Butterfly Man/Chapter IX
SLANTING spring rain fell upon San Francisco, flowing in nearly opaque streams against the windows of the hotel. Rain, Ken felt, was good after so many days of monotonous sunshine. The half light of late afternoon softened the skyline. The rain made buildings tremble and shiver, washed the streets with pools of silver and brown.
"I've kept away from you, Ken," she was saying. "Don't you really know why?"
He lay on the bed. She stood over him. "For three months I've kept away from you. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to chuck the whole thing. I stuck to it for your sake. I wanted to see you get a date like this."
"I know," he said.
"You know nothing," she shot the words at him viciously. "You'll be a big success some day. You can drop everything else in the world and dance. All you care about is that body of yours and what kind of knots you can twist it into."
He sat up. "But why bring that up now?" he asked. "We went over great this afternoon."
"Aw, for Christ's sake," she said, sitting down beside him, "you don't think the dough I'm getting this week means anything to me. I can get money without dancing—and I hate dancing."
"You scare me, Nita," he said and his voice quavered a little. "I was pretty happy to get this engagement. Coming unexpected this way after the way we were kicked around in every bowling alley in the state, this is all the sweeter."
"Applesauce, dearie," she said. "You've got a partner. Don't you know it?"
"I know it. I'm up to here with thanks for what you've done for me."
"Do you know what you've done for me?" she asked. He shook his head.
"Look in my eyes," she begged.
He studied her eyes searchingly. They were clouded, brown with a faint fleck of hazel. Vainly she tried to pierce his mind, penetrate his thoughts.
"You didn't know it," she said, and her voice softened, "but I've been on a bat since we left San Bernardino in December and this is nearly March."
"You haven't been drinking?"
"No," she said bitterly. "I haven't been drinking."
She stood up, walked to the window. He followed.
"Let's not argue," he pleaded. "We got a night show to do."
"Oh, nuts!" she whirled about, caught him by the arm, clung to him and kissed him. Her voice melted away. "We've got to find some way to be happy."
Night had fallen. The little clock said ten after eight. He must rouse himself, he knew, and bathe and eat and be in the theatre at twenty after nine.
Suddenly he recalled what she had told him. How could she have submitted to those men, those horrible men, not one but many men in many places—Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Santa Barbara, even in Bakersfield the night Feinberg's wire came, informing them of their 'Frisco booking? How could she have picked men up from the streets, from theatre audiences? And why?
The scene which had just ended had been so violent, so terrifying in its intensity, that he could not believe it had been. Yet as he sat up, the room told the tale: a chair overturned, the water carafe on the floor, the bed in wild disorder.
Moving slowly, as if afraid to disturb the strange calmness which enveloped him, he entered the bathroom. In the mirror, he saw his slim body, the body he loved.
"We must find some way to be happy!" she had pleaded. Yet what she had done was unspeakable. Was that happiness? Was this dull nervelessness happiness?
Then he remembered his share in the awful scene. She had, he recalled, told him that he could not love her as a man. In bitter agony, she had told him.
"But I do love you," he had finally cried.
Then in a breathless moment, she had become a tigress, clawing at his body; afterwards a cool still statue, which he had enveloped in a robe of kisses.
He now switched on the shower and stepped into the bath.
Tony, the little Italian boy who acted as dresser for the Presidio Theatre, was the first to tell him.
"Miss Rogers isn't in yet."
Ken was ready to go on. Her dressing-room door, No. 7, facing the stage entrance, was locked. He hurried to the doorman. No, Miss Rogers wasn't in. He turned back to the theatre, the theatre where he was playing, the magnificent theatre, dressing rooms with shower baths, the cool, comfortable green room beneath the stage, the perfection of the orchestra, the graciousness of the other players on the bill, the solicitous manager, the houseboards out front which bore his name. That afternoon, Ed Fein berg had come backstage after their act and had opened a bottle of Scotch, drinking a toast to their success. Anita had been rather moody. She had sipped her drink slowly. When the agent left her dressing-room, she had turned to Ken: "Let's go to the hotel. We've got lots to talk about," she'd said.
That was how it had begun.
Now as he anxiously searched for her, he thought of the months during which they had slaved to win this engagement in the big time. They had gone without food, they had worn their bodies thin; what had they not done so that they might quit the mean world of furnished rooms, cafeteria meals and petty debts?
Ken re-entered the theatre.
"Ready?" asked the dapper little stage manager.
"Miss Rogers isn't in yet."
Through the fire door leading to the auditorium came Ed Feinberg. He seized Ken's hand and shook it.
"I got Jerry Buckley, the big booker, outside tonight. Tell Nita to give her all."
"She isn't here," Ken said colorlessly.
The stage manager leaped up the stairs.
"I'll put the Flying Dooleys in this spot," he yelled to the head carpenter. "Lower the trapeze and rings after this act."
"Where is she?" cried the agent. "When did you see her last?"
"At eight o'clock. But wait—I'll go on alone."
"The good-for-nothing gutter tart," cried Feinberg, his face purple. "She's gone and done it again."
Ken found Anita sprawled in a chair in her bedroom. A gin bottle lay on the floor. It was empty.
"Why did you do it?" he asked.
Her eyes were shiningly glazed. Back of her head, an electric sign blinked through the window pane. The rain had stopped.
"Why did you do it?" he begged.
"I hate myself," she muttered. "I'm no good. And I love you."
He kneeled and put his head in her lap. The tangy faded perfume of her rose into his nostrils. He kissed her hand.
"I know you do," he said. "I'm not angry because of this. It doesn't matter."
"We'll ruin each other." She shook her head. "I'm a slut. You're a—"
"I'm not—but I'm not—" he protested.
She wriggled to her feet. "Let's drink." A corner of her mouth rose in an ugly smile. "We might as well, after what we've done to each other."
"Don't drink. Tomorrow we must go on."
"Not me," she said as she reached for the telephone. "Bell captain, please …" To him: "I'm through here. I'm finished. Send up another bottle of High and Dry and some ginger ale."
She replaced the receiver on the hook. She tottered to the bed. "You'll see." She flung herself face forward, then rolled over. She caught his hand and held it for a long time.
"Buster," she said softly and at last, "you were a nice boy. A bad old man tried to get you but sly little Nita out-foxed him. I'm a hooker, kiddie boy, a born hustler. Don't you forget that—don't you forget it."
"Don't say that," he pleaded.
"But I am. I fought it for months. I had it all figured out. You and I, we'd be real lovers. We're lovers all right now, but no one'll ever write a book about us. I'm too low, too rotten. You're … you."
"You mustn't talk that way."
A knock on the door. The bell boy brought a tray, bottles, glasses, ice and a letter addressed to Rogers and Gracey. Ken opened the letter.
"Don't read it," she said. "Wait! Remember that wristwatch I bought for your birthday last week? You said I couldn't afford it. Well, I paid for that with some dough a funny-faced old guy who sat in the first row in Ventura gave me for—"
"We're cancelled," said Ken. "It's from Buckley."
"The old fluff," Anita jeered. "He's the bastard that cancelled me when I was the wrong end of Rogers and De Long year and a half ago."
The letter fell to the floor. Ken sat down.
"I'll go back home to Selma," said Ken. "I won't never be able to stay on here now."
"You'll do nothing of the sort," she cried, sitting up. "Sweet baby, I'm going to take you where you belong, honey lamb, where you'll meet everyone you want to meet and do what you want to do."
"Mexico, Tia Juana. Caliente, Mexicali, Juarez—"
"But how'll we get there?"
"We'll get there, if I have to go down and lay the railroad tracks myself."