Butterfly Man/Chapter VIII
ANITA ROGERS considered herself pretty damned hard-boiled. That is to say, she could stand plenty of punishment and still keep smiling. But Ken Gracey got on her nerves.
The fault was as much hers as Ken's. She had no business letting herself in for it. Trouble was, he caught her on a down-beat. Ordinarily, in the old days, she'd never given a tumble to a high school kid. That stuff went when she was fourteen years old up in Watertown, Oregon, when she wanted to know the facts of life and the right name for things and stuff.
Men were—men. Any one of them could do as well as any other, dancing around a Maypole. That was her credo when she left Watertown, dad having hardening of the arteries and softening of the brain all at the same time. A party girl she was the minute she hit 'Frisco. Up all night every night, cock-eyed plenty, but always feeling good by the next evening when the old merry-go-round would start twirling again.
The high spot in those days when when Ike Rosenstone hired her to model gowns for him at a hundred per because she happened to know where the body was buried and could show its last resting place to Ike's wife. The poor fat-headed cheater flopped over one day with a stroke and Anita found herself out in the cold … and it was plenty cold.
A doctor put her in the massage racket. He taught her a few little tricks which came in handy later on, when she was stranded in Seattle and couldn't get a job. She gave a prissy old health board inspector a fancy rub-down and got an official license to pick up a few dollars here and there. She rented a little flat all to herself and chose her customers carefully, preferring men over thirty because their blood ran coolish and she could tame them and enjoy it. Anita learned to avoid husky young Goliaths. One night when she attempted to put a certain college football captain out in the dark after having entertained him with every trick in her repertory, he confused her with the Washington State scrimmage line and broke her collar bone attempting an off-tackle slant for a fourth or fifth touch-down … she couldn't remember which. A masseuse with a lame arm was worthless, so Anita's career went from her clavicle to her feet. She became, thanks to Gus, again a good girl and for the first time in her life a dancer, Gus paying the bills.
In several seasons of small time for Pantages and backwoods offshoots of the Orpheum circuit, she developed into a fair performer, especially when she was a little tight. If she went on without a drink, the audience saw a tired girl in a tinselled dress doing her best to keep up with an impatient orchestra. So she drank, moderately, at first.
Gus, who could sing well enough to get by, gave her the air because he preferred an idle life as an old lady's home companion to the insecure and picaresque career of a song and dance man. He decided, too, that Anita was fading and with plenty of luscious fruit clinging to the trees, fairly asking to be picked, why shouldn't he go to Denver and live with the druggist's widow who kept writing him pash letters and sending him checks made out to "Cash" and easy to convert into same?
The nose-dive Anita took after the departure of Gus scared the pants off her. She teamed up with a truck horse called Louella de Long and did a sister act that couldn't ever be mentioned in the same breath with the Cherry Sisters. When Rogers and De Long could get no more bookings, Anita got plastered. When a theatre manager she knew told her the office had black-listed her because of her alcoholic habits, smacko, she sobered up.
Happily her father had died and she could collect enough insurance money to keep her. Happily she was sensible enough to realize that her only chance lay in convincing booking agents not only that she was off the embalming fluid but that she could dance when she was cold sober. Moreover she decided to give Hollywood a trial. The cost of living in movie town was cheap, she had heard, and the best dancing schools on the Coast were to be found not far from Hollywood Boulevard.
When she started to practise in Buddy Nolan's school, she was on the down-beat all right. Gone was the false pep she'd had in the old days. No more parties, no drinks. She was so good she couldn't believe it herself.
When she met Ken, she recalled, she went for him because he was so all-fired clean looking. As always, she hit the bull's-eye, asking him certain personal questions. When he confessed he didn't know the right answers, she decided to mother him. The trouble was, she didn't know her own self well enough. She never dreamed she would fall for him. She hoped, of course, that he would be sensible. His break with Mr. Lowell, his boyish enthusiasm, his fanatical devotion to work, lifted her to new heights. He, the boy, was so "decent," so "swell," so "grand," that, when he was around, she wouldn't have dared dissipate even to the extent of drinking two cups of coffee for breakfast.
All the time, she realized, in the back of that dumb head of hers, a dizzy idea had been buzzing. She was in love with him. She was crazy about him. She wanted to marry him, to settle down, after they had made a great success; to have some kids, a home and a fire-place in front of which she could place his slippers every night.
She never admitted this idea even to herself. Nevertheless she had it all figured out. He was just a kid, nothing wrong with him at all. She would watch over him like a mother, share his joys and his disappointments like a true sister and slowly, ever so slowly, develop into a priceless friend. Nature would provide that they should become lovers. Inevitably he would lose his shyness; probably just as soon as they got away from screwy Hollywood. When the time came, she would cry: "I love you, Ken. I'll always love you." They would rush off to the license bureau, get married and live forever after in a mad delirium of happiness.
When Ken hinted that he must soon go to work or be forced to return to Texas, she was panic-stricken. For the first time she recalled the blackness of her reputation. She accused herself of having betrayed him, of having saddled herself—an old broken down tenth-rater—upon a handsome, gifted youth.
She hated Ed Feinberg, the sleazy, lying, blood-sucking small-timer. Still he was a man; if he had called her up in the old days, in Seattle, she'd have entertained him. She'd trade a break-in date for a half hour's diversion—it wouldn't mean anything and she was confident that a break-in date would start Ken off on the road to fame.
Again she failed to take into consideration the flaws in her own armor. Feinberg promised her the date all right, but not until she was closeted with him in the shoddy old hotel on Fourth Street did she realize that she had made an awful mistake. For months her desires had slumbered, sublimated in the passion for Ken. As she waited in the hotel room for Feinberg to undress, she was as nervous as a young virgin who sits listening for the footfall of her bridegroom.
Feinberg brought gin with him. She drank, in order to keep herself from walking out. The gin liberated all the raging secret lust which she had so successfully stifled. In a few minutes' time she was transformed into a glittering she-devil, a ravaging Venus, a despoiler of men. Feinberg was amused. He rewarded her with the three days at San Bernardino.
As she sat beside Ken in the Los Angeles bound bus, she felt the core of her going rotten. She trembled. She knew she wanted him now, now. Because they were in the motor bus, she successfully resisted the impulse. But, she must not trust herself alone with him, never again, until she was sure of him. She craftily tried to gauge the safest method of procedure. She must wait. She must not lose him. She must learn how to seduce him, this time not with maternal care, sisterly devotion nor the faith of a friend; this time not with gin and those devices which, from time immemorial, have been used by harlots everywhere. This time she must seduce him with patience, with slow, fiendishly deliberate guile. She must prepare herself for the ordeal of waiting. She must submerge her cloying desire for him in liquor, in other men. One day when he would be off guard, when he would have forgotten her naive attempt to make him love her, she'd overcome him so tempestuously that he would never know how she had won her dearly bought victory.
She would wait.