Butterfly Man/Chapter XII
KEN and Norah danced before Howard's staff. Henry Colman stood on the balcony steps. Jules Monroe followed their routine with keen attention. In the wings, chorus boys and girls stood rigidly watching.
Norah was never better. Ken did not think he was at his best. He detected flaws in his work. He felt himself over-eager.
"Do you read lines?" Howard Vee, with inscrutable face asked when the dance ended.
"I played the second juvenile in Chicago."
"Meet me upstairs," the producer ordered.
The conference was short and to the point. Vee offered five hundred dollars a week for the team.
"And you can sign for two years with me," Leon Shaw added. Then to Howard: "I'll have your contract with Mr. Gracey ready for you tomorrow."
Dusk was falling as they spoke. Howard switched on a dim lamp. Norah sat, hands folded in her lap, happiness shining through her warm brown eyes.
New York pounded and hammered outside the window. Two hundred and twenty-five dollars a week net—New York could be his—the street, strange arteries congested with strangers, would soon be friendly with familiar faces; he would live no more in a cheap Eighth Avenue hotel; he would buy clothes; he would become a famous dancer. He would—
"Miss Nasmuth's part," Howard Vee said, taking a sheaf of "sides" from his desk drawer.
"Thank you," Norah smiled.
"I can't dismiss your part so unimportantly," he told Ken. "Will you have dinner with me tonight?"
"Why not?" Ken smiled.
"I intend to build the rôle to suit you," Howard continued. "As written, you'd be a specialty dancer—nothing more. You'd stop the show, get a condescending notice in the Times. I want our audiences to get acquainted with you, not to think of you only as a dancer."
"Wisely spoken," commented Leon.
"We'll meet then—at my hotel at seven-thirty, shall we?" Howard smiled engagingly. Ken nodded. "The Barrington on Madison Avenue," the producer added.
"I'm only twenty-four," Howard Vee laughed. "You talk as if you were already an old man—or at least middle-aged."
"I've lived plenty," Ken said, lighting a cigarette. "Not your sort of living, but bucking hard stone walls, and riding rods and that sort of thing."
"You didn't learn that precise diction in a lumber camp, now did you?"
"No. I once spoke good Texas English. Norah tutored me in stage lingo. I must sound like a rancher born and brought up in dear old London, eh what?"
"And your—I can't find the word—" Howard moistened his lips, "your quality? Where did you get that?"
"That's me. Too much quality. A nasty old man tried to find out how much when I was seventeen, and at eighteen a wicked woman discovered the exact amount."
Howard's apartment reflected the man. It was in perfect taste; autographed letters from celebrities hung on the living room walls, beside several Daumiers, Zorns, a Whistler. A grand piano was shiningly black. A balcony stood high over the city.
"I'm finding myself now. I thought I was gone, two years ago down in Tia Juana."
"Oh, tell me," begged Howard.
"I'd rather forget it." Ken puffed on the cigarette. "Do you know, I never open up this way?"
"That's because you're lonely," Howard said. "Not a realist. You need Europe, a touch of true ripening—not forced. We Americans age our cheeses by a process; in Europe everything, including cheese, is permitted to get rotten as it pleases. Have you ever been to the opera?"
"No—never dreamed of going."
"Opera is a European scheme to dull the senses with musical opiates. We Americans drink raw gin or rape our sisters for the same reason—Nepenthe—sweet forgetfulness."
"I have too much money. I spend in order to have less. You have none. You struggle in order to have more. Both of our efforts are futile. We strive only so as not to think."
"I like you," Ken said. "We are sort of pals—I feel I've known you for a long time."
"You have. And will forever. We're brothers, really. I enjoy talking this way. No women. Don't need them. They are all Cheshire cats with a streak of sadism.
"Occasionally, as tonight, I meet a kindred soul. Then I'm happy. I can talk. Once my friend was a veteran of the Franco-Prussian war, an ancient concierge in Paris. Again my father's Scotch groom at the Sands Point estate. Again a little chorus girl who told me that life consisted of putting square pegs into round holes. I loved her until we fornicated one evening. I never saw her again.
"I'll tell you about me: I love music, old paintings, the smell of verbena, salt sea air, a rare heavy gray sky and modern music. I envy Austin Dobson, W. S. Gilbert and Gelett Burgess. I envy Lee Shubert. Why, I do not know. And I envy you."
"When you are not much older, you will no longer notice the obvious. You will seek inner meanings. Poor me! I shall always be a surface swimmer—money—fame—fame and money.
"By the way, I had an old friend sample a case of Hencken Troncken off a German boat. If it hasn't turned sour, we'll drink a toast to 'Sweeter Than Sweet.'"
"The name of my new show and what life ought to be but somehow never is."
The following Monday rehearsals began. To the assembled company the story of "Sweeter Than Sweet" was not new, yet they chuckled and roared as Howard Vee read it to them. A wise script, a musical show that mocked life, merry graceful tunes, enchanting lyrics. They were gay, these actors. They went to work with light hearts. The show, they were certain, would be a success.
Ken devoted himself unstintingly to his task. He memorized his lines quickly. He marvelled as scenes developed in the hurly-burly of rehearsal. He was mystified by the energy which radiated from Howard Vee. The young author and director slaved from dawn to dawn at his job of creating a new entertainment for jaded Broadway.
Slowly Ken's fellow members of the troupe emerged, their faces friendly, greetings warm. Rosemary Rose, endearingly plump, tiny as a great doll, merry eyes, fascinatingly small feet, a sweet, high, well-trained voice, smiled eagerly to Ken. Old Annie Begley, the low comedienne, raucously hoarse, lisping across her false teeth and through her bubbling laugh, would defy her fifty-year-old body in a thunderous attempt to make her feet patter in a tap break. She kept champagne in her dressing-room and invited Ken to drink with her, comparing him the while to her dear son, now an insurance broker's assistant and, thank God, not an actor.
And little Polly Tucker, the fresh ingenue comedienne, angular, loud-mouthed, addicted to bromo-seltzers and black coffee, garrulous, obscene and witty, platonic sweetheart of a noted caricaturist; at eighteen, on her way, as she said, despite a desperately defended virginity, to drink, the devil and eternal damnation. She wanted Ken to take her to lunch but he became panic-stricken when she politely added that lunch at his expense would not mean that he could take immediate possession of her body. Ken might have agreed, using one of the twenty-five dollars the company manager had advanced to him, if Polly had not employed certain casual and colloquial phrases which failed to shock him but reminded him too painfully of Tia Juana and Anita's vocabulary whenever she lost her temper. The chorus girls were young, beautiful and decidedly enthusiastic about the show. They greeted Ken with smiles.
Because he was a principal, they did not encourage him to invite them to lunch or to dinner. Agnes O'Reilly, ex-Ziegfeld girl, toe dancer and expert gold-digger, eyed him coldly. Round-cheeked, wide-eyed Myra "Ga-ga" Malloy, baby-stared at him, then puckered her lips wryly because he ignored her. Ex-school mistress Louise Hayden sighed and thought he was just too good-looking. Garna Kendrick, high-cheeked, athletic, remarked that he was not an obvious nance; he might do in a dark port on a stormy night. The jet-black eyes and ebony hair of Luisa Pagano glistened as she said she didn't care what he was—he was lovable and she wanted to be loved by him.
Late one afternoon, Ken enjoyed a refreshing swim at Howard Vee's expense. The young producer took him to the Apollo Athletic Club opposite the park. They swam naked, snorted like young porpoises, raced to the steam room, lounged in billowing clouds of moist heat, were briskly massaged, relaxed, slept for half an hour, ate dinner and then returned to the theatre.
"I've been watching you," Howard said, as they left the club. "You're to be my real sensation. I'm proud I discovered you."
"I blush," Ken laughed.
"Take a bow." Howard grasped Ken's arm as they strode down Seventh Avenue toward the theatre, lungs expanded with cold pure air. "This is only a beginning. You are electric. Audiences will love you. Just wait and see."
Indeed, Ken felt electric vitality within his finely drawn body. As in a lightning flash, he now stood revealed, a figure of youth racing down the avenue toward Broadway, toward the theatre. He laughed, half aloud. He was tumultuously alive.
"Feel good?" asked Howard.
"Great! I'm happy. I feel like going places, doing things."
Howard glanced at him, a sidewise glance, appraisingly. "There's always time for happiness," he said.
A taxi separated them at a crossing. Howard came to Ken's side. "I'm tired," he said. "You are charging me with your own energy."
It was nearly theatre time; traffic blocked the streets, crowds poured into the theatres.
"In four weeks, Ken," the producer spoke with confident warmth, "you will be the best known dancer on Broadway."
Awareness, Ken knew, was dangerous. He lay in bed, gazing up at the ceiling. A line, stained brown with rusted wetness, carried his eyes to the distant dark corner of the room.
For eighteen months he had been rocketed through life. No time to pause. No memories peeping up at him timidly, like naughty children who have been playing over-late behind the barn.
The show, of course, would be a success. Howard Vee was destined to become famous. His varied talents were surely those of genius. Ken was glad that success would come to Howard. He liked Howard.
As for the others, they were precious people. Don't come any finer. Clever too. Full of wisecracks, gags and practical jokes, forever doing something to keep the old pep up. Comfortable old Norah dancing her head off. Rosemary Rose with the "come into my parlor" look. Rumors were being circulated. Rosemary Rose, it was said, picked a chorus boy from each show, made him her chauffeur and took nice long afternoon automobile rides with him. Who, Agnes O'Reilly had demanded, would she play offstage matinees with this season?
Ken was beginning to love these new friends of his. Frankie Regan was a card, peppier than seventeen wild cats. He'd be great in that specialty at the end of the timestep number. Harry Waldron was an interesting type. Old Henry Colman was lovable.
As for Jules Monroe—Ken reserved mental comment. He was clever, no doubt of that. Too clever. His eyes too hypnotic. Ken was pretty sure about Monroe. Unpleasant the thought. Well, he'd been young, then, too damned young. He'd keep away, though, from Monroe.
Of course, he mused, there could be fun in it. No use making a mess of life because an old man had liked you once. Some day he'd come around to a sane view of such things. He'd soon be able to think straight.
At present and possibly forever, he'd keep to the straight and narrow. He'd strayed long enough with that Tia Juana floosie. He was old enough now to understand. He understood he wanted to be a star. A star for Howard.
Henry Colman liked Ken. "You're too clean a looking lad to be in this game," he said when Ken dropped into the office looking for Howard. He offered Ken a cigar.
"What makes you think so, boss?" Ken asked.
The theatre owner was a gentle, fatherly figure, whose appeal was strong. "I like you," Henry Colman smiled. "If I had a son, you'd be him. What say to a cocktail, gin, Noéillet Prat and a dash of anisette?"
"Thanks, but no drinking until the show opens. Thanks."
"It's all right with me, son," the old man said. "I know you are a clean-living, clean-thinking lad. Keep away from show girls—and chorus boys." Colman winked. "Don't let musical comedy shennanigans get you, chappie. Marry someone outside the business and stay married." He bit off the end of his cigar and spat it into the spittoon.
Dick Carter was the juvenile. A handsome kid with curly red hair. Brusque Irish. No question about his good humor. Or heart.
Across the. street from the theatre was a cafeteria. At the center of the rear wall was a telephone booth. If you knew how, you could walk right through the booth into an old-fashioned barroom.
Dick Carter took Ken to dinner one evening. Dick was full of advice. Ken drank a beer. Dick consumed half a dozen whiskies. "Show business," said Dick, "is a lotta hooey. Especially this end of the game. Musical comedy is a hookshop on parade. It's a cinch when you're good-looking. You look as though you could put it over. What's more, take it easy. Don't work too hard. Let's go out tonight. I'll get us a coupla broads and we'll have a sandwich followed by a piece of young chicken. Get me?"
Because he was lonely, Ken accepted. "We'll meet at the stage door after rehearsals," Dick agreed.
At eleven o'clock that night Jules Monroe was reviewing Ken's waltz routine with Norah. He dismissed the girl and asked Ken to remain. He wanted to look over Ken's high-kick specialty, he said.
"Not tonight," Ken protested. "I'm tired. And I've done the same dance hundreds of times out west."
The director leaned on his stick as he clambered up the steps and over the footlights. "I'm satisfied," he said. He approached Ken. "No reason why we can't look it over in the morning." He seemed fresh and energetic despite a day of hard work. 'Tm giving the chorus an extra hour's sleep tomorrow. They're tired out."
"You do work them hard, don't you?" Ken commented.
"Think so?" Monroe smiled. "Never too hard. I've an idea. We'll go up to my place, have a bite, talk, and you can sleep in the spare room."
"Thanks," said Ken. "I'd love to. But I made a date with Carter."
"Carter?" Monroe looked surprised. "That lush?"
"Keep away from Carter. He drinks his head off. A bad boy. No refinement. Treats his wife brutally. If you're to be someone on the Street, stick to your own kind." He emphasized the last phrase. Ken was startled. He looked squarely at Monroe, who smiled, tapped the bamboo cane against his trouser cuff. "Well?"
"I'm sorry," said Ken. "I promised him I'd go out with him."
"We're calling on Luisa Pagano. She lives with some dame nearby. We'll have a drink or two across the street to get in the right mood. Then we'll buy them some shoes with round heels and watch 'em fa' down."
"I don't drink," Ken said. "I told you that this afternoon."
He stood at the bar while Carter swallowed a whiskey. A few minutes later they hurried across Broadway, down a side street to an old red-brick apartment building, the interior of which was remarkable for a stair well which rose to a roof skylight six floors up. The din of phonograph and radio jazz echoed against the roof and down to the street. As Ken climbed the stairs to the fifth floor, Carter trailed him. They passed open doors, girls in kimonos, a card game.
Luisa Pagano's door was ajar. Her room was dull with faded plush furniture. A dim, unshielded electric bulb shed a weak overhead glow. On an old green plush sofa was a tableau: a blonde, perched on the lap of a sailor, hair awry, skirts above her knees. They were kissing.
Luisa's eyes shone. Hello, boys," she said. "We been on a toot since nine p.m. I've had a hooker or two or three or four. Can't remember which. Gee, Dick, I'm glad to see you mutts, hot pants and everything. Put 'er there!" She threw her arms around Ken's neck and kissed him with quivering wet lips.
"Here's a pint," Dick said. He handed a bottle to Luisa. The girl tore the metallic tab with her teeth. The bottle was open. "Drink, horse-face," said Dick.
She poured a tumbler half full and gulped the raw stuff down. "Whee-ee!" she cried shrilly.
"How about Emma?" said Dick.
"How about it, Emma?" Luisa said, pushing the sailor's face away from the blonde's neck.
"Emma's mine," said the sailor.
"I'm his'n," said Emma.
"I'll go home," said Ken.
"Like hell you will," Carter pulled him toward the door. "C'mon, Luisa. You can afford to be nice to the both of us, can't you?"
"I'm everybody's," said Luisa emphatically.
She yowled all the way up Broadway. At Fifty-eighth Street, the cab turned east. She stuck two silk-clad legs through the open window.
"Not bad, eh?" chortled Dick.
Ken led her to the apartment house entrance. Carter fumbled for his key. The hall boy opened the door. A party began. Dancing, drinking, coarse jokes. Luisa's slim legs, white flesh. They drank. Ken swallowed a mouthful of a bootleg concoction. He could taste no more. Luisa danced. She lay on her back and bicycled. She begged Ken to match high kicks with her. He refused. He was too tired, he said. She ordered Dick to get out of the room. "Now, sweet boy, we'll see," she said to Ken as Dick closed the door of his bedroom. She pulled her dress over her head. "Come on, we'll match kicks!"
He kicked high and true. Slim in her scanty underthings, she kicked unevenly, stumbled, fell. He thought of Anita that last night in Tia Juana. He let Luisa lie on the floor. She began to cry.
"I was so thrilled, when I heard you was coming," she sobbed. "Don't be mean to me. You're so sweet, so nice-looking. Take me home." He picked her up in his arms and placed her gently on a couch. Ken was affected by her tears. He held her chin in his hand. He covered her with his body. She continued to sob. His arm held her shoulder. He rose. He was lifting her from the couch, her head drooping limply, lashes moist, scarlet mouth. Her wide wet eyes closed against his cheek as Dick entered.
"Quick work, boy," Dick chirruped. "Put her in my room. I'll keep her here all night."
"But I didn't," Ken's voice broke. She was a child, Ken decided, a stubborn, bad child. He hated Dick for supposing. He hated her because she was a weak child. He didn't want her. In the morning he would dance. The girl, drunk and hysterical, the cheap little actor—they were not for him, he decided. Better to go home alone and to bed.
"I'm going home," he said to Dick. He let the sobbing girl fall back upon the couch.
She lay there. Her brassiere had slipped down. Her hands covered her round, swollen breasts. "Oh," she sobbed. "I'm awful, so awful. I hate myself—oh, Kenneth!"
"Hot Emma!" Dick laughed. Ken shrugged his shoulders. Dick smirked. He sat beside the girl on the couch.
"Oh, Dick," she moaned. "I'm so unhappy. Love me. Make me forget."
Dick's eyes said, "Get out!" Ken quit the room and the apartment.
The following day, neither Dick Carter nor Luisa Pagano reported at rehearsal. An understudy read Dick's lines, an extra girl danced in the chorus. When they did not appear on a second morning, Howard Vee reported their absence to Actors' Equity. That afternoon they were dropped from the cast of "Sweeter Than Sweet."
Jules Monroe visited Ken's dressing-room. "You were lucky," he said. "How did you manage to stay on your feet yesterday morning?"
"I didn't drink," Ken said.
"I'm not a moralist," Monroe explained, "though I could preach a two-hour sermon at your head."
"Kenneth!" Jules said with sudden passion. "I'm going to London when I finish this show—that's where you belong. With me. You need me to help you. You're too—gullible—too unsophisticated."
Ken shook his head. "You've got me wrong. And I'm not for you, Jules," he added.
"Are you sure?"
"You don't have to be so obvious," Ken countered. "I'm not a schoolboy."
"You're a fool," Monroe snapped. Then he softened. As Ken sat at his dressing table, cleansing his face with cold cream, the bony hand of the director touched his cheek. "I can help you here too," Jules said. "I'm powerful."
"Thanks," Ken replied. "I don't need help just now."