with a soft towel in lieu of money. Lucy swung the red makeup box and, rolled like a diploma, her music.
The evening star twinkled just in time for a wish as they reached the address. Up there, a passer-by directed, and they climbed to the second floor where the Bisons had their lodge above Sullivan's near-beer saloon and bowling alley.
Palpitating with anticipation, they stared disappointedly at the hall. Here was no gilded ballroom like the one into which Lucy had peeked at the Brown Palace. Opaque globes glared down at bilious green walls and the hardwood floor. A spittoon-studded necklace of folding chairs, with a battered upright piano as pendant, circled the room. Two standards bearing the Bison and American flags stood at the far end behind the space relegated to the musicians, and twisted purple and orange crepe paper streamers were strung from the center light to the far corners of the hall.
Speechlessly they followed a beery grizzled janitor across the echoing slippery floor into the ladies' cloakroom.
And all that money for the costume, Mae wailed inwardly as Lucy felt herself getting madder and madder at Mr. Brady. But neither confessed disillusion to the other, clinging to the faint hope that maybe everything would be O.K.
Mae unpacked automatically. She shook out the costume and hung it at the end of the coat rack. Then she folded the bedsheet and put it on the soiled cushion of the wicker couch.
"I guess we're awfully early, lie down and rest, Pussy."
The big clock on the wall ticked and a subterranean roll, roar and clap of bowling counterpointed their disquieting thoughts. Mae's wicker chair squeaked as she sighed.
A stultifying inertia had enveloped them when a dozen men and women rushed in, strident with jollity, bustlingly led by a woman in beaded brown satin. Lucy sat up quickly and smoothed her best blue silk dress over her knees.
"Well, well, well, so this is the little lady who's going to dance for us. My, my, my, what a pretty girl!" beamed Mrs. Brown Satin.
Warmth tinged Mae's low spirits. There was a gathering commotion of new arrivals, while Mrs. Brown Satin and her committee built pyramids of thick ham and cheese sandwiches. There was a rumbling of kegs of near beer, accompanied by giggles about the bottles being rushed into hiding in the men's toilet.
"Have a sandwich, dearie," invited Mrs. Brown Satin.
Lucy ate slowly, with polite small bites to make the deliciousness last a long time. Mae, too timid to take a sandwich, did accept a glass of near beer and, pleasantly stimulated, relaxed a little. Lucy took a drink from her mother's glass and wrinkled her nose.
"It's bitter, but I like the tickle of the bubbles."
Perhaps, hoped Mae, everything would be all right. Solid business success which had padded the bodies of the Bison women bolstered her spirits. They weren't stylishly dressed, considering how much money they must have. But they looked so substantial, maybe one of them might give her a job. How could strikers speak as they did about these nice people? She moved her chair back into a corner near the coat rack and even rocked a little.
Lucy came and sat next to her.
"Don't you think I ought to put on my makeup?"
"Wait, dear, we'd better not get in the way."
They sat, as at a performance, learning how rich people acted.
Years later—nine o'clock—Mr. Brady arrived with the four musicians and a great shout went up for a one-step.
Lucy, eager to begin, rushed to speak to Mr. Brady, but the way he expressionlessly said "later, later" it seemed as if he didn't recollect her part in the program. Her unaccustomed feeling of frustration returned sickeningly as she realized she was not the star of the celebration.
She stood watching the dancers. Listening to the music, punctuated by drums, cowbells and all the other percussive paraphernalia of the jazz drummer, she wanted to dance too. Not the staccato propulsion of the "Doll Dance" which, as she observed the swaying pairs, seemed a classroom exercise taught by Miss Klemper, an old maid. She wanted to dance the long free step and whirl of the one-step.
Ballroom dancing is more fun than ballet, she thought. Maybe I ought to be a ballroom dancer like Irene Castle. It's easier too. These women are terrible dancers. What fat behinds. I wonder if it's all right to smile at one of the men so he will ask me to dance?
She scanned the possibilities and decided the men were as terrible as their women partners.
The thin, flashy drummer, pounding everything in sight, must have been watching her for, as their eyes met, they laughed as at a secret joke and she made a small movement with her shoulders to show appreciation of his playing.
He's crazy, she thought approvingly, and better looking then Frank or Freddie, and older too, a man.
For the first time that evening she felt comfortable. The drummer, all the musicians, were from a different world, the theatre world she belonged to too, a much more exciting world than that of these Bisons.
Unaware of this excommunication, the bumping zigzagging Bisons jerked to the syncopation, oblivious of Lucy's critical eye, intent on excitation rarely experienced in connubial encounters. Clumsy gyrations which, in fifteen years, would resolve into simple statement of theme in the lascivious rhumba. But now, otherwise circumspect mothers and grandmothers performed, as their critic fascinatedly watched, on a dance floor serving as altar, with wiggling rumps, erotic rites guided by the musician high priests with cynical eyes.
My goodness, they don't dance as good as at the Paradise Dance Hall where Freddie and me were thrown out of because I'm not sixteen. I wonder if Opal heard about that?
The moving bodies on the dance floor were a swaying forest of hostile trunks through which she still had to discover the path to independence for herself and Mother.
Mother, she thought, is prettier than these rich women. If she weren't so bashful she could have any of these men and be rich too. Anyone with a job and a whole house to live in was rich.
St. Mary's, where Mrs. Murphy went to Mass, tolled eleven.
Mae's face was frozen in the humble smile of a petitioner for crumbs. This was her chapel. It was awful that the child could not sit for fear of crushing her costume. The intensity of her wish for Lucy miraculously bestirred the saint of this chapel. It seemed St. Brady never would get through talking but at last she heard him say enthusiastically how here in Denver he had discovered a new Pavlova. Mae's cheeks were feverish under the dabs of bluish rouge. She gave Lucy a little push.
"He means you, dear."
Lucy, head up, arms out, stiff new slippers thumping, ran out across the floor toward the musicians amid applause and murmurs of admiration. She had a funny feeling in her stomach and the hall seemed to crowd in on her.
At Miss Klemper's, Miss Eckles kept time with the pupils, but Gus had only glanced at the music hours ago.
"If you'll only play it through just once, I'll show you where it must go slow, because I do a lot of turns."
"Don't worry, kiddo," Gus had said laconically, eying her budding curves, "you just give me the beat and I'll follow you."
Next time, she had grumbled as Mae tightened the squeaking new tights, I'm going to get Miss Klemper to mark the slow parts because I don't know where they are on the music sheet.
The men who at mention of highbrow Pavlova began to move toward the men's room for bootleg drinks paused and looked at her and then Mr. Brady in lustful speculation. Mr. Brady tried to appear impassive but found himself prickling with guilt. And he hadn't as much as touched her. Christ, he thought, this kid is too hot to handle. Good thing for me her mother's with her!
Lucy mistrusted Gus the pianist, the floor, but not herself. The momentary contraction of her stomach was gone. The way the women looked at her filled her with confidence.
She stood well turned out on her left leg, right leg pointing straight out in front, arms out at the sides, elbows a little too sharp but fingers properly crooked. Head high, chest up. Flexing of silk buttocks angled the tarlatan up, like a bird's tail. She ran five steps out onto the floor into fifth position, and bent her knees in preparation for the music which did not come. For a fearful instant she rolled up on her toes in silence but Gus was there to meet her when she arrived. With all the diligence at her command, twittering feet and balancing arms, she began the mechanical "Doll Dance."
"And don't forget to smile," Miss Klemper had warned.
Woodshaving curls bobbed up and down tickling the edges of her pink ears. Eyes, too, played a part. She held them open, doll wide. Stiff mascaraed lashes, like insect antennae, sensed the focus of all kinds of eyes.
There was no responding grip from the treacherous cornmeal slippery floor for the satin box toes and, without warning, she slipped. A brief slip. A malicious laugh broke the web of attention. She guessed to herself it was funny all right when someone slipped, and kept on smiling. It would be easy to slip again on this floor. Catching the next beat she went into high kicks right and left.
The drummer grinned at her aplomb, took up his sticks and began to work them, as the saxophonist, smiling too, drew in his lips and began to blow. Communion of performers against their ever-hostile protagonist, the audience, which always must be conquered.
Patronizing indulgence of the women died, their jaws tightened as the men's mouths loosened—eyes licking as they watched what had at first appeared child become Circe.
It felt good to kick, shimmy, and turn. Who would have thought that old "Doll Dance" to have so much rhythm? I wonder what Miss Klemper would say, Lucy thought, almost giggling.
Cat's eyes were watching her.
Why that's Opal—I thought it sounded like her laugh. I won't look at her. The girls at the Empire sometimes wink like this.
Freddie winked back.
Opal yawned and glanced about with a bored expression to convey it was all so tiresome. The nerve of that—floozie, dressing up as if a famous star, and that makeup. Showing off, always showing her legs up to—Opal's bile rose as she thought of her own shapeless legs. She always bobs up where she isn't wanted. Freddie's grin made her sick. Her small thin lips drooped. The excitement of the men, like Frank and the boys in the drugstore, when Lucy was around was—disgusting. Just like dogs. No man ever looked at her like that, not even Freddie. The Hope Chest in her bedroom with its piles of hemmed and embroidered linens became a suffocating coffin of domesticity. I won't do it. I'll use those towels for scrub rags. She jerked savagely at her peg-top skirt and pulled in her stomach. Her discontented gaze roved to find some spot devoid of Lucy's pervading presence. Freddie's father was leaning toward a large bald man with grey mustache and important manner. He was, she knew, Oscar Fleisher, visiting Bison and sausage potentate from Kansas City. Kansas City was really quite a cosmopolitan city she had heard, almost as big as Chicago. Freddie, dangling on Lucy's Circean wink, was oblivious to his loss. Mr. Fleisher, for the moment, was oblivious to Opal. No one was oblivious to Lucy.
At the end of this unorthodox rendition of "Doll Dance" Lucy returned to Miss Klemper's instruction for acknowledging applause. Stooping forward on right foot she swung the left leg back in an arc, shifted balance to it, and sank into a stiff curtsey, her head a little to the side, smiling. Then she rose, blew a kiss right and left, and ran the length of the hall, her arms outstretched breasting the surf of applause.
The thumping silk slippers now were tipped with dirt. By the time she reached the cloakroom Mr. Brady had taken a deep breath, as had his fellow Bisons, and he was introducing the alcoholic comic.
"You were wonderful, just wonderful, Pussy," said moist-eyed Mae, though still adjusting herself to Lucy's startling innovations in a "Doll Dance."
"Do you think I could have another sandwich?"
Mae hesitated. Even with Lucy's success, and the earlier urging of Mrs. Brown Satin, she was timorous, but as no one was looking said, "I shouldn't think they'd mind—there's still a big pile, and I didn't have the one they offered me."
Mae packed as Lucy ate.
"I'm not going to take off my makeup until I get home."
It was a statement not a question because in the past hour she had become a real dancer. Lucy finished her sandwich and would have taken another if Mae had nodded.
Mr. Brady was effusive. It was hard to keep from touching the girl. "You just keep on working and you'll be quite a Pavlova. Any time you want to see the show free just let me know."
Mae, standing behind Lucy, smiled timidly, wondering about the five dollars but not wanting to offend Mr. Brady by mentioning it. She was not even certain he knew she was there, because he looked only at Lucy.
"Mr. Brady, thank you for letting Lucy dance for you."
Small bilgewater eyes narrowed into the descending curtain at the end of an act and Mae recognized dismissal.
Lucy followed her mother a few steps, said wait a minute, and returned to Mr. Brady. "I guess you forgot, but you said you'd pay me five dollars."
The impresario was hurt. That was the trouble with helping young kids. Never grateful. He eyed Lucy coldly. She'd never get on anyway until rid of that mother. What a mouse!
"I did?" Mr. Brady said surprised.
"Yes, you did," Lucy said loudly.
"Well, if you say I said so, you come around to my office and I'll give you the five." Smart Brady, that'll get her.
"I'd rather have it now," she said, even louder.
Christ, guess I'll have to fork over. She might stage a scene. Oh well, they look as if they need it.
Lucy looked at the stuffed wallet. Some cheapskate. Her thank-you was laconic. The musicians, watching, felt compensated. They had been roped into playing for nothing. You had to stay on the right side of the bastard.
Elated, Lucy and Mae could not sleep. Fragments of words and music jangled like cowbells the drummer had banged. Lucy waved the five-dollar bill over her head and kicked it.
"Five dollars for just one dance. If I could get five dollars every night we'd be rich."
Mae smiled sadly. What a shame it could be theirs only until Mrs. Murphy came for it on her way to Mass, furious at that to be getting only five dollars. A waste, in a way, handing it over, because they still would owe $14.50. Mrs. Murphy surely would evict them, keeping the five dollars and all their things until they paid up. She did that all the time to tenants when they were two weeks behind.
Lucy listened judiciously to the case of Mrs. Murphy versus the five dollars and gave judgment.
"She's a dirty old robber. I wish we could go somewhere else to live."
This evening ought to be the end of the old life now that she was a real dancer for money. A five-dollar start in a new room was better than paying Mrs. Murphy and being without a cent.
At seven that same morning Mae and Lucy leaned back on their chairs at Childs', replete. They had crept out at five thirty laden with a cardboard suitcase, paper bundles and the red makeup box, walking through the grey drizzle to Childs'. Two big twenty-five-cent breakfasts, and one ten-cent tip. Sixty cents gone already.
"It's a shame," said Lucy, "we didn't take the sheet, my costume will be crushed."
"Oh well, it'll press out."
"I feel sleepy." Lucy yawned and stretched in a long rhythmic gesture of contentment. Mae yawned too but with lips closed, lightheaded with fatigue and release from Mrs. Murphy who thank heavens went to Mass in another direction. But they couldn't sit in Childs' all day. The trouble with roominghouses though was you had to find one that wouldn't want a week's rent in advance and take a deposit, so they at least would have a dollar left for food. Maybe she should have taken a chance Mrs. Murphy wouldn't put them out—no, Mrs. Murphy never broke her rule about two weeks, pay up, or out. Maybe if she left Lucy in the railroad station with the things she could find some kind of work, dishwashing, to tide them over.
"Listen, dearest, let's go down to the rest room in the station, it won't look funny to sleep there with these things."
The wet dreary street leading to the railroad station was deserted. Creaking signs and pawnbrokers' balls dripped Sabbath benediction. A block from the station stood the sooty grey stone Crofter Hotel, its windows lined by dark mission chairs with greasy green cushions awaiting commercial travelers who, during empty lonesome hours, sat worrying about business while watching the chippies go by. On the sidewalk a Chinaman flushed brass spittoons, chalices of virile ennui temporarily removed from the honeycomb white and slate tiles of the lobby floor. Many travelers had wondered, without investigating, if the dusty potted palms were real. The lobby, in its greenish light, seemed a giant aquarium containing, between marble pillars and plants, specimens of a strange floating population.
Lucy was impressed. "Why can't we sit here?" The bundles were heavy, even her red makeup box.
"Oh, I don't think we could. Anyway, it wouldn't be nice. Only men sit there."
Lucy looked up at the shade-drawn windows and a raindrop rolled into her mouth. "I wish we could stay at a hotel sometime—does it cost a lot?"
"Well yes, they charge by the night."
"Have we enough for a night?"
"I think just."
Mae looked worriedly at her tired darling, and decided to risk spending their money. Sunday wouldn't be a good day to find work. Perhaps she could find work tomorrow. Someone surely would want a dishwasher then.
"Let's find out how much it costs. We'd have a good rest—and get rid of Sunday."