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)

On the morning I got the divorce papers, the alarm went off, subtle like a knitting needle to the ear.  Time to wake up, it said.  Obviously.  Alarms don’t send varied messages, and I didn’t give complicated answers.  To the wake-up call I always said No.  This frail sleeps late, this skirt thrives like a mushroom in the dark.  I was dreaming about him again, about that sneer on his pan, the sear to my heart.

Who set the thing, anyway?  Not me—unless it was.  Maybe I did set it late last night.  Staggered to the clock and thought I might like to jitterbug out of bed after two or three hours of booze-bludgeoned sleep.  Maybe wanted to see how the vodka felt as it was kicking through the old system at that point, this point.  Answer to that question:   Not so peachy.

I said, “Christ!”  Propped myself on one elbow, grabbed the yammerer, and threw it across the room at the dresser.  The clock’s back sprang off, and it made two complaining grinding noises before shutting up.  I probably did the same.  All I know is I fell back asleep until I could smell garlic cooking from the other apartments, when the sky outside was a calm sliver of darkening blue.

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.

Swollen.

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.

It must’ve been twenty-odd years since I’d first seen this film as a kid.  Night Nurse is pure pre-code Warner Brothers.  Lingerie drops as fast the cracks fly wise out of Stanwyck’s lipstick sneer.  She’s one tough baby—born to be.  Stanwyck was an orphan.  Like me, her dad hit the skids before she knew him, her mother got bumped from a tram by a lush.  In Night Nurse, her character runs up against angry bootleggers, drunken dames, sex-starved nurses and food-starved children—and gets rubbed up by a leather-wrapped he-man.  Clark Gable.  I’m telling you, this story swings.

And Stanwyck.  Her face is maybe not what you’d call the usual peacharino, but say that in front of me and I’ll tell you to shut your head but quick.  It’s true, the nose is maybe too long.  The eyes are a shade on the small side, if you go for the ingénue type; and there’s an iciness to her smile that she barely bothers to cover for the camera.  Brother, I’m gone on that.  Her shape’s slender, her eyebrows and intelligence fierce, and—unlike say, the grande dame of hysteria, Bette Davis—she could do comedy, dance numbers, put a song over.  And drama?  She’ll break your heart.  If I’d lived back then, I’d have hopped the first flivver I could’ve thumbed and hitched my way to the Hollywood of Stanwyck.  I’d have slung hash at the Brown Derby, maybe been a sticky-fingered coat check girl at the Player’s Club.   I’d have enjoyed a girlish tug at Preston Sturge’s moustache.

I sat down on the sofa, feeling the old water slop around in that pumice stone I carry in my ribcage, and thought about how Stanwyck was everything I turned out not to be.

The movie sort of shifted the hangover, but it kicked up some memories, too.

My neck felt even tighter, like some invisible pit-bull had it clamped between its teeth or I was about to take a long waltz off a short rope.  Lonely.  Wished I had either a lot more booze in the apartment or a lot less kicking around my nervous system.  The cup of joe was making me sweat—something was.  When you’ve done what I did, when you’ve lived a while with the idea that if you weren’t around there’d be a boy still alive, you get to be a little. . . jumpy.  I’m high-strung, even when I’m not dancing up in that cage.  Sensitive to the delicate balance between just boozed up enough and gone over the cliff with the rams.   It’s delicate, all right:  Memory makes me feel like offing myself, not remembering made me off the kid.   Delicate, and a killer.  I’m both, or I wouldn’t need to be sauced up so much, sauced so hard, and he wouldn’t be dead.

Those weird short eyebrows he had, just the shape of a brown chalk stub.  And that way he’d look at you like you were Christmas Day and the Taj Mahal rolled up in one.  He had red hair, too—‘ginger’ they called it, over there.  Just two shades brighter than mine.  He’d be eighteen now, or nineteen.  Sixteen years younger than me.  Less than ten years old, that night the fire trapped him and he was alone.   Stanwyck protects those girls from quacks, murderers, and extortionists.  Ollie didn’t know he needed protection from me.

I’ll tell the story quick.  I’ll tell the story quick and then launch into my orphan past for a little sympathy.   I didn’t know he was there. I was sauced up in Elisabeth’s house on Ellerker Gardens. South-West London.   Didn’t hear him come in, passed out until the smoke woke me up.  I panicked, I guess—I remember that much.  The smoke billowing on the ceiling, a stairway. I heard a voice.  I heard my name. Then it goes blank.  What I did was, I ran out for some help—I ran for help, instead of helping.  The door closed behind me.  I’d run out without the key.  The door closed behind me.  And locked the kid in.  I’ll never know if he was still alive up there, or if by the time I woke up his lungs had already been steamed.  I’ll never know if I could have helped, if I could have died helping.

That poor kid.  Some nights I think I can’t take it anymore, the jobs the memory the dancing waiting for the next drink, the drink that does the business and takes me where I need to be, gives me the click and the blessed brief silence.  I’ve thought about it a lot, between bouts of making sure I’m not thinking at all.

So.  Did I mention I’m an orphan?  It’s true.  I was hauled around the five boroughs all thrift-shopped up in oversized clothes, after my mother bought it via a juju-filled needle.  I learned an orphan’s lessons: How to smile brightly while memorizing another phone number, to silently get the 411 on how far away the neighbors live.  Oh, it’s a nice little sob story and it’s bought me a few shots in my time.  But there are plus sides, too, Brother.  It’s made me nervy, so I never have to diet.  (Our pal Joan Blondell could have used that metabolism, later in her career.)   Plenty of guys want to save me—Sister, they’ve all got a weakness for a wounded bird–provided the bird’s bouncing with white meat and perches prettily on their arm.  I can change the VIN number on a stolen car.  I can read a person from 20 paces, but good.  Correction:  I can read a stranger but good.  Once I get to know people, my radar kinda goes.

My neck was really hurting.

Night Nurse. 

Like I said, I saw this movie when I was a kid, in one of the foster homes I got dragged up through.  The place smelled like fried flour and ammonia, and on my first night an old lady with a blonde helmet of hair showed me the small room with a rusted-out brass bed in it.  On the bed was a stiff, clean quilt in muddy red and greens.  There was a wardrobe with four wire hangers rattling in it (Crawford would’ve pitched a fit, but I hadn’t cottoned on to that yet).  Purple braided rug on the floor.  The old lady stood there with one spotted hand on the doorway, a smoke rooted to her bottom lip and some purple eye shadow caked on her tired eyelids.  The eyes were kind, and hard, and clearly hopeful that I’d be the quiet type.

“I’m Miz Archer.  And you’re Augusta.  You’re a pretty girl, so I’m telling you right now—no boys in here, Missy.”

I was nine, I think.  I nodded.

“And no weed—that stink upsets my stomach.”  She rubbed her swollen gut.  I remember I had a stash of White Rose Chokko-Chipz cookies, $1.09 for two sleeves, and I didn’t want them turning into powder, so I put my backpack down slowly and took a gauging step forward.  Sometimes they liked it if you hugged them.  Sometimes they liked it too much.  But when I took that step forward, the old dame gave me the breeze.  “Let’s save the show for when the social workers are here, okay, Sunshine?—but I’ve got sort of company for you.  Rahjee next door found it in the trash—the volume’s not so good but you’ve got young ears, right?”  From behind the door Miz Archer pulled a small banged up silver box with another wire coat-hanger stuck upside down in the top of it.  It was hooked up to a long extension cord that was gray with matted cobwebs.  “Sony,” it said on the front.

My first present, and it was a pip—a 10 inch black and white tv.

That night the room was filled with dark shadows that kept shifting around just beyond the corners of my eyes.  I could hear Miz Archer in her bedroom, next to mine.  She’d mutter a lot, and I could hear ice cubes clink, and then her bed would squeak in a long slow sigh.  I tried to sleep but I was all hopped up on Chokko-Chipz and the fact that the wardrobe looked like it had just taken one lop-sided step towards me.  When I turned to look at it, the closet door swung open with a soft squeak like a kitten scream.  The thickly painted door handle glinted and twitched.  Maybe these things didn’t like me being there.  Maybe they were waiting for me to sleep, then they’d crowd me until I smothered.

Lying there in my bed, I was red-eyed and lonesome enough to bust open.  With my arms wrapped tightly around my ribcage and eyes darting around the place, I must have looked like I was a prime candidate to ride shotgun to some booby hatch.  Then I remembered the TV.

Dragged it over, and used the rug to wipe the cord clean—it left little moth-like bundles of cobweb on the purple braids.  Then I hauled my freight back into the bed, placed the TV on my hipbones, and switched it on.  A long silver gleam, and then. . .like she’d said, Company.

Old movies.

And that became my magic world, my crystal ball, my family.  Night after night I would lie in bed with my ears perked beneath the red, green and flickering silver tent of the quilt.  The thin cotton sheets over my head, while inside they flickered with Davis’ neuroses and Arthur’s husky-voiced practicality, with Crawford and Gable’s hot-fleshed chemistry, with Powell’s heavy jowls, arch wit, and tight little mustache.  I thought he looked like a handsome walrus.  The TV would grow warm on my stomach and I’d press the warmth down between my hipbones.

Weekend nights were the best, though occasionally Sunday around dawn would reveal some treats.  I soon learned to look forward to RKO films where Edward Arnold (big, eagle-eyed and unflappable) or Walter Connolly (wise and trembling with fat)  were the fathers.

And those movies did starch me up, in a way.  For a few hours each day I was literally joined at the hip with people who knew how to make jokes, find love, and defend themselves fiercely,  always with the right terse words plus a poke to any fat banker’s gut that harrumph’ed in their direction.     The night I first saw Night Nurse, it was the late, late, late show and the movie was already in progress, things were in full kazzoey with all sorts of weird stuff going on.  Was this what life’s like? I wondered.  I was appalled and excited, too.  Gable takes a swing at Stanwyck, and that was clearly not the brightest idea—not from a moral sense (Pre-code movies were rough on dames; Cagney once smashed Mae Clarke with a grapefruit to the kisser before literally wiping the floor with her), but from the sense of being a dim-bulbed thing to do.   The big galoot was swinging at a hornet’s nest—all 5”3 of Stanwyck took it on the jaw—she never breaks eye contact with him—and suddenly she becomes fearless.  She will protect those girls from him.  She will protect. 

It’s her job, and jobs didn’t grow on trees in those days.  These days either.

The pain in my neck had found a spot just above my shoulder blade, it was circling and tightening with intent, starting to send up long iron fingers towards the base of my conk.  Christ, if I developed a migraine that’d be just keen, just what you want, an hour before you head out to work.    When the migraines develop they go straight to my right eye, swelling it shut for the duration.  But I had to go show some skin that night; swollen ankles you can cover up, but an eye?  Could I swivel my shape wearing boots and an eye-patch?

Christ. I rubbed the old noodle and thought soon I’d have to get burkahhed up, maybe offer an occasional sumptuous glimpse of wrist to the punters.  Who knows?  Maybe they’d like it.  Men always fall for the hard to get numbers—even when the hard-to-get act is a thin cover for desperation (and Brother, it usually is).  Problem was, of course, the whole job of stripping down sort of relies on the illusion of not being hard to get.  That’s what brings the punters in.

I had my usual evening, pre-work meal.  How many days in the last few months have I fallen back on the hoofer’s diet of saltines and aspirin, washed down with rye?

And the movie was ending.   I perched there with my ham ankles crossed delicately, choking on saltines and pills.

BZZZZZZZZZT.  BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZTTT. 

My apartment buzzer was ringing.   For the first time in years.

Copyright Dana D. Burnell.

Represented by Martha Millard at Sterling Lord Literacy, NYC

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