Butterfly Man/Chapter VI
AS the motor-bus rolled into the San Bernardino valley, Ken rejoiced. Clear cool morning air swept down from the mountain wall dry and free. The warm tonic sun revealed faraway vistas, firs and pines cresting above the ever-changing skyline, long deep green citrus groves, sand seas upon which hardy grape shoots lay in long lines to the desert horizon. Soon midmorning, it would be hot enough for laziness; if he could be successful, he would have the leisure to enjoy these Southland days. If he could be successful, if he could earn enough, he would ride and swim and dance until, exhausted, he would laze in the languorous sun.
Anita sat curled up beside him, in the wide leather seat. She had yielded to his insistence that they take the early bus to San Bernardino. She had been up most of the night and would have preferred to sleep until ten. Ken regretted now his selfish impulsiveness. She had done so much for him; she had steadied him, given him self-confidence and an understanding of the comradeship and self-denial which is the casual gift of every member of the theatrical fraternity. She was, in Ken's mind, a great pal. Gazing at her now as she lay cuddled up and dozing, he was reminded of the many long hours and profitless days she had shared with him. When he met her, she was sailing ahead, serenely contented with her lot, lonely perhaps, but certainly a victor in the struggle to defeat her own weaknesses. Then she had joined him whole-heartedly in his ambition. He had only to mention his unwillingness to study longer at Buddy Nolan's. She had quit the ornate School of Terpsichore with him. She had even changed her mode of living to suit him. Day after day he had routed her out of her bungalow court apartment with a seven-o'clock-in-the-morning 'phone call. He had lived nearby, in a shabby apartment hotel absurdly named the Palacio del Oro, and they would meet at the Owl for coffee and cake.
Then, day after day, from nine until five, at Delaney's, they had struggled to overcome the inherent and rebellious unwillingness of their flesh, torturing their bodies in order to dance as they thought capricious booking agents and later the equally fickle public would prefer to see them dance.
Anita, it had been, Ken conceded, who drove away the fear that he had acted hastily and ungratefully toward Mr. Lowell. She had also prevented him from returning the one-hundred dollar bill in the same envelope in which Mr. Crofton had sealed it that day when Johnson had delivered Ken's clothes. Ken had wanted to write a note to Mr. Lowell, but Anita had advised him to send a single page of note paper upon which would be written only the word "Thanks" and his name.
Thus that episode ended. Gone were the fabulous glories of Star-ridge; gone the silk-covered bed, the exotic foods, vintage wines, the terrifying beauty of the organ. Gone that puzzling dread which had finally enveloped Ken and which was to be replaced by an almost equally puzzling restlessness until Anita restored his faith in himself. Anita included, of course, the dance. The dance blossomed and grew ripe. He was made for it. It transformed him. Now Anita had poured much of it into the mould of her old vaudeville act. She had taught him the difficult Russian acrobatic steps. With the occasional aid of Peter Delaney, she had taught him her soft-shoe routine. And she had taught him the waltz.
It was marvelous to execute his own high-kick specialty, his own creation, a dance he alone could perform, thanks to the unusual limberness of his legs as well as their length. That was the number that would, Delaney said, "make" him. But the waltz was a new experience.
In the beginning, when he first rehearsed the waltz with Anita, he decided he was too awkward for ball-room dancing. The long arc of their steps, the break in which she soared up and away from him, the intricacies of the ever-changing figures; and then the slow embarrassing undulation with which the dance concluded, when, body to body, they danced as one—a dance, in short, in which his dashing fiery youthfulness was forced to yield to suave and surefooted experience—this he could not do, he said.
But she made him do it. For three weeks he did nothing else. At last, when their costumes came, when she was slim and rich in cloth of gold and he was elegantly slender in his tuxedo and they danced to a Paul Whiteman recording and the late autumn afternoon light was growing dim, he knew what it was to dance—as Anita said—divinely. In that moment, twilight descending, he was comfortable again. No remote fears, no obscure problems, no rising tide of anger … instead something precious, like happiness.
That night Anita had not wanted to work. But Ken had insisted and they had danced the waltz again at Delaney's. At the door of her bungalow, she had seized his head, and his lips had felt the swift sharp bruising contact of hers and her teeth had pushed aside his yielding lips and had met his.
"I'm sorry—" she suddenly had cried. "This will spoil everything now."
He had felt the need for frankness and had said quietly: "I don't see why."
"Go home," she had cried. "Hurry—please, before it's too late."
The next morning, she had had a headache. He had wondered if she had been drinking. She was fond of him, he decided. And he was fond of her. They would be very successful together, he had thought. They had dined together that night and he had tried to explain that he earnestly wanted to laugh and to play and to be gay with her. But how could he? His money was nearly gone. If they did not get an engagement soon, he would go home to Selma. And a return to Selma could destroy him utterly, now that he had tasted the joys of life in Hollywood.
She had apparently misunderstood him. She had thought that he felt it was her duty to get an engagement and that she had failed.
"We'll be working by the week after next," she had said harshly.
How she had obtained the booking at San Bernardino, he did not know. She merely had told him that she had taken three days at the valley town, five dollars a day and bus fare.
"We won't make a cent," she had added. "But you'll find out if you are a dancer or not. I'm betting you are."
"I'm a dancer all right."
"And not much more. Listen to me, youngster. I've taken more from you than I'm used to taking." She had stopped abruptly, had laughed and had said: "Well, never mind. It all falls under the heading of art."
"I'm at a disadvantage," Ken had said.
"If you'd spent your whole life except for seventy-seven days in the middle of Texas—"
"How do you know it's seventy-seven days," she had asked.
"I counted 'em."
"You would." She had brusquely patted his cheek. "Come on—on with the dance."
Women, Ken told himself, were like that. They apparently expected a man to make a play for them. The trouble with him was that he didn't know where to begin with Anita. Back home in Selma, things were different. The girls were all someone's sister or daughter. At parties, with alkie and water added, things sometimes did happen. Tall tales were told in the abandoned frame house on Council Street about happenings after dances, football games and meetings of the Selma High Social Club. Ken had heard these stories. He did not always believe them. He had seen little with his own eyes. And an influence more powerful than his own will seemed to restrain him from participating in the more daring "binges" of the less restrained high school crowd.
In Selma, he had met no one like Anita. Her complete independence, the carefree attitude she assumed, her not infrequent stories of her old life in various parts of the west, made it difficult for Ken to judge her. If she had been younger and simpler he might have wondered whether her interest in him was wholly that of the artist who chooses a dancing partner only because he is talented. That a woman of twenty-eight should care to be loved by a boy of seventeen was quite beyond Ken's comprehension.
He thought her "nice." She was, he believed, "attractive." His own fastidious nature made him displeased with her occasional carelessness in dress. She would appear at Delaney's clad in mannish slacks and a rough khaki shirt, with hair tossing this way and that as she danced. Her figure was trim enough but her face was unevenly moulded, puffed here and there, the aftermath of bygone drinking bouts, hard lovemaking and sometimes very little food.
Ken, of course, did not consciously criticize Anita's appearance. He thought her "nice."
This morning he thought her especially "nice." She was animate, warm, helpful, part of the ever-moving panorama, more to be treasured than these unchanging trees and mountains and patches of sage-covered sand. Because of her, this was the morning of a great day—his first day as a professional dancer, his first step toward fame.
He recalled the last time he had been driven over this foothill boulevard, Mr. Lowell beside him, Johnson's broad back curving above the pane of the glass separating chauffeur from passengers. He was much happier today. He had succeeded in surviving nearly four months of Hollywood, months of hard work, life between the drab walls of a furnished bedroom. The great and the near great had passed him by. He was not yet one of them. They had succeeded because they had worked hard, had defied their own weaknesses. He too—he thought this morning—would win in the same selfless way.
She sat up.
"What are you thinking about?" She smiled knowingly.
"I don't know."
"You look so serious. Relax, Ken, if you want to get anything out of this try-out."
"I'm not nervous."
"Then why so all-fired grim? Listen, buddy, we're not working in the Follies yet. We're not even playing the Orpheum in L.A."
She took his hand. "Maybe," she said, "if you was a bit more human, you'd feel better."
In the Mission House, they rented two rooms separated by an ell in the corridor of the shabby little hotel.
"In my language this is a dump," Anita said as she unpacked her bag. "And I let you get away with this double room stuff because you looked too innocent for words downstairs at the desk; and I'm not going to San Quentin for corrupting the morals of a minor. But we coulda taken a twin bedroom and saved seventy-five cents a night. I won't bite you and if I do the marks won't show later than nine the next morning."
They couldn't find the theatre. Its narrow lobby hid between a market and an automobile salesroom, "looking like nothing but a very old vacant lot," said Anita. They found their names on the house-board. They were one of three acts, "Mme. Blanco, the famed Swiss Sharpshooter; Prince Zarah, the International Mystic; and the Metropolitan Dance Team Par Excellence, Rogers and Gracey."
"Gooda-goda," barked Anita, "we are next to closing."
"Is that good?" Ken asked.
"When the closing act is Cecil B. De Mille's 'King of Kings,' it couldn't be worse. I should have done a Salome routine and brought your head on-stage in a soup tureen." The box-office was not yet open. The office door was locked. Back stage they happened upon a wizened, wrinkled old gentleman who announced that he was Sam Anderson, father of Joe Anderson, the house manager.
At last Ken penetrated the mysteries of the theatre. Sam Anderson pointed the way to their dressing-room.
"One room enough?" he asked.
"Plenty," said Anita.
Ken followed her across the gloomy stage to a corridor. She unlocked the door of a narrow frigid cell. Two dressing tables, two chairs, a wardrobe, a barred window.
"Looks like the jail house to me," she said, "but I s'pose it's heaven to you, Buster."
"I like it."
"The orchestra will be here at twelve o'clock," Sam Anderson said. "Got your contracts with you?"
"Ed Feinberg will be down, I think," said Anderson.
Anita laughed. "To see us break in? Who told you?"
"He wrote me when he sent Joe the contract."
After the old man had left, Ken asked her who Ed Feinberg was.
"The agent, silly. The man who made us what we are today. I don't think he'll come this far to see us perform. Come, let's get into some practise clothes."
"You first," Ken said.
"Listen here, what do you think I am?" she exploded. "We got quick changes to make. Get in that corner and slip into your dancing strap; I've got a belt on already. Have to keep one on all the time with hot stuff like you around."
A few minutes later, they had changed into trunks and shirts.
"I never knew how pretty you were," she said.
"The same goes for you, baby," he said.
"You mean that?" She laughed. "Aren't you going a bit too far?"
"You've been wonderful, really wonderful," he said. He took her in his arms. "If we ever get to meaning anything at all in this business, it'll be because you've been so wonderful."
"Those are precious words, precious," she whispered, as she let him kiss her.