Butterfly Man/Chapter X
"MEXICAN jumping beans, Señor, Mexican jumping beans," the ragged child cried.
"Buy da cigarettes. Four packs for da quartaire," whined another. On the curb stood a sallow, dark, half-breed. He held a tiny chihuahua in his hand and smiled. "Pancho Villa, he very bad dog. Bite ver' hard. Real chihuahua—twenty-five dollars."
In Frank and Jack's, upstairs, Anita Rogers pulled down the shades.
"You get yourself set over there, Poppa. What do you want?"
"What have you got?" said the man sheepishly.
"Five, ten or fifteen," she said curtly, "with or without trimmings."
The man was about forty. He was tall, thin and pale.
"How does a nice American girl like you get into a place like this?" he asked.
"None of your sweet god-damned business, Poppa," she said. "Thanks." She went to the dresser, took a notebook and a pencil-stub from the drawer and began to write.
"What're you doing?" asked the man anxiously.
"Keeping my accounts. You put what you got where it belongs and I'll be with you in a jiffy, honey."
"But you dance so swell. When I saw you and that kid do your stuff I said to Jim, I said, 'I'd like to meet her,' but he give me the ha-ha. Said it couldn't be done. When I tell him, hot mama …!" His voice dropped to a low whine. "You're such a nice girl—why do you do it?"
"Sonny boy," she said as she stepped out of her evening gown, "let's talk about something else. Anything goes with me except asking me why I am what I am."
Frank and Jack's was gaudy, noisy and gay. Frank had built a substantial, square, brick building to house his many enterprises. The soiled appearance of the exterior attracted soiled people, quiet dinner parties, tourists, schoolteachers, maiden ladies and lovers. The dining-room was always crowded with these respectable, likeable, American gentry.
In the rear was the combined dance hall and gambling room, rendezvous of gamblers, petty and great; vicious women, jaded husbands, lecherous old men, boys with narrow mouths and vacant eyes. A long bar occupied the back wall. Slot-machines, arranged in a row, invited coins of every denomination.
At the opposite wall were the gaming tables, mechanically operated roulette, blackjack played according to house rules, craps, with house dice.
Midway between bar and games was the dance floor. Here, during most of the evening, couples moved languidly to the soft music of Mexican guitars. Quiet matrons dancing with their husbands rubbed shoulders with drunken prostitutes. For men, Frank and Jack's was the devil's paradise.
The room glittered. Many-colored streamers floated from the rafters. Behind the bar an artist had sketched a nude figure in crayon and soap. Women laughed shrilly; men roared with pleasure or cursed with hearty disgust. The white-coated bartenders, the sleek croupiers who moved ever so slightly as they drew in the losers' money, the gay dresses of the house girls, the picturesque quality of many of the visitors, provided a constantly shifting picture of gayety, fragile gayety that does not last.
On a stool at the bar sat the tall, slim figure of a vaquero; broad hat, leather jacket, high boots. He had been talking to a little old man, whose dark sack suit and contrasting white hair framed a thin-lipped, ascetic face.
"I heard you were here, son," the old man said. "Johnny Butler came over to Selma from Sweetwater and told me he was sure you was you."
"I am me, dad," Kenneth said.
"But this place is a low dance hall, and in Mexico." Ken finished his old-fashioned cocktail, chewed on the cherry and faced his father.
"I'm glad you came, dad. Must have cost you a lot of money. Here …" He dug into his pocket and pulled out a handful of silver dollars. "This'll help pay your expenses."
"Thanks, son," said George Gracey. "You do look lots older—and different."
"I am lots older."
"What worries me is—these women. They must be diseased. You don't associate with them, do you?"
"And you have no girl?"
"I'm glad. When you were a lad, I tried to teach you the right thing. I warned you about women because of your mother, God rest her soul."
"I know," said Ken.
"Well," the old man smiled, "if you say so, I'm satisfied. There is something in a Gracey."
"My name isn't Gracey, here, dad."
"What is it?"
"Nice name, but when you go back to the States, you'll be Gracey again, won't you?"
"I was worried about you. You should have written. I wrote to Mr. Lowell. He didn't reply. I—"
The black-moustached face of Frank appeared between father and son.
"She's on her way downstairs, Bud. You better get ready for your number."
The dance—sensuous, slow, replete with daring suggestions; a love dance, a dance of barren love. Sometimes Anita and Ken danced as frequently as twenty times a night, the number of their performances depending upon the size of their audiences and the corresponding possibilities of making more money.
Anita's eyes were forever feverishly bright. She drank constantly, never paying for her drinks, which were charged to the checks of her escorts. She seldom became intoxicated. The dance seemed to keep her sober. She usually wore a deep-cut scarlet gown. Her cheeks were nearly as scarlet as the gown. Her hair, dyed black, was dressed high on her head. Her feet were shod in red slippers. She spoke in a thin, nervous voice, frequently interrupting herself with an almost birdlike change of thought.
The other females in Frank and Jack's were loose-limbed, sagging-cheeked. Several were Mexican. One was Chinese. Their gowns were cheap, their eyes lustreless. They regarded the customers contemptuously; their gayety was forced.
Anita was vivid compared to them. They usually ordered rye highballs which arrived in dark-colored glasses. She drank her whiskey straight, varying her draughts with brandy and tequila.
Kenneth was thinner. His skin stretched sharply over his cheek-bones. His legs seemed longer than ever, yet more graceful. The vaquero costume fitted him splendidly, the broad hat broadened his own fine features. The leather jacket clung to his form. His hair was tinged with auburn where Anita had touched it with henna. His eyes were clear.
Ken drank but little. Life itself was intoxicating. It swept him on, oblivious of time, unconscious of self, from late afternoon until dawn.
At first the house girls were attracted to him. They made simple, almost shy advances, revealing the hidden simplicity of their natures. They soon learned that he belonged to Anita. One of them, Lulu Renard, became deeply enamored of him. On a night when he drank more than usual, she managed to get him into her room. But Anita came after him. In fluent argot, Lulu accused Ken of being a maquereau. Anita laughed. Ken felt like crying. He went out, leaving the two women together. The next night Lulu came to him, took his hand and apologized.
Occasionally, business being dull, Anita would sit with Ken at a table. They would drink together. In some curious way a spark would fly from the woman to the man. Without a word being spoken, they would go upstairs together and repeat the wild, unplotted madness of that evening in San Francisco.
On such occasions Anita would plead illness and dance no more that night. Ken, at first limply distraught, would sit at the bar, drink several straight whiskies and then go into the dimly lighted streets. The Mexicans of the town knew him. He dropped into little barrooms, stood shoulder to shoulder with them, learned their language. More than once, black-haired, olive-skinned youths followed him to Frank and Jack's.
"Frank wouldn't like it," he would say. "I meet you mañana." And mañana never dawned.
Thus like a rankly rich orchid, the perverse attachment between Anita and himself grew, reared its violently colored head, now drooped. The woman still craved the touch of his mouth. The man feared her scalding lips and drew back more and more from the chalice of her body. Yet he could not escape from her. He must obey her—although he hated her because she was a woman.
This hatred slumbered deep within him, fed by her insatiable desires. It was never expressed.
He still had the dance. The dance was still glorious. Even on Saturday nights when all California poured across the border to revel and to riot, the staggering drunks, the bleary eyed females, the jittering boys and hard-faced women stopped to watch him dance.
He was paid nothing for his dance. Each time that she went upstairs he sat at the bar waiting for her. When she returned, eyes bright, lips freshly rouged, she beckoned for him to come to her.
With a signal to the violinist she would slip into Ken's arms. They would begin to dance. They never spoke. From a pocket concealed in the bosom of her dress, Anita would take a silver Mexican dollar. Her body would arch away from his, then toward him as, with the deftness of a prestidigitator, the silver dollar would find its way into Ken's boot.
More than once, during a single week, she gave him as much as a hundred dollars.
Frank and Jack's was shut tight on one night each year. On Good Friday the shutters were up; not even a meal was served. Frank drove North to Los Angeles on this holy day for his annual visit to his mother. Jack, his Mexican partner, went south to Mazatlan.
On Easter Saturday morning those who worked in Frank and Jack's, cooks and waiters, croupiers and shills, bartenders, house girls and negress maids, lay late in bed. When they rose, in mid-afternoon, they were still heavy with sleep. Some of them drank brandy straight as an eyeopener; others, emerging from the misty haze of their weariness, thought of other years, other Easter seasons, love and home.
Anita was sullen that Saturday night, torpid, dull. The long evening dragged slowly on. At two o'clock Pete D'Arresto, the manager, chased out the few stragglers. Ken thankfully hurried across the street to the sweet bed that was his in the Casa Verde, the little hotel in which he lived.
On Sunday he rose early. The moist April morning was heavy with tropic heat. A shimmering sun beat down on Tia Juana's unpaved streets. Frank and Jack's was closed tight. The Club was not yet open. The long barrooms and cheap joints that lined the thoroughfares waited stolidly for night.
Ken ventured down a narrow native street. Mexican women, shawls over their heads, greasy men, squealing brats, were hurrying to church. The adobe building sat back from the street, half-concealed by a rambling frame hotel where women of all nations still were sleeping.
Candles which gleamed everywhere lighted the interior with a dull flickering glow. As Ken entered, the wooden floor creaked beneath his step. The wooden bench groaned as he sat down.
Before the altar, a dark-skinned youth in overalls ignited the candles of a flaming, bleeding Sacred Heart. A black-clad woman knelt. Six-shooter strapped to his belt, a lean rancher crossed himself before the figure of the Virgin, a plaster Virgin in a dusty wooden niche.
The door opened. Three of the house girls from Frank and Jack's—Maria D'Acosta, the pale little Mexican who always insisted that pure Castilian blood flowed in her veins; Jerry O'Donnell, the sprightly Irish lass from New York; the very American looking Eadie Sloan, ex-extra girl from Hollywood. In the pale candlelight, they were young and eager. Lines of fatigue vanished from their faces and their voices were hushed. Through half-averted eyes they saw Ken.
Because Ken was not a Catholic he felt ill at ease; ashamed because he could not understand the genuflections, could not touch the holy-water to his forehead, nor make obeisance, nor pray.
The priest, venerable, hair snowy white, ascended the altar, faced the Virgin, made the sign of the cross and began to speak very rapidly in Latin. Ken tried to understand. The unexpected cadences of the ritual hummed in his ears. His discomfort vanished. He was no longer ashamed.
Old men, little children were kneeling. Ken wanted to kneel. He could not. He could not even pray.
In the simplicity of their hearts, those others were asking for a blessing. He too needed help. His lips moved imperceptibly. No sound came from them. His eyes closed.
Thin organ notes, thin reeds singing the mass; incense rising, soft footfalls, the voices of the boys as they sang a litany; and through it all, the liquid, droning monotony of the priest's voice … Ken's senses were dulled, his body was in repose, his thoughts far away.
He saw himself again back home in Texas, the fresh rain upon the lawn, his friends hurrying to school. He saw himself in Star-ridge, feted by the diabolical Mr. Lowell. He recalled Hollywood, Anita a staff upon which he had leaned. How simple he had been! How naive! Lowell was a morbid monster, Anita sex-mad; himself a weak, drifting boy, contented only so long as someone else supported him, feeding his ego meantime with the cheap applause he received for his dance.
At first the vivid magic of these Mexican resorts had fascinated him, the lack of restraint, the unmorality of it all. Too, the races at Caliente on warm January afternoons or the feverish spell of whirling roulette wheels, the feel of flesh, the hot flavor of liquor on the palate, had enchained him. And whenever he was stroked by a faint desire to quit Tia Juana, Anita was there, her hand stretched forth to offer him the sodden forgetfulness of her sordid love. And always he had the dance.
Eyes closed, Ken scornfully contemplated himself, as the pious Mexicans knelt before the altar. His room in the Casa Verde was really a filthy cell, Frank and Jack's a smelly, evil den; Tia Juana itself, a loathsome hell. To pleasure-seeking Americans who visited the Baja California town, Ken Gracey—Buddy Renault, as he was now known—was just another puppet with painted face and dancing legs.
She was still asleep in her cabaña. He pushed open the door and entered. She lay on the bed, clad in a lacy nightgown.
The scent of perfume saturated the little room. Cosmetics littered the dressing table. Shades were drawn tight, the door closed so that the air was heavy, pungent, almost acrid. On the night table was a half-empty bottle of Jamaica rum, beside it a glass and a tray piled high with cigarette stubs.
Ken seldom came to the cabaña, which stood at the end of a path curving downward toward the arroyo.
As he leaned over the bed peering down at her, she was soundly asleep, breathing deeply and regularly. Her head lay on her arm. Her mouth was open, her hair tumbling over the pillow. She looked old, unbelievably old. Her skin was hard, caked with old rouge, her lips purplish, her teeth gray.
Ken turned away from her. An alarm clock ticked noisily. On the floor lay an old magazine. Above the bed was a picture of Anita and himself, taken in Sacramento.
He remembered the day. An itinerant photographer had stopped them on the street in front of the theatre. Anita had not wanted to pose.
"I don't like to be photographed," she had said, "some day I'll look at the picture and be sorry I'm still alive."
She seemed very young in the photograph; and very old, lying there in bed.
Ken did not disturb her. He sat in the creaking rocker and listened to her breathing and the ticking of the clock. A dust-laden beam of sunshine shone through the transom above the door. He watched it move slowly, become elongated as it approached the bed.
His mind was clear. He was determined. As she stirred in her sleep, he called her name.
"Anita, wake up," he said. Her lips opened.
"Hm … lover," she whispered. "Oh." She recognized Ken. "What time is it?"
"One o'clock, I guess."
She drew the counterpane over her. "I'm chilly," she said. "What's the idea? Why did you come?"
He sat in the chair next to the bed.
"I hate to have anyone look at me before I put my face on—even you."
She was eternally the coquette. She smiled, then turned to the bottle of rum on the table, poured a half-glassful, drank it.
"Have some, Bud?"
"It's better than coffee, rum is. Wakes me up like a shot. Say, what's eating you? Broke again?"
"I've got money." He placed his hand, palm downward, on the cool sheet and moved it in a circle.
"I'm leaving," he said suddenly.
"Go ahead. I'll meet you later in the place."
"I mean, I'm leaving Tia Juana."
She was pouring a second shot of rum as he spoke. His tone was so devoid of feeling that she did not understand.
"You'd better be back by seven; Frank will be in tonight."
"I'm not worrying about Frank."
"What is it, Bud? Hangover?"
"I'm not 'Bud,'" he said, "and I'm walking out—on Frank, on Jack and on you."
"You—haw—" she swallowed the liquor, "where could you go?"
"It doesn't matter."
She sat up in bed. "What's got under your skin? Don't you get enough?"
He leaned toward her and took her hand.
"I've had it easy all my life. I've been soft. I want to go on my own."
She wrenched her hand from his grasp. "You'll stay where you are," she said firmly.
"I'm plenty strong," he said. "And awake. This morning is Easter—I went to a little Mexican church back of the town—"
"You listened to a lotta guff about Jesus and fell for it."
"I couldn't understand a word of it. But I did come to. For the first time in ages I'm conscious."
"I'll bet it hurts. Don't feel, boy. Don't think—or talk."
"I gotta. I've put some money away. Nita, I want to get away from here. I gotta."
"Not much—you can't take it on the lam."
"I'm not running away. I'm a free man."
"Free? Who told you so? You're a slave. I've paid plenty for you. You're a jig to a dancing girl in a Tia Juana hot-spot."
He felt the sting of her lashing tongue and turned away. She pushed the counterpane back and scrambled to her feet. Her neck was scrawny, her hair snarled. She chuckled. "Come here, hon. Nita's the same as ever."
"Yes—but I'm different—today!" he cried. "I've got to go, Nita."
"No." Her voice rose. "I've listened to you all I want to. This is the middle of the night for me. Get the hell outa here!"
"If I do go," he said evenly, "you'll never see me again."
"You don't mean that."
He faced her. "I mean it aches inside me today. I've been low. I've got to restore my faith in myself."
"Ken, stay with me!" she pleaded. "Don't leave me alone!"
"I can't stand you any longer," he said bitterly. "Nita, I know you're regular. But I'm still young. I can quit all this tomorrow and never think about it again. And I mustn't wait. I gotta go now while I want to go."
She looked at him curiously. "Have you met someone?"
"What did you do last night after Pete closed up?"
"I tell you I haven't changed except … that I'm through."
"You're not," she said in a low vibrant voice. She caught his hand and wound herself about him. "Who will you dance with tonight, pretty boy?"
"I'll dance alone—or not at all."
She turned to kiss him. He avoided the contact of that loose purplish mouth. She pressed against him. He pushed her away.
"I'd better go now," he said, and turned. With catlike steps she was at the dressing table, opening the drawer. She seized a small shining revolver.
He rose high into the air as if to leap upon her. He pinned her against the bed, pushed her back upon it, unwound her fingers from the weapon. With nails needle-sharp, she clawed at him. As they struggled, her lips touched his cheek. Her teeth sank into his flesh; then, as the pain ceased, she kissed him.
"Nita," he whispered, as the kiss ended, "I'd much rather be dead than …"
To Father Refugio Castillo, Ken came one noonday that spring. The old priest sat in his bibliotéca, where his books were ranged in tiers on shelves.
"I am very proud of myself," Father Refugio said. "In all my years I have never been so proud. Fra Junipero Serra could not have made a greater conquest of the heathen than I have of you."
"It isn't a matter of the church," Ken said. "I'm afraid and I thought you'd reassure me."
"This shall be our confessional," replied the priest. The little room was in brown shadow. A narrow window high in the wall admitted an oblique light. "Our secular confessional, as it were," he continued.
Ken related how he had visited the church on Easter morning. He told how he had come to Tia Juana; he frankly admitted to the priest that Anita held him by chains he could not break.
"It isn't as if I could make money. I can't. Since the day I came to your church, she has given me no money."
The priest's eyebrows were lifted. "Do you not feel better that you are no longer her slave?" he asked.
"That afternoon," said Ken, "she tried to kill me. I gave in to her. She thought she had me. But I've stayed away since then. I'm broke now. I can't get away—yet I must."
Father Refugio pushed aside his wide chair. He removed his spectacles and placed them carefully on the priedieu.
"I was in San Francisco when I was a young man," he said, "and I was a young man not unlike you." He gazed keenly at Ken with his sharp black eyes.
"You," said the priest passionlessly, "are also a man removed from women."
Ken drew back.
"Unhappily for you, you cannot understand the mystery of the Church. When I walked through the Barbary Coast, when my feet strayed and my body grew weak, I didn't flee. I sought a philosophy that would save me.
"All this," he continued, "is incomprehensible to you, isn't it?"
"Yes. Like a lot of words. But I like to hear you talk, Father. It's quiet here. I'm tired of music and noise."
"My son," the old man said, "I know you as if you were I. You have not yet found yourself in life. You are essentially unworldly; you have fought yourself because you could not understand that you must conquer yourself spiritually or you will never rise."
"When the opportunity comes, leave Tia Juana, if you have to walk away. Better for you to suffer hunger and cold than to endure the pain of spiritual loneliness. Break with this woman who has tried to destroy you. Since you cannot make a friend of God, make Man your friend. Seek and find happiness in yourself. Do as you choose to do—never again allow another person to guide you. In your own heart, you will hear a voice, listen to it—and obey.
The woman, Ken knew, was black as sin. She was unclean. She was conceived in slime. In slime she lived, into slime she would finally descend.
Underground she moves, her belly like the snake's, moving coldly on the fecund earth, giving birth to horrors unspeakable.
The woman, Ken believed, must be ignored. She must be regarded as a thing. A damned thing.
He could not speak to her. They danced and he held her away from him as if she were leprous. The maudlin crowds in Frank and Jack's no longer applauded. Anita, drinking more heavily than ever, did not notice the change.
Anita drank. Ken, icily sober, lived on sandwiches from the grill, and beer. He no longer danced his dance. His legs, like propellers, no longer flayed the smoke-laden air. With contempt he watched the passing show, the drinkers with their congested, bloated faces, the thrill-seekers with their shifting, blood-shot eyes.
He began not to see Anita. She did not live except as a sweating lump of dull flesh, a breath fetid with rank exhalations. If he could only flee …
He did not visit Father Refugio again. Much that the priest had said he did not comprehend. The peace and calmness of the church remained like a placid pool in the midst of a desert inferno, but he avoided gazing into the pool again for in it he had seen reflected his own face.
And yet, strangely enough, during this period Ken grew stronger. Because he no longer drank, because he ate sparingly, his eyes became bright, his skin clear, his will more forceful. He no longer was the submerged adolescent of Selma, the naive ephebian of Star-ridge, nor the morally emasculated psuedo-vaquero of Tia Juana, kept man of a prostitute.
Curiously enough, his experiences of the past two years seemed to have given him a quick understanding of many things, now that his body was freed of the woman's greedy attacks upon it. A new attitude—a cynical acceptance of reality—grew. He could be bitingly good-humored now. His tongue, tied for so long, was quick to answer, glib with sharp comment. He viewed the past and even the present with amused tolerance. Although he was no longer a parasite he was still one of a sordid company. In the near future, when he should quit Tia Juana and set forth for Utopia—then he would regain sincerity. Until then he would laugh thinly, acidly, at the world and at himself.
He permitted Anita to slip and fall that Saturday night. She was drunk. She missed a step. She sat down in the center of the floor and cursed him. Her words were not pretty to hear. He laughed mockingly and walked away. A waiter helped her to her feet.
Frank, eyes blazing, told her she could get another job. She wept. She begged him not to put her out. "They ain't no other place I can dance except here, and … and I'm afraid to go into a house," she whimpered.
"You can work the tables on a percentage," he finally said as he spat tobacco juice into a cuspidor. "Now get the hell out and to bed. And you can move out of the cabana tomorrow."
The next day was Sunday. Ken knew nothing about Anita's demotion. He dropped into the dance hall early in the afternoon. Pete D'Arresto told him Anita was through.
"And that means you," he added. Ken took it philosophically. "I've got dough in the bank," he said. "When I pay old Lopez over in the Casa, I'll be worth one magnum of sour champagne or eighty ham sandwiches. Do you want the costume?"
"Sure thing," said Pete.
"My own suit is sorta out of style," Ken laughed, "but it'll do for a hitchhike home."
He bought a beer and laughed into it. Life had a habit of being anticlimactic. He could have walked across the border and started North or East with plenty of money any time during the past two years. He hadn't had the desire, nor the strength. Now that he was almost ready to escape, he was being kicked out.
What would he do? Return to Selma, plant himself behind a soda fountain or get a job on county construction work, one-sixty a day and callouses on the mitts? No chance of another Mr. Lowell coming along now that he was over twenty and the first blush of youth gone.
Mr. Lowell … what a fool he had been! Better to have sinned in luxury than in squalor. He might have developed into a real dancer, a dressmaker, even a business associate of the old dog.
He felt gay; he felt like dancing. He paid for his beer and walked across the room to the orchestra platform. Because it was Sunday, the doors were open; few visitors rose that early in Tia Juana. The sun drifted lazily across the tops of the swinging doors. The quarter roulette table was busy, the other tables deserted.
"Pete," Ken called, "can I do my old dance once? Maybe someone will throw pennies at me and I'm gonna need them."
"Sure thing," said Pete.
He danced badly. The old swing was gone. He missed an entire series of high kicks because a waiter walked across the floor. The croupier in charge of the quarter roulette wheel scowled at him because several players quit to watch the dance.
The exercise did him good. Especially the feeling of fresh air—sweet pure oxygen pouring in through the open doors, uncontaminated by tobacco smoke.
He started toward the door. "Well," said Pete, "goodbye, you sonovabitch, you come to visit us maybe sometime?"
"I'm hitting for home," said Ken. "Give my girl friend a kick in the pants for old time's sake, Pete, will you?"
A stout young man, sandy haired, his face dominated by a grotesquely large hooknose, back of which were set two button-like blue eyes, approached. The stranger squinted with obvious difficulty down the vast slope of his nose. He was well dressed and spoke with a polite Eastern intonation, flavored with a decided nasal note.
"I don't mean to intrude, but do you work here?" he asked Ken.
"Not any longer. I was fired just now."
"That's a pity. My name is Shaw, Leon Shaw. I confess I'm rather annoyed to find anyone who can dance as well as you in a place of this sort."
"You're likely to find anything from a worm to a mammoth below the border," Ken said.
"I happen to be an agent."
"Vaudeville?" asked Ken.
"Oh, no. No," he laughed. "I'm just curious, that's all. I like your style of dancing. Have you ever been East?"
Shaw laughed again, a short brittle laugh. "Will you meet my party? I'm with a young lady and her mother. She's a dancer—the young lady, I mean."
Ken shook his head. "I'm not in the mood, Mr. Shaw."
"You'll forgive me for—"
Ken interrupted: "That was my farewell dance. I'm on my way out."
"Perhaps we could meet in the Club or in Caliente. Understand, this is purely curiosity on my part—finding a natural dancer this way."
"And I suppose you want to put me in vaudeville with your young lady friend as a partner? I went for that sort of thing nearly three years ago. I'm through with vaudeville, dance halls or anything connected with dancing."
"I'm sorry," said the agent. He proffered a hand.
Ken left Frank and Jack's. As he crossed the street to the Casa Verde, a growing fear assailed him. He had ignored the hand of a friend. He shrugged his shoulders as he entered the hotel.
Lopez stood at the door, his face beaming. "Sorry to lose you," he said. "Adios—my friend."
Ken's belongings were few. The bag he carried was old, the lock frail. He faced north and started toward the border.
Dusk was gathering. In the doorway of Frank and Jack's he thought he saw the figure of a woman. He thought she wore a scarlet dress and that she was waving a white handkerchief to him. He was not sure. He went on, past the barrooms, the tawdry hotels, the liquor stores, the wooden causeway leading to the Customs House.
An inspector opened his bag.
"Five dollars fine for the pint of rye," he said curtly.
Ken smashed the bottle on the pavement.
'Til take five days in jail," he said.
"Get the hell outa Mexico and stay out," said the inspector.
"Pronto—and muchas gracias," Ken grinned.
In National City, he stopped for a cup of coffee. His feet ached. He decided to hail an automobile. Limousines swept by on well oiled springs. A battered Ford, driven by a sailor, halted.
The sailor was a little tight. He sang a song of Singapore—"Learned it in a crib over there from a limey jane."
"Lord knows what a woman is for,
You can't find out in Singapore.
A tiger makes a rug so nice,
A she-cat catches all the mice,
An elephant's ivory is white as snow,
But what is a woman? You'll never know.
Her claws are sharp, her teeth are white;
She lies in wait for you through the night.
The trap she lays is dark and deep,
Its mouth is wide, its sides are steep.
She's the huntress—you're her prey—”
"I never knew what the word 'prey* meant," said the sailor.
"It means a man, I guess," said Ken.
"She's the huntress—you're her prey," repeated the sailor.
"She'll tame you till you'll dance all day.
She'll take your youth and money away.
Saint and devil, sinner and saint
She's never what she is and she is what
And so I asks—
What is a woman—angel or whore?
You'll never find out in Singapore."
"Or any place else," said Ken.
"And so say I," chuckled the sailor. "Say, buddy, you ain't a fag by any chance, are you?"
"No," said Ken, and laughed.
The room cost one-buck-fifty. The bed was cool, the sheets smelled sweet. The morning shower was a luxury.
In the hotel restaurant, Ken ordered ham and eggs, rolls and coffee. He sat at the counter. Next to him sat a gray-haired woman—then a little brunette—then Mr. Shaw.
He called across the counter: "Mr. Shaw."
The little man with, the big nose squinted. The middle-aged woman smiled and said: "Leon is so near-sighted that he can only see his own nose!" She turned to Leon. "It's the boy who danced at Tia Juana yesterday."
"Oh, hello there," said Shaw. "Meet Norah Nasmuth and her mother—who I hope is still Mrs. Nasmuth."
"We had such a hot time last night that we still talk a little woozily," said Mrs. Nasmuth. "Incidentally, what is your name?"
"Kenneth Gracey," said Ken. "I was billed as 'Buddy Renault' down there."
Nor ah Nasmuth had friendly brown eyes. She was chubby, very young, all curves. Her hair was set in loose waves; she wore a linen suit.
Leon Shaw left his own seat to sit next to Ken. "We inquired about you after you left. Frank Brocco told me all about your misadventures with your partner. He thinks the world of you and was glad to kick you out."
"You sound as if you were in the know."
"I know everyone everywhere." He handed Ken a card. Ken read:
1481 BROADWAYNEW YORK CITY
"Broadway," Ken remarked. "I'd love to see Broadway."
"You're made for Broadway, youngster," said Leon.
"Don't let Leon get his hooks into you," Mrs. Nasmuth said. "He'll sell you to Colman or the Touheys for a thousand a week."
"Am I that good?" Ken asked.
"You're not bad," said Norah Nasmuth.
Ken smiled. He saw his own smile in the wall mirror. It was an engaging smile at last, the smile of a free man.
"How about putting me on Broadway, Mr. Shaw?" Ken asked.
"It's O. K. with me," said Shaw. "That is, it would be, if we were now seated in my office."
"When are you going to be in your office?"
"Next Monday. We leave for the big town from Los Angeles on Thursday."
Ken shrugged his shoulders. "I can't make it," he said. "But how about a date four weeks from next Monday." "At eleven o'clock?" laughed Shaw.
"Make it ten-thirty. I'll be anxious," Ken laughed back. "I like your nerve," Norah said. "Will you work out with me for half an hour this morning?"
"Where?" asked Ken.
"We'll use the hotel ballroom.
They were homey folks, the Nasmuths. They surrounded Ken with an atmosphere of wholesome sympathy.
"I'm surprised that you even talked to a dancer in a joint like Frank and Jack's," Ken remarked to Norah.
"You're not just a dancer, my dear. When Leon Shaw watched you dance he said: 'There's another Clifton Webb, if he only knew it.'"
"Who's Clifton Webb?"
"A Broadway star who studied in Europe and who is sophistication to the finger tips."
"I suppose I'm a little hickish to you New Yorkers."
"No. You're a natural dancer and a born gentleman."
The morning passed as they danced for each other in the ballroom. Mrs. Nasmuth played for them.
Afterwards, at lunch, she told Ken she hoped to meet him again in the East.
"We're just show people," she laughed. "My daughter is quite a star in New York. Norah has really been on the stage since she was a baby, you see. I was Laura Lorimer of the old Casino days.
"Norah was a child actress ten years ago. I've held her back until I thought she was ready to return to the stage as a full-fledged topliner. I don't want her to go into vaudeville. I'd prefer her to team up with the right dancer for a season or two in musical comedy."
"Nellie wants to back a show in Chicago this summer," Norah said. "Not to star me but to give me a start."
"Nellie must be quite a girl," said Ken.
"She's my client and I only handle 'quite-a' girls and boys," chirped Leon.
They left San Diego after lunch.
"Nellie will be in Chicago in September," Mrs. Nasmuth said as Ken bade them good-bye. " 'Rose Marie' is booked there then. Norah and I will be in town for the opening. If you want to break into real show business, Chicago is a good spot nowadays. They're not too exacting there. If you can't make it and if you ever hit Broadway, look up Leon. We'd like to meet you again."
And so they were gone, leaving with Ken their own fine confidence in him and the flavor of their professed friendship. He felt a lump rise in his throat as the sedan drove away.
"I'll be seeing you," he said.
A few minutes later he counted his wealth. He owned three dollars and seventy-five cents.
With his bag in his hand, he walked north toward the main road east. At a hilltop service station which faced San Diego Bay and the Pacific, Ken asked the attendant which road to take.
"Where you goin', Texan?" the man asked.
"Got a car?"
"No. How'd you know I was a Texan?"
"Smelled it. But you can't walk, son. It's summer and there's a desert back of the mountains."
"I'll get there," Ken said.
"Take University Avenue," said the man. "Keep on it until you hit the Atlantic Ocean. And God bless you."
"Thanks, fellow," said Ken, and moved on.