Butterfly Man/Chapter VII
HALF the audience was Mexican; the orchestra squeaked through the overture with dismal monotony of tempo and old Sam Anderson was always late on cues—he acted as grip, props and curtain man—yet it was a great opening performance. The audience warmed quickly to the routines of Rogers and Gracey, applauded loudly when Ken let his legs fly high in his specialty. They received four curtain calls after the waltz.
"We pepped them up, the tamales, for their Bible lesson," Anita laughed as they dressed. "Boy, it sure feels good to work."
He was naked except for his strap and he rubbed his lean body with alcohol, then powdered himself.
"If you went on that way," Anita said, "you'd wow 'em all the way to Mexico City."
He had lost his shyness. The stage, sparkling lights, music and applause, was stimulating dry wine. He stepped into his street clothes, bubbling over with enthusiasm.
"Let's do something," he suggested.
"I'm for celebrating. Let's see—we each make one fifty profit on the day. I'll chip in and buy a bottle of gin with you."
"I'd rather not drink," he said.
"Not even a special Anita cocktail? Here—" she tossed him a dollar bill.
He found Sam Anderson at the stage door. "You can get gin at the corner drug store," said the old man.
"Where can I buy some flowers?"
"Right next door. The market is open until eleven."
He made his purchases and light-heartedly hurried back to the theatre. As he opened the dressing-room door, he saw the black overcoat of a man. He entered. The bulbous-nosed ruddy-cheeked Jew who faced him was Ed Feinberg.
"I was down to Palm Springs and dropped by to see your act. It's okay," he commented.
"Can you get us more time?"
"Yes … and no," he replied.
"I get it," Anita remarked tersely.
"I don't," said Ken.
"This is business," Feinberg said. "I guess Miss Rogers is the business manager of the act, ain't she?"
"Yes," Ken replied.
"You leave it to her." He winked. "She knows how to get dates. You keep on dancing. You're all right, kid."
Ken handed the flowers to Anita.
"Sweet boy." She smiled. "Now don't you go talking about us two, Ed."
"I'm on my way," Feinberg said. "Good luck, anyhow."
"You won't stop over and have a drink with us?"
"I can't. Gotta sleep in L.A. tonight."
"So that's an agent," Ken said as the door closed.
"That's an agent," she agreed. "He took his one buck fifty commission too, the bastard. And more beside."
She tucked his hand under hers and held it tightly against her body as they walked to the hotel.
"Don't you think we oughta rehearse in the morning?" Ken asked.
"What for? Take it easy. Don't wear yourself out," she said. "Feinberg saw us, that counted for more'n I thought. Squeeze that lime into my glass. And drink."
Ken squeezed the lime. "I can't go this stuff much," he said. "It hits the lining of my stomach."
"You'll get use to gin and alkie again if you stay in vaudeville." She sat down on the bed. "Come here, sit beside me."
He sat down.
The room was steeped in the musty odor of an old hotel. Even the bedclothing was impregnated with the dry smell.
"You're a strange boy," she said. "Here we are old friends. This is the first time in history you've sat next to me on a bed."
She slipped a bare arm around his neck and kissed him. He smiled and returned the kiss.
"I like you," he said. "Guess I'm a little afraid of you still."
"You don't have to be, sweet," she said. "I wanta tell you something tonight before it's too late. You've done great things for me. It wasn't so much that I was busted when I met up with you—I still am, for that matter—but you've made me feel full of wim and wigor again. I'm ambitious again. Anyone who ever said Nita Rogers would slave the way I did with you woulda been put out of the kingdom of heaven just on general principles."
"I don't believe you were so bad." He laughed. She smiled and they found themselves kissing. She slipped away from him, poured another drink and drank it.
"You've had me on the wagon, imagine that … me!" She put the glass down. "Let's go to my room," she said. "No use bringing my things in here."
"Let's wait a while," he said. Then he looked up at her and noticed that she was removing her dress. "You can put a newspaper over that table lamp," she was saying. She slipped down into the overstuffed chair. "Pour me another drink, too."
"Don't drink any more," he said.
"A little gin and ginger ale won't hurt me. Don't look so funny about me and help me outa this slip." He still sat on the bed. "Come on."
He rose and poured some ginger ale in her glass.
"There's only one kinda paradise on earth, boy," she said. "When I tell you I've been stuck on you since I saw you, that means a lot. When I tell you I ain't been out with a man in all that time—" The slip dropped to the floor and she tossed it on the table.
"Except Ed Feinberg," she added.
"You don't s'pose he booked the world famous dance team of Rogers and Gracey without me coming across with a date, do you?"
"Switch off the lights and cover up the lamp with a paper, hon."
"I don't want to," he said.
"You don't want to?" she repeated with blank astonishment. "Aw, don't be nervous. It won't make any difference one way or another, sweet."
"Nita," he said. "I'm awfully fond of you. You're swell." He tucked her slimness in his arms. "But—"
"What is it?" she looked up. "Oh, I can see it in your face. You don't love me."
"I ought to. I should—"
"But you can't?"
He let her go. His movements had been mechanical. He had not been thinking. Nothing to think about, until she had mentioned Ed Feinberg. Then the coarse features of the agent returned vividly to his mind.
"I … we … we meet somehow in different ways. I don't know how to explain what I mean," he said. "I love you—I seem to love you for everything you are—everything you are to me."
"Then why?" She changed expression suddenly. "I know. Because this will be your first affair?"
"No—" Deep in his consciousness he discovered the obscure memory of an unforgettable night at Malibu. A shudder shook him. His face became a plastic study in hatred.
"I know," she said.
"How could you?" he cried.
"You hate me … that's the real truth, isn't it?"
She turned away. "And I thought I was so wise." She took the last swig of gin raw from the bottle. Then the slip and dress from the table. "What a fool I've been!"
"Where are you going?" he asked her as she opened the door and, still half undressed, entered the corridor.
For a long time Ken stood motionless. He could feel the numbing after-effect of the gin. His thoughts were jerky, broken. He shook his head helplessly. He could not understand why Anita had gone. Slowly an intense deep-rooted urge to find her rose within him. A sere slow passionate pain made him turn toward the door. He wanted her.
Coldly the pale light in the corridor illumined the dreary walls. He was such a weak fool. What of it? He would be strong. He would renounce his own imaginary scruples and warm himself to her, in love with her, despite everything.
He knocked on the door. No reply. It was unlocked. He entered the room, another drab chamber such as his own. She was not there.
He ran downstairs to the desk.
"Did Miss Rogers leave the hotel?" he asked the drowsy night clerk.
"Ain't seen no one since one o'clock," the man said. "Maybe she slipped out the side way. It's a warmish sorta night, just right for a walk or a—" He winked a drooping eye-lid with almost malicious delight, sighed deeply and went back to sleep.
The waitress was busy at the other end of the cafeteria. "I'm sorry I acted that way last night," Anita said. In the cold morning light, her face was gray and lined.
"This coffee," she added, "will take that taste outa my mouth. It's the ginger ale. I like seltzer water with my gin."
"Where did you go?" he asked.
"For a walk. Found myself in the alley back of the hotel with my dress on my arm. That shows you how nuts I can be."
"You better not drink so much."
"It wasn't the drink," she explained. "At least not entirely."
She took his hand. Hers was cold as ice.
"This is the last time I'll talk this way, boy. I was wrong, dead wrong. We gotta be a success. We mustn't drink. Or love. Or anything like that. Get me?"
The prickling uneasiness which had tortured him during a restless night disappeared.
"I do," he said.
Her face lost its hardness. She looked up with almost wistful longing and the fragment of a tear rose into the corner of her eye. But the tear vanished in a smile and she sipped the coffee before she added: "I'm gonna stick to business, Ken—and it's nobody's business what business. Hey, girlie, pour me another cup of shellac."
Anita was tired. After rehearsal she returned to the hotel and Ken took a walk through the town. In a palm-shaded park he rested. It was noon and workers lay flat on the carpet of grass, while children played ball on the intertwining walks. A pleasant enough spot, Ken thought, hot under the early December sun. He was not entirely comfortable, however. He missed Anita. She had not lunched with him as was their custom and his second day in San Bernardino thus differed from the days that preceded it.
Here was lulling quiet, children laughing, motor cars purring past. He wondered why she had fled from him. Could he have told why he had fled from Mr. Lowell?
I was afraid, he thought. And she is afraid of me. But not for the same reasons. I was afraid because … I can't explain why, even to myself … because I mixed up the idea of what Mr. Lowell was with what other people thought him to be.
She's maybe afraid HI be too serious. She's afraid maybe I'll go for her in a big way.
The lean narrow face of Zarah the mind reader rose mistily before Ken's eyes.
"You are thinking of life and love," boomed Zarah's rich resonant voice. His eyes were piercingly black and his skin sallow. Even on this noonday street, he wore his morning dress and his turban.
"I see you walking," he said. "I like to talk to you, young man. You dance so beautifully and you are always so serious."
"You liked my dance?"
"I think you are magnificent." His voice lowered, his lips close to Ken's ear: "In costume, you must be so beautiful."
"I should like you to visit me in my home in San Diego sometime. I show you a Spanish gown … ah, I wore it myself at the Chateau Richard in Van Nuys at the ball last season. A little alteration and it would become you so much better."
"How do you know?"
"La Lowell …"
Ken's heart thumped at the name. Zarah was smiling at Ken's embarrassment. "Pierre Fortand, he made my gowns. He told me."
"Told you what?"
"I know, too, you quarrel with him. I do not know him. I only know of him. They say he is very recherché; I do not know." Ken was unable to speak. "You will pardon me," continued Zarah, "if I bring back unhappy memories. I am a very terrible mind reader or I would not be here in San Bernardino. You are a very wonderful dancer. You will go far. Have you had lunch?"
"No," said Ken.
"I know a charming little tea-room nearby; the host is a lovely fellow. Will you be my guest?"
Curious that he should have met an acquaintance of Pierre Fortand's the moment that Anita left him to his own devices! Zarah was, of course, Mexican. Ken decided that Zarah had seen him leave the theatre and had followed him to the park.
He liked Zarah, who had been everywhere … from the Faroe Islands to Zanzibar. He liked Bobby Glenn, the handsome platinum blond boy whose Pagan Tea Room seemed strangely incongruous, hiding as it did in the basement of a private house on a side street. Zarah's interest in him, he decided, was quite natural. In show business, as Anita had said, all men are brothers.
He told Anita about his lunch with Zarah later that day. "The old dog." She laughed. "Watch out for him." She was feeling much better, she said. But she would go to bed early—right after the show.
"Try Zarah tonight." She drew the corners of her lips down in a mocking grimace. "Make a date with him."
As they danced the waltz, he saw Zarah's eyes watching him from the wings.
"You are holding me too tight," whispered Anita. He swung about, she flew from his arms in her forever surprisingly bird-like flight. She returned to his arms. He danced close to her again, body arched into body. They began to spin, around, around and around in an intoxicating whirl. As they pivoted off-stage, he managed to brush his lips upon her cheek. She appeared not to notice and a moment later they were again on-stage, acknowledging the applause. As the curtain fell, he turned. She was gone.
At the stage entrance, on the way to their dressing-room, he saw her. She was talking to a man. In the dim light he could not discern the man's features, but as he turned, he heard his own name.
Ed Feinberg, loose-lipped, heavy browed, a little bald spot at the crown of his broad flat head, appeared.
"Hello, Mr. Feinberg," said Ken.
"Come here, schlemiebl. Do you know? You was very good tonight—I think maybe I book you for about four solid weeks through the state. If you keep working very hard and I get good reports, maybe a week or two even in 'Frisco and maybe a club spot in L. A."
"That's great," Ken said, all smiles.
Anita's lips drooped. "Perfect," she said in an expressionless tone.
Her eyes faced Ken's. "I've gotta take a little run-out powder tonight, Kenneth. Mr. Feinberg and I, we got a little jabbering to do about terms and such things—"
"Yeh—I'd like you to chaperone us," said Feinberg, "but I only got a roadster and it ain't got no rumble seat."
"That's okay with me," Ken said. "I got sorta a date with … Zarah."
He returned to the hotel at half past two. He had had but one drink. Zarah had passed out and Bobby Glenn was putting him to bed when Ken left the Pagan Tea Room.
The night clerk unlocked the front door for him.
"Miss Rogers home?" Ken asked.
"Oh, yes, sir, since about one o'clock."
He climbed the stairs.
As he crossed the corridor, he made a hasty decision. The only way out, he concluded, was to go to her unexpectedly, catch her when she was off balance, take her by storm, love her plenty, get it over with.
The odor of the corridor revived sensations of the night before. Here was her door. On the other side, a shabby room, a miserable bed. Her body lay there on that bed, her familiar body drawn fine by ceaseless rehearsing. She would be sleeping. He would wake her. She would call, "Who's there?" and he would reply, "Ken," and she would admit him.
With knuckles folded, he lifted his hand to rap.
The blurred voice of Ed Feinberg came indistinctly through the thin wood. "Don't go drinking any more of that gin, doll," the agent was saying. "You can't see where I am now. I'm here, doll, on this chair. That's it. Easy now … easy … you'll break the chair in two. Here … I'll take the glass. There … Mm, but you're pretty … there."
"Poppa," he heard Anita murmur, "my Eddie, poppa, aw poppa … one teenie, weenie one more."
Fingers held in his ears, Ken fled from the corridor and down the stairs.
A glazed lamp … a narrow door. Ken, head low, moved straight ahead, walking until he should tire himself out. A Mexican, slant eyes betraying his partially oriental blood, brushed Ken's elbow. Dark street, another glazed lamp, a man standing against the wall urinating.
Ken moved on. A pawn shop, a farmacia, another street.
He could feel his young feet aching. He stopped. If he walked much farther he would lose his way. He laughed bitterly. This, then, was the end of love.
He retraced his steps. The same slant-eyed Mexican moved toward him, passed him. The first glazed lamp shone above a narrow green door. Ahead of him was the second glazed lamp.
From ebony darkness came a woman, blonde, frail, in a scanty black dress. She cut across his path.
"Hello, buddy," she said.
"Lookin' for a good time?"
Her eyes were shot through with blood, sharp lines cut her face, converging at the corners of her mouth. On her lip was a tiny sore.
"No, I'm not." He strode on.
"Guess I made a mistake, Kewpie," she cackled, her words evaporating in a thin high laugh.
Ken's long legs moved in wide strides, but the laugh seemed to follow him, even to the threshold of his hotel.
The motor bus sped westward on the valley road. Soon they would be back in Los Angeles.
"You're no longer a child, darling," Anita said. "I can tell by the way you act."
"I know it," Ken said. "That's why I'm going to tell you I know you had Feinberg in your room the other night."
"And you didn't break down the door?"
"I didn't care."
"You lie, you idiot."
"No … I'm telling the truth."
Her eyes were dull with leaden despair. "I had to go with him once in L.A. for this San Bernardino date," she confessed. "I did it thinking it was for you and me and if you ever found out, you'd understand. But the other night, I had to, I had to. I guess I'm rotten, that's all."
"Wasn't it because you wanted to get a contract for some more time?"
"No. It was because I wanted to."
He looked out of the window. Now that his head was averted, he could not see the subtle shading of the love in her eyes as she looked longingly at him.
"People are built the way they are built," she was saying. "I'm the way I am. You … you're the way you are."
"We can't help it, I guess."
She took his hand.
"It'll be great, though, for our act, now that we understand each other."
Her hand dropped slowly to her lap. He said nothing. Her fingers twitched.
"Open the overnight bag, will you, Kennie?"
"I feel as though I could go a slug of rye."