Excerpt: Mistaken Nonentity

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“I’m a dipsomaniac, and I like it, you hear?  I like it!”

(From Night Nurse, Warner Brothers 1931)

I’m not the girl for bright winter mornings or optimistic alarm calls.  It’s not the 50s in here; I’m no Doris Day bouncing from bed, creamy skinned and brassy voiced, booming suburban questions about a Technicolored future as, in full-skirted smug, I swing from room to room.  Even her song lyrics get on my wick. Did You Know I Have a Secret Love. . .?  What Will I be. . .?  How Do You Like Your Eggs in the Morning. . .?  I’m more 1940’s than 1950’s—more hot war than cold, noir shadows over Technicolor pastels.  I prefer to Bogart my nights and avoid all Day-time, I choose dark words unspoken over bright mottos chirped optimistically.  How do I like my eggs, indeed.

Unfertilized, that’s how.

And that’s not difficult.  I might show the skin for money, flash quality flesh in a joint where the air’s dirty with cigarette sighs, but I sleep the way I drink—alone.  Like a dame, dammit.  Life didn’t fit me up to be a Lady, but it gave me the yams and the gams to earn my cabbage the easy way, so night times I can isolate with steely eyes, straight spine, and a lipsticked glass in my hand.  Work is dancing in a cage, marionetted up there above the many-headed.  Below there are all sorts:  There’s the glad-rag crowd, sure, all champagned up and out for a thrill.  But I’m also swaying over men whose eyes are complicated like mine, by guilt and by vodka, by weariness and the dark sable embrace of self-loathing.

We had a deal, those men and me.  They pay for a gander at me, and I get the lettuce for ignoring the wetting tongues against their lips, the choked pull at their ties.  We both pretend it’s jake.  We sneer in the dark and pretend there’s no guilt.  But if there’s no sin, no guilt– why are we in the dark? Why is the darkness so very necessary?  Everyone else in this city, this fear-filled, antiseptic and electrically pinging city, is having a five-fingered toss in front of their computer nowadays.  Where I work, however, it’s a murky sort of 20th century arrangement; just a nightclub, filled with smoked mirrors, molded rubber, and archly retro high swinging bird cages.  The joint’s called Ziegfeld’s, and it features pre-internet encounters with no flesh being touched—but they’re close enough to smell it.  The corruption of time and guilt plus the excited desperation of grubby financial necessity.  My skin, oiled and complicated in its musk, my eyelids hiding the knowledge that makes a girl haggard, my hands.  In the flash of a strobe light my bloody hands are whitewashed to pale indifferent guiltlessness.

I had a husband once, but it didn’t take.  I spent a lot of time not thinking about that.

Then there’s the kid I killed.  His nephew.  Ollie.

Anyway, now it was early evening in my Morningside Heights apartment.  Silence echoed around the joint, dusty and subservient.   There’s a different noise to apartments that don’t have phones.  I’m not waiting for any calls, not looking for news of the world. (Like another dame you might have heard of, I want to be alone.   And as long as I have a little something fiery to slug down, I also like to be alone, so no pity here, chum.)  No phone doesn’t make an apartment quieter; it makes it weirdly bigger, cave-like.

The alarm was busted, maybe for good this time.  Winter with the one tree outside my window shuddering  in the passing breeze, branch-tips frail and claw like.  No thickening warming sap for it, yet, maybe never again.  I lay under my quilt, my sheets, and the “Hollywood Bowl 1949” blanket I bought in a thrift shop and boiled on the stove last summer.  The blanket was made of some super-fiber which defied harsh treatment—its weave didn’t buckle under the heat.  Like I did.  Like Ollie did.

I stayed under the covers, but lifted a girlish mitt to check that I removed my eye make-up last night.  Natch.  I don’t sleep in my mascara.  That’s the quickest way to go from a Turner to a Trevor:  cake yourself in make-up the full 24.  Weirdly, I’ve always looked like quality merchandise.  Helps you get away with a lot, until it doesn’t.  Dark auburn hair, slender girlish ribcage, the gloss to the skin that says mazuma.  Says money—as long as the glossy hardness lasts, until the shell starts to crack—or swell.  That made me think about not  touching my ankles, which had begun to worry me.

I reached under the blanket, and touched my right ankle.


Same with the left.

This had just started a few weeks ago, and I wasn’t taking the change lightly.  Quality legs keep me in vodka and bubble bath, and the long tilted slide of leg into stocking had brightened many a migrained afternoon for the last eight years, since I returned to New York.  Long lean upper thigh tightens towards oval knee, which in its turn curves with high lean calf down towards the money part—the quality ankles of a natural show horse.  I wear Crawford pumps with the best of them—expressing a prim intensity that’s rife with promise.  Promise of lipstick-smeared capitulation, of aproned abandonment of my high horse, of my swinging isolation.

The effect doesn’t fly if your ankles flab over the straps, weighted like a gut on a fat man’s towel.

I’d been wearing boots the last few weeks, just to cover these ham ankles up—seemed to make them swell more.  And, like I say, I’d done everything reasonable in response.  I quit walking to work, and took a cab.  For the most part, I’d 86’d the brown hooch and only tossed the clear stuff back.  I’d given up the bacon in my BLTs—no struggle, because my appetite’s been on the awol list as well.

It was even later than my usual glamorous toilette—I don’t gel with the hours before High Noon, but was usually able to unearth the old corpse before 6pm.  By corpse I mean me, of course.  Not the real corpse, the one I made.

I hauled my freight towards the TV, to turn on the old movie station like I did every day, and to pill down an aspirin or two.  Maybe they were making my ankles swell?  Do aspirin have salt?

I switched the tube on and stood there dully holding my green Chinese mug, fishing a loop of auburn hair around my ear and listening to the electronic gasp and ping of an old TV pulling itself together.  Knew how it felt: It takes time, getting ready to greet the public.  There was the usual white rectangular flash, then silence, then quietly at first but growing louder—oh, Brother, this meant the world to me—the  jagged haphazard sound of  syncopated jazz.

This music always makes me think of cartoon flowers bouncing on their long stems, of plump thighed chorus girls diving into waterfalls, of Hollywood and Vine when it was barely more than a jumped up citrus grove, of Marcel waves and batwing dresses.  In short, the music told me a lot.  This kind of syncopation means you’ve got a Hollywood film or cartoon, circa 1929-33.  The depths of the Depression.  After ’33, when Breen moved in and the Hayes code of cinema morality was enforced like gangbusters, sexy syncopation and the bootleg nights from which they sprang began to give way to the smoother sounds, to your Gershwin and your Porter.

I might be a bit fuzzy on the alarm, a little vague on the details of the nail-polishing that took place last night and the kid I croaked a few years back, but Brother—I can tell you about movies.  Show me 45 seconds of a film made between 1927 and 1959, and I can tell you exactly what year it was made and what studio made it, who was running the studio at the time, who’s the star on the rise, the one on the skids, and which poor sap had to spend time on their knees, tongue-oiling the director’s jodhpurs.  If you want, I’ll throw in a little background for you, casual proof of virtuosity, some color and synopses: Stories of sexual behavior; Harlow’s hubby’s death dildo or when Crawford ran over some skirt on the street and had good old Howard Strickling at MGM clean it up.  Who died from pills or hooch, the sauced-up crack to the temple a coffee table gave Bill Holden, and poor old Carol Landis’ death by pooch.   I know the skinny and I’m ready to sing.  About movies.

Have you ever noticed how fame gives life a shape, makes it easier to swallow?  As for me, I like to read about how the Stars died; sort of makes me feel like I’m hurrying it along for myself, stitching together my own Chicago trench coat.

I bent over and tapped on that grey gleaming TV glass with my fingernail.  Half the polish chipped off, so I was sporting a small blood-red map of Florida on my finger.  Kept tapping away impatiently to the beat of the music, and then it happened.  The old tube gave a wheeze like an asthmatic dog, and then the picture came on the screen.  Dim at first.  Pale grey writing on a college banner.  “Warner Bros. Pictures Incorporated and the VITAPHONE Corp. Present. . .”

Hot damn.  Something like happiness started dancing in my gut.  Vitaphone’s always a good sign.

Then I saw the title, with only one name over it.

Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse.

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I’d turned on the tube and got a whale of a gift.

Copyright Dana D. Burnell