American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  I felt like a live wire. I wondered if he would burn if I touched him. He straightened up off the car as if he could sense it. The music was still in me, making me feel bold and reckless, my face hot, my blood stirring. I said, “‘We’?”

  He leaned in, one arm against the car, just past my shoulder, so close that I could smell the woods and tobacco on him. “I want you to be a part of it.”

  I don’t know what made me do it, but I wound my arms around his neck and pressed my body close to his, like we were dancing. His body went stiff, and he looked down at me, eyes dark and steady. We stood like this for what seemed like hours until he said, “Girl, don’t open that door if you’re not ready to come on through.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?” I was trying not to feel foolish, standing there holding on to him like he was a tree, him not reaching back, not even touching me.

  “It means that I’m not going down this road unless you know you want to go down it. But you got to be sure. I’m not going to play around with you, Velva Jean. I want more than that.” The words hung in the night, settling around us. I could feel them land like wild, far-flying birds on my head, my shoulders, my heart. He unhooked my hands from around his neck. “You better get in the car. Sherman and your brother can take you home.”

  As if I couldn’t think for myself, I got in and shut the door too hard, my stirring, reckless mind trying to make sense of it all. He walked away and then he was back again. He banged on the window. “Roll it down.”

  When I didn’t move, he banged on the window some more. I shook my head at him. I was humiliated, my temper rising, mad at myself more than anything. It had been a good night, the best night in months, and I’d gone and ruined it.

  Butch swung the car door open and leaned inside. “You stir a man up more than any woman I know. You can’t just let him be; you got to get under his skin till you’re part of it.”

  “You say that like it’s a rotten thing.”

  “If a man don’t want to be stirred up, it is.”

  “You say it like I do it on purpose.”

  “No. You’re not the kind. You got a lot to get through right now. A lot going on. I told myself I’d leave it alone. This ain’t the time or place. Besides, I don’t like to step on anyone’s territory, and up until recently you been pretty cozy with Sam Weldon.”

  “I’m not a car or a house. I’m not anyone’s territory.”

  “No you’re not. And the way I see it, you’ll always have a lot going on. And the way I see it, maybe there’s no such thing as the right moment, or the right time because life doesn’t stop so you can figure things out.” Behind him, I could see my brother coming, Helen and Sherman at his heels.

  “All you do is talk in riddles.”

  “There’s other ways to talk than with words, and sometimes, good as they are, words just don’t cut it.”

  “Sometimes a girl likes words.”

  “Then let me give you some.” He crouched down so we were at eye level. “I’ve known you since you were sixteen years old, a married woman up on a mountain who had a dream she would sing at the Opry. I knew you as a pilot, fighting all the bullshit the military piled on you. The war sent me my way, and you went yours, and I don’t begin to know about your life, and you don’t begin to know about mine. There are things about you I’ll never know. You ain’t the same girl I met in North Carolina. You ain’t the girl I knew at Camp Davis. I ain’t the same either.” It was the first time I’d seen him churning and burning without a guitar in his hand. “I knew the old Velva Jean, much as I could. Now I want to know this one.”

  My brother leaned on the door, smoking away. “Miss me?” Sherman stood over his shoulder. Beside him, Helen gave me a look, eyebrows raised.

  I said, “Go away, Johnny Clay.”

  “Hey now, what’s got into you?”

  Butch said to him, “Can’t you see we’re having a conversation? Go smoke another cigarette. Give us a minute here.”

  Johnny Clay narrowed his eyes at Butch, at me, and I guess it all must have shown on my face because he fixed Butch with one of his worst looks. “What did you say to her?” My brother looked like he was about to punch him in the jaw, and then, sure enough, he said, “I ought to punch you in the jaw.” Helen laid a hand on his arm, holding him back.

  “Nothing that didn’t need saying. Nothing that wouldn’t have been said one way or another. Besides, you’re a fine one to talk. You can knock me into next week, but it ain’t going to change the way I feel about your sister.”

  Butch smiled that crooked smile at me, but his eyes were an unsettling dark, the color gone from them. “Remember, no matter what shit comes down on you, no matter what anyone says or does, you’re one down-home girl, Velva Jean Hart. Strongest spirit I know.” He swept up his guitar and walked off toward his motorcycle. And then he threw back his head and howled.

  THIRTY-TWO

  On Friday, February 14, Helen drove me directly from the studio to Hughes Airport, where I’d arranged to borrow a plane. The man who greeted us apologized for his boss’s absence, and told me Howard Hughes himself had arranged for me to land on a private farm just outside Carmen, Oklahoma. The plane he’d found for me was a P-51 Mustang, painted red. It was a single-seater, with a maximum speed of 437 mph, and its external fuel tanks had made it a good long-range wartime fighter, able to travel from England to Germany and back without stopping.

  Forty-five minutes later, after I had checked out the plane myself, I took off from the world’s longest private runway—unpaved and nearly two miles long. The P-51 was powerful and fast. The force of the engine shook me down to my bones. It felt good to be in the air by myself, no movie crews, no copilot. No Sam. No Butch. I could clear my head and clear my heart. I would be in Oklahoma by nightfall.

  The farm belonged to a man named Franklin Hooper, who lived two miles outside of Carmen, on the snow-swept plains of northwest Oklahoma. He and his wife and three sons welcomed me into their house and told me I could stay as long as I needed to. The wife, Joanie, told me she had seen both my pictures more than once, but she assured me no one would know I was there. Mr. Hughes had explained to her that my visit must be kept quiet from the press. They were to tell anyone who was curious about the red P-51 parked in their field that I was a cousin from California.

  The Hoopers had one telephone, which sat on a little table under the wide kitchen window. Joanie brought me a pad of paper and a pencil, in case I wanted to write anything down. I said, “This is a local call.” She waved her hand at this and said it was just good to have me there, and if I needed anything they would be in the other room.

  I telephoned Dorothea Green and made plans to see her the next day, keeping the conversation as brief as possible since there wasn’t any privacy. Then I enjoyed a quiet evening in front of the fire with my hosts. Franklin had been born and raised in Carmen. He remembered going over to the Odd Fellows Home as a boy and spying on the orphans, trying to see if they looked different from him and the other boys he knew. This went on until the day his daddy caught him and told him if he ever went over there again, he’d find himself living there. Franklin shook his head. “I always was afraid of that place.”

  Joanie was from Kansas, just over the line, although she’d lived in Carmen for thirty-some years, too many to count. She brought me a cup of hot chocolate and sat down, propping her feet on an overstuffed ottoman. With her toes, she pushed one shoe off and then the other. They hit the floor with a clunk, clunk. She looked at her husband. “Are you talking about the Home?” When he nodded, she folded her hands across her lap and propped her elbows on the arms of the chair. She said to me, “The Odd Fellows have done a lot of good for the community. Can we ask what you want with them?”

  “A friend of mine grew up here, at the home, actually. I’m trying to find out some information.”

  “Well, anything Dorothea can’t
tell you, let me know. Bill Dumfries had an aunt that was raised there, and the Wassons and the Tyners both have kin that could tell you stories.”

  You could see the Carmen Odd Fellows Home for miles. It rose up out of the flat, flat land, against the open winter sky, a gloomy four-story brick Victorian with a high center tower and stair-step wings on either side. Except for an old red barn and several small structures, it was the only building—the only object—for miles. A white expanse of lawn spread to the road, and from the road it took a good five minutes in Franklin Hooper’s truck to reach the front door.

  I didn’t see any signs of life or activity. It was too cold for the children to be outside. There was a chill in the air, and as I studied the sky I thought, A storm’s on the way.

  I knocked at the door, and a girl answered, plain face, plain dress. When I told her I was there for Miss Green, she showed me to a parlor with bookcases built into the walls, where I took a seat on a long sofa with spindly wooden legs and a straight back. The fire was dying in the fireplace, and the room was chilly. From upstairs or down the hall, I could hear the sounds of children’s voices.

  I tried to imagine Mudge here as a little girl, as a teenager. Had she sat on this sofa, in front of this fire, dreaming of leaving one day? My eyes ran across the spines of the books. When I spotted Jane Eyre, I walked to the shelf and plucked it off. Something fluttered out of it, a piece of paper. J.M.—Steal two rolls and meet me in the attic after supper. L.K.

  A woman came tapping in wearing a dark gray dress, low black shoes, and glasses. She was in her sixties, as stout and sturdy as the prairie. She extended her hand to me, introducing herself as Dorothea Green, and apologized for the cold. “They hardly use this room except for guests, especially this time of year.” She nodded at Jane Eyre, at the note. “The children leave messages for each other in the books. It’s a kind of coded system.” She smiled. “They don’t think we know.”

  I felt a puzzle piece slide into place: This is where Mudge learned her filing methods.

  “We’ll be more comfortable in the office, if you want to follow me.”

  I trailed her through the hallway, past a dining room, music room, classrooms, passing children of all ages, from the very young to seventeen, eighteen, around the age Mudge would have been when she left. We walked through the kitchen, large and bustling and too warm, into a small room that adjoined it, where a fat walnut desk faced two deep chairs. “There’s a larger office, of course, but I always preferred this one.” She took one chair and gestured toward the other. “Please.” When I was settled, she smiled the patient smile of a woman used to working with children. “What can I do for you, Miss Rogers?”

  “Please call me Velva Jean, my real name.”

  “All right. Call me Dorothea.”

  “My friend Barbara Fanning died December twenty-eighth in Santa Monica.”

  “So I’ve read, and so you mentioned.”

  I unfolded the newspaper article I’d found in Tauby’s desk and handed it to her. “I always called her Mudge. We flew together in the WASP. I first met her in 1943. She never said much about her life before the WASP or before Hollywood.”

  Dorothea’s eyes ran over the lines as she read. “I remember the play,” she said at last. “She didn’t much want to do it. Eloise was a shy girl, as I believe I told you on the telephone. She kept to herself, did what she was asked, not a remarkable student, but she tried hard. Still, I always had the sense that she was waiting for something.”

  “A career in pictures?”

  “Oh no. She never talked of that. She didn’t like speaking up in class or causing a spectacle, as she thought of it. No, I had the sense she was waiting till the day she turned eighteen so she could leave and get married, start a family, have a home.” She opened her palms, raised her eyes heavenward. “This is a good place, but it’s not a permanent one. I suppose like all orphans she dreamed of that stability and the love a family would bring.”

  “That sounds like Mudge. What happened to her parents?”

  “The father had died or drifted by the time she was three. Edna was just a baby, perhaps six months old, when the mother dropped them off.”

  “No one ever tried to adopt them or take them in?”

  “It gets harder as the child grows older, of course. I’m afraid very few people want to take in someone over the age of three or four. There was one couple who considered it, but the mother swept in and took them away.”

  “Their mother?”

  “Yes.” Her smile vanished. “Every time she remarried, she would reappear to claim them, then the marriage would fail, and she would be back to drop them off. Take them away and drop them off. Over and over. Those girls were in and out of here every few months. Sometimes they were gone as long as a year, and I would think, Maybe this time the mother has gotten herself together. But there she would come, dragging those girls along, and back they would be.”

  “What can you tell me about Edna?”

  “Edna and Eloise were very different. Edna was outgoing. Friendly. She was bright, but she talked too much in class. Eloise was prettier, but Edna was the one the boys liked.” She sighed, shifting in her chair, brushing invisible lint off the skirt of her dress. “She was a lot like the mother.”

  “You didn’t like Edna.”

  “I didn’t trust Edna. Two different things. She was cunning.”

  “How did the sisters get along?”

  “They had little to do with each other. I think Eloise disapproved of Edna, looked down her nose at her. She kept her distance from her. Edna made fun of Eloise behind her back. She played pranks on her, and not always in the spirit of fun. I used to wonder what that house was like whenever the mother would take them away. I imagine those two girls spent quite a lot of time on their own.” She shook her head.

  “What happened to Edna?”

  “When Eloise was discovered and given the chance to go to Hollywood, Edna wanted to go with her. I’ve already told you the girls weren’t close, and I think Eloise saw this as her chance to leave the old life behind and begin again. There was no living with Edna after Eloise left. She was angry with everyone. There was a married boy who worked for us—Jack Brooks, I think. He wasn’t much older than twenty, twenty-one. I always thought he had his eye on Eloise, and that she would have married him if he didn’t already have a wife. It was very innocent, very sweet. I think he needed a friend, and she was there for him. But then Edna and Jack became involved. We fired him, but they somehow continued seeing each other. After Eloise left, Edna became pregnant. She was only fifteen.” She smiled, sadly. “That was the last I saw her.”

  “Did she have the child?”

  “I don’t know. Jack left his family for her. They moved away. He returned to Carmen not even a year later after Edna and the child were killed in a car accident. It was a terrible time. I always wondered why he came back.”

  “Is he still in Carmen?”

  “I’m sorry. He died last summer. He was a lonely man and a sad one. He never remarried and lived alone up near Alva for all those years. I always wondered what his life might have been like if he’d never taken up with Edna Mudge.”

  I was out of questions, and at the end of it all, I felt as if I wasn’t any closer than I had been when I arrived.

  She said, “Would you like me to show you around? The children will be gathering in the dining hall for lunch, and you’re welcome to join us.”

  As we made our way back through the kitchen and back through the hallway, I paused at a display of photographs on the wall. “Do you have any pictures of Eloise and Edna?”

  “I’m afraid these were taken more recently.” She reached up to tap the wall, her ring shining in the light. “We probably have some from their era in the attic. I meant to dig them out for you before you came, but there wasn’t time. If I can get my hands on one, I’ll send it to you
.”

  “How beautiful. Your ring. And how unusual. Is that a dove?”

  “Yes, and the crescent moon, and seven stars, and the lily flower. The D and the R are entwined, you see.”

  As unusual as it was, I couldn’t help feeling I’d seen something like it before.

  A girl of thirteen or fourteen appeared. She stared at me as she said, “Miss Foley wants to know if she’ll be joining us, Miss Green.”

  “Thank you, Sharon. I hope our guest would like to stay.”

  They both looked at me, and I said, “I’d like that.” When the girl disappeared, I turned back to Dorothea Green. “She was wearing the same ring.”

  “Yes, we all have them, at least those of us over the age of fourteen.”

  As she moved toward the dining room, I stood rooted. In the doorway, she turned. “Are you joining us, Velva Jean?”

  “Yes, but—can you tell me what the D and the R stand for?”

  She held out her hand so I could better see the ring. “The letters are for the female auxiliary of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The Daughters of Rebekah.”

  The Rebekahs were named for the Rebekah of the Bible, a beautiful, godly young woman who showed kindness to an unknown stranger in need. A girl could become a Rebekah at fourteen, at which time she received her ring and learned her creed. Rebekahs were known for their humanitarianism and devotion to mankind and to God—just look at member Eleanor Roosevelt. The symbol of the lily, the dove, the moon, and the stars represented peace, love, charity, tolerance, purity. Above all else, Rebekahs believed in the Golden Rule—of doing unto others as you would have others do unto you.

  As she walked me out into the cold evening, Dorothea smiled in apology. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help. You traveled a long way, and I get the sense you didn’t find what you were looking for.”

 
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