Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Glass Character: An Excerpt (Dance of the Comedian)

 (This is an excerpt from my third novel, The Glass Character, a fictionalized account of the life and times of silent movie comedian Harold Lloyd. Sixteen-year-old Muriel Ashford has come to Hollywood in 1921 in hopes of meeting her screen idol.  Thrilled by landing extra work in one of Harold Lloyd's comedies, Muriel finds her joy is somewhat dimmed by the realization that Harold  is far from the godlike figure she imagined. Forced to work as a waitress at a speakeasy to make ends meet, Muriel encounters Harold out on the town with his former co-star, Bebe Daniels.)

After Bea’s horrified letter, I was beginning to wish this interminable shoot would end. We were only called in on certain days, often for very short periods of time, so there was no loitering about, no time for gossip. I was convinced my immortal seven seconds of screen time would end up on the cutting room floor.

I was always seeing things I shouldn’t, and this time it was Harold and Mildred necking behind a wobbly flat. His hand was on her breast, but she didn’t seem to mind. The wall was crumbling. No ring on her finger yet, so he would likely stop short.

Our brief sexual spark had fizzled. Just as well, for my cousin was right on all counts: I should never have let him touch me. Then during yet another back-aching, dreary, smoke-choked night serving illicit drinks at Frankie’s (password: chinchilla), my heart dropped into my shoes. There he was in the doorway in that spotlight stars seem to carry around inside them, elegantly dressed in a gleaming, expensive suit.

Panic-stricken, I ducked into the kitchen.

“Muriel,” Susan whispered in my ear, her eyes huge with excitement.

“Yes, I know.”

“He is an absolute doll! Even cuter than in his pictures. Who’s that he’s with?”

I wasn’t sure: a petite brunette who somewhat resembled Clara Bow, with bobbed hair, a silvery dress fringed all over, and long strands of artificial pearls. A real flapper. We all knew about the reputation of flappers, which ensured that Harold would have a good old time tonight.

I prayed he wouldn’t notice me, but my shift didn’t end until midnight, so I had to go on working. The studio paid me a pittance, and Frankie not much better, so I badly needed the tips to survive. This required a lot of smiling and leaning over.

I tried to avoid his table, but it was awkward. Then he and his girl got up to dance. I had never seen this particular step before, but it was complex and lively, and the music was simply wild. Some years later I saw a dancer named Kelly, and Harold had that same effortless, athletic grace. At one point he literally threw his girl up in the air and caught her, airplaning her around as the glitter-ball cast firefly rainbows all over the room. The other dancers slowly moved back to watch.

They finished with their version of the infamous tango from Valentino’s Four Horseman: both tribute and parody, sexy and funny at the same time. Their great comic gifts were evident, as was their physical oneness. The applause went on and on, and Harold casually reached up and caught the cup as it flew through the air.

Then I knew. It was Bebe Daniels. Officially they had broken it off, and she had moved on. (I didn’t know whether to believe the darker story doing the rounds.) Apparently they still had feelings for each other, for I was to learn that she’d had the diamonds from their engagement ring set into cufflinks which he constantly wore.

So they were still friends, or at least dance partners. Since this place wasn’t supposed to exist, they would be relatively anonymous here. (People were more inclined to keep their mouths shut in those days.) I studied her: she was dark, sleepy-eyed, and looked a bit dangerous. Not really pretty. I never could get a fix on Harold’s type.

Having effortlessly blown the audience down, they sat down again. Harold wasn’t even breathing hard. Bebe trotted across the room, waving gaily at a table of elegant-looking people.

Harold’s gaze swept the room.

His eyes lit.

If only he hadn’t smiled, ignited that way. I saw him mouth my name. I waved him off, he insisted, then I reluctantly came over to his table.

“Muriel! You look swell.”

“This awful thing? It’s full of smoke. And too short.”

He flicked his eyes up and down.

“Dance with me, Muriel,” he said in that wheedling, little-boy tone he had used with me in the rainstorm.

“I can’t. I’m on shift.”

“When do you get off?”
“At midnight.” I never should have said it. It sounded like a ludicrous fairy tale. “Anyway, I can’t dance like this. I look like a barmaid. And what about - ” I couldn’t say her name.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. Beebs has friends to talk to. We come to the clubs sometimes, just to dance. We’re not dating any more.”

“You’re awfully good. Where did you learn?”
“Didn’t, actually. Just sort of - ”

“I couldn’t keep up with you anyway.”

“I could teach you.” He could be so earnest, so Midwestern. Like he was teaching me the box step at a tea dance.

“C’mon, Muriel.” I thought: a gleaming movie star, one of the most famous people in Hollywood, is just at the tips of my fingers. Here I am, entering the mouth of the wolf again.

“Susan always brings her club clothes for when she’s off shift. Maybe I can change with her.”

“Good! Good!” Harold looked intoxicated with excitement, though I knew he was a good boy and didn’t smoke or drink or dabble in the white powder.

And at the stroke of twelve, I was led to the slaughter. Susan screamed with excitement and insisted she dress me. First I had to put on a strange undergarment that bound my breasts (not that I needed it). The dress was made of a heavy, shiny deep-blue material covered with hand-sewn glass beads, so I glittered when I walked. The neckline was shockingly low, the waistline dropped almost to my hips. The black patent-leather shoes had straps around the ankles, and higher heels than I had ever worn before. This wasn’t an outfit, but a costume.

Susan rouged my mouth, pinched my cheeks, and pulled a few strands of my hair out of the old-fashioned combs I still wore, making soft little tendrils.

I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and my pupils dilated. I looked nothing like myself. I could have been anyone. An actress. A flapper. A vamp. I’d have Harold in the palm of my hand.

I turned on my high heel, switched on my brightest smile, and flounced over to greet my swain.

He did a very admiring “whew!’, which was pleasantly enthusiastic without implying I looked a mess the rest of the time. Then snaked his arm around my waist.

“Don’t be afraid, it’s only the fox trot.”

“This fox doesn’t know how to trot.”

“Oh Muriel, you’re so funny!” He suddenly dipped me, in fact almost dropped me, then caught me at the last second while my head reeled. Yes, I realized, I am dancing with a comedian.

“Push against my hand a little. That’s it. There needs to be a bit of tension between us. Then with my arm, I’ll. . .”

My awkwardness lessened as he steered me around. The music was lavish: mellow saxophones, high keening clarinets, and a single violin soaring above it all in a melody so tender, it made my eyes sting. And my skin prickled with dizzy joy that I was in the arms of the most beautiful man in the world. 

He was very gradually easing me closer so that our bodies were almost touching, but I knew it was only another tease, proof of his power over me. This close, I could not help but feel his heat. I wondered if Bebe could see us, if it would even matter.

The fox trot escalated into the “toddle”, a sort of hop-step that was much harder to execute. The music grew wild, with razzing trumpets and primitive, thudding percussion. Harold had an almost shocking instinct for the music’s hot, sexy rhythms, and was practically lifting me off the floor so I could keep up.

Then came an announcement that made everybody cheer: “The Black Bottom!” Panicked, I shook my head vigorously: I knew I wasn’t up to this one. Maybe Harold and I could go sit down and talk. But to my shock, he grabbed another girl’s hand, a girl he didn’t even know, and set to, leaping around like an adorable little puppet. He radiated joy and exuberance like no one I had ever seen before. But he was dancing with someone else, as if women to him were practically interchangeable.

I left the dance floor, devastated, collected my things, changed back into my drab street clothes and headed for the door.

“Muriel . . .” I felt like I was being dragged back. 

“I have to go,” I said, trying very hard to keep the tremble out of my voice.

“Oh Muriel, I didn’t mean to abandon you. How about one more dance?”

“Harold, no! Why do you think you can yank me around like this? Go away, come back! Dance with me, but don’t touch me!”

“I thought we were having fun.”

“You know how I feel. And you told me not to. ‘We can’t do this, Muriel.’ Does that mean I can just turn my feelings off?”

“Be quiet, Muriel, you’re making a scene.” It occurred to me that a spat in a speakeasy wouldn’t be good for his career. 

“Go have fun, then.” I turned on my heel again, the dramatic effect ruined by a stumble because I was still wearing Susan’s ridiculous tottering shoes.

“It’s not fun.” He said it very quietly.

I had to turn back.

“It’s not fun to live like this. I feel like I’m not really close to anyone.”

“But what does it matter, so long as there’s a different girl for every night of the week.”

For an unguarded instant, he looked devastated.

“Oh, Harold, I shouldn’t have said that.”

“But you did.”

“Why can’t you just tell me if you like me or not?”

“It’s not a question of liking. You’re so very young, Muriel, not even out of your teens. Sometimes I wonder if you really know what goes on between men and women in this town.” 

“You don’t have to protect me. I can take care of myself.”

“I don’t think so, Muriel. You don’t know how pretty you are, and in five years you’ll be a full-blown beauty with real character, which means your looks will last. And you have talent, I’ve seen it. If you really want to be an actress, you can be. But you’ve got to be very careful.”

He seemed to be offering me stardom on a platter. I knew enough to suspect it. Still, I watched his face for the most minute chance that he would break his own rule and touch me.

“I might be able to help you,” he said.

“So what would I have to do, Harold?”

“What does that mean?” 

“I’ve heard the stories. Don’t you like them young?” My tone was provocative, acid, awful. 

“That’s not fair.”

“What about Bebe? Wasn’t she just a little underage?” 

His face darkened so quickly I had to catch my breath. 

“Leave Bebe out of this. You don’t know what you’re saying.”

“I know what other people are saying.”

“Why do you pay attention to such trash?”

“Oh, there’s more. Like the story of how you got your start.”

“Stop it right now. Don’t say another word.” 

“Oh, it’s just hearsay, but . . . who was that man who got you into the theatre? Connor, was it? Maybe it’s just a rumour, but I heard he was a bit of a nancy-boy.”

“What are you implying?”

“Can’t you guess?” 

The anger escalated into fury. “I don’t strike women,” he said in a frighteningly low voice. 

“That’s too bad, Harold, because then I could strike you.”

The air in the room was crackling and ready to explode. And he didn’t move. Stood vibrating with a fury that would soon turn to rage.

“I’ve given you every advantage. I only want the best for you.”

“You know what you want.”

“Show me a man who doesn’t.” The gloves were off, and I saw the hard, calculating man who had come from nothing and was tough enough to survive in a pitiless world.

I realized with a shock that I had no idea how to deal with him. He seemed to be getting bigger as I gradually diminished. I slowly backed up, and he advanced.

I ducked inside the unlit storage room. I grabbed his hand, and he followed. With Susan’s ridiculous wobbly shoe, I kicked the door shut.

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