American Blonde by Jennifer Niven

“Pipes.”

  “Sam.”

  Johnny Clay and I stood as he moved past us, followed by an ice-cream blonde in a tight white dress. He took the seat next to mine, while she arranged herself on the other side of him.

  He smiled at me and I smiled back at him. “You had us worried. But you’re fine.” I heard the question in it.

  “I’m fine. I read the article. It was terrific. It was just what needed to be said.”

  “I wanted to show it to you first, but I thought it was a good idea to get it out before the studio could go to work at burying everything.”

  “I’m surprised they even let you in here.”

  “That’s the beauty of being a free agent. They can’t do a goddamn thing except to make sure they don’t hire me again. They tried to fire me from Latimer, but Tauby threatened to walk off.”

  “So he still has a spine.”

  “At least partially.”

  “Will you stay?”

  “Only till I finish the job. I don’t like to leave things undone once I’ve started them.” He gave me a pointed look before glancing down at the armrest between us, at my hand dangling off. He reached for it, interlacing his fingers with mine. “You won’t believe this, but I miss holding hands with you.”

  On the other side of him, the blonde was watching us.

  I said, “She’s pretty.”

  “Yes, and ordinary and not you.”

  Suddenly, everyone around me broke into applause, and Collie went walking up on stage to accept the award for costume design. Sam and I let go at the same time as we began to clap, and continued clapping as Rosie won for the score, Webster Hayes won for Best Actor, Sam for Best Writing, and Felix Roland for Best Director. Soon, there were only two awards remaining: Best Actress and Best Picture.

  Ray Milland presented the actress award. As he announced the nominees—Jennifer Jones, Rosalind Russell, Jane Wyman, Ophelia Lloyd, and Barbara Fanning—I pinched my brother’s arm. “And the Oscar goes to . . .” Ray Milland paused before reading the winner. He looked down at the card and then up at the audience and said simply, “Barbara Fanning.”

  The applause erupted at once. I stood, Sam stood, Johnny Clay stood. In seconds, every person in the auditorium was standing and clapping and cheering until I thought I might go deaf from the sound. Then Nigel Gray walked up onto the stage, and Ray Milland handed him the award.

  Nigel stood waiting for the sound to die down, blinking into the lights, into the audience, glittering and beautiful. It seemed as if the applause would go on forever, and there he would be, frozen in place, unable to walk away. He looked out at us with his blue eyes, and it hit me then that maybe the reason Mudge had loved blue wasn’t because of the sky at all, but because it made her think of Nigel and of what she saw when she looked at him—the promise of a future, of love, of family, of home.

  When we finally quieted, little by little, and sat, row by row, Nigel shook his head and smiled. He wiped his eyes and leaned in to the microphone. “I’m honored to accept this most deserved award for a most deserving woman.” He stared down at the Oscar. “I was lucky enough to know Eloise Mudge, even if I didn’t know her long enough. She would have been so bloody proud of this.” His voice broke and he kissed the award before raising it into the air above him. “‘All my heart is yours: it belongs to you; and with you it would remain, were fate to exile the rest of me from your presence forever.’”

  Jane Eyre. Nigel had read it too. The thought of the two of them sharing something so small made me feel at once sadder and happier. I told myself to focus on the happier. It was good to know that Mudge had, for a time at least, found what she was looking for.

  I met with Mr. Mayer at ten thirty the next morning. I thanked him for everything he’d done for me and told him he had been like a father, which was something I appreciated, more than he knew, since my own had left long ago.

  “I’ll never forget you or MGM for all you did for me. But I want to make my own choices. I want to sing my songs and have the public like me for me. I don’t want to be Kit Rogers anymore. Of all the things I’ve learned here, that’s the most important one—never let anyone tell you who you are.”

  “If this is about more money—”

  “It’s not.”

  For a long time, he held his head in his hands. I waited for one of his legendary fits to begin—for him to kick the desk and start to cry, to fall on the floor and foam at the mouth, to faint dead away. I didn’t say anything. I sat with my hands folded, waiting.

  Finally he looked up, and his face was hard to read. He said, “It’s not the same business it was when we met, Velva Jean Hart. I won’t stop you. I’ll just wish you luck.” I thought he seemed tired.

  He stood. I stood.

  He walked around his desk on the little platform, and then stepped onto the carpet so that he was beside me, standing at his actual height, which meant I had to look down. I thought, For all his power, he’s just a short little man behind a desk.

  In my dressing room, as one of the secretaries ticked off her list, I pulled the framed Opry picture off the wall and a few other things I’d left—books, one of Mudge’s alarm clocks, a vase she’d given me. Everything else belonged to MGM. I said, “Come in,” to the knock on the door.

  Bernie walked in, something in his hand. He said, “I came to see if you needed any help.” He glanced at the secretary, who went on making marks on her clipboard.

  “This is it.” I waved at the small pile of things. “It seems like there should be more.”

  “Well. That’s it, then.”

  “That’s it.”

  He handed me a stack of letters. “These are yours.”

  “What are they?”

  “Something you should have had a long time ago.”

  On my way to the car, I stopped in at the music department to say good-bye to Rosie. When I walked into his studio, a girl was singing and playing the guitar, no more than eighteen or nineteen years old, pretty, sweet face, fresh off the farm or the mountains. I stood watching her, watching me when I’d first come to Metro, maybe me when I’d first gone to Nashville. Her voice was raw and pure and big. The way she played and sang, you could see and hear how much she loved it.

  When she was finished, Rosie looked up and saw me and the box I was carrying. “Going somewhere, kid?”

  “Yes, and before I do, I wanted to thank you for all you’ve done for me.”

  “So you really are going somewhere, then.”

  “Yes. And I’ll never forget you.”

  He began clearing his throat and cleaning his glasses with a handkerchief. I pretended not to notice how wet his eyes were or the single tear that had escaped one corner. He said, “I want you to remember, after all you’ve learned—just sing. At the end of the day, it’s not about diaphragms and technique. It’s about you and that remarkable voice.”

  I hugged him, and he coughed and cleared his throat and set to cleaning his glasses again.

  The girl whispered something to him, too low for me to hear, and he said, “Kit, I want you to meet our newest discovery. Briana Harley, Kit Rogers.”

  “Actually, it’s Velva Jean Hart,” I said, and shook her hand.

  “Miss Hart . . .”

  “Velva Jean.”

  “Velva Jean, I’m such a fan. I can’t believe I’m meeting you.” She laughed. “And I can’t believe I’m telling you I can’t believe it. You’re what inspired me to leave home and come here.”

  I said, “You have a gift.” Not just the voice, I thought, but the spirit, bold and all her own. “You’re in good hands here.” I looked at Rosie. “But I’ll tell you one of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave me: Remember who you are, hold on to that, and whatever you do, don’t let them change you.”

  When I got back to Mudge’s house—Flora’s house now—I remembered the
letters Bernie had given me. There were ten of them addressed to Miss Velva Jean Hart, a.k.a. Kit Rogers, c/o MGM Studios, Culver City, California. There was no return address.

  I opened them in the order of the postmarks. One after another, months apart, spread out over the past two years, always with a different address, a different postmark. The first was dated December 7, 1945. The last one was dated February 19, 1947, from Lindytown, West Virginia.

  Deer Velva Jean, I don’t know that this letter will get thru, but I wanted to rite to tell you how prowd I am of you. I ain’t been mutch to cownt on in the past, and I know I can’t take any credut for what I see on that screen, but I shure am prowd jest the same. I can’t beleeve that you have all that in you. You are the purtiest gurl in the world and I ain’t just saying that cuz I’m your daddy. The only gurl I ever seen purtier was your mama. I hope they’re taking good care of you in Hollywood. You got every rite to forget me, but I hope you won’t. I want yoo to know that it don’t matter what name you call yerself—you’ll always be my dawter. Luv, Lincoln S. Hart.

  All this time, he’d been writing to me, and I’d stood by and let MGM tell everyone he was dead. And the letters—I would never have known about them if Bernie hadn’t given them to me. I wouldn’t have known that my daddy was out there in this world thinking of me.

  I spent my last night in Los Angeles on Central Avenue at Jack’s Basket Room, playing my National steel guitar in a jam session with Butch and Johnny Clay and Sherman. The crowd thumped and jumped, the air so smoky you couldn’t see. At some point, Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon climbed up on stage. And later, there came Clora Bryant, a beautiful colored girl who blew the trumpet so hot and heavy, you could see the steam.

  We didn’t know each other’s songs and we didn’t talk about what came next. We just got up there and played, figuring it out as we went, and the crowd shouted for more.

  Afterward, Clora said to me, “The only way you’re going to learn is to be a part of it. That’s what you have to do. You have to go out there and be a part of that.”

  Early the next morning, my brother and Butch came to the house to help me pack the car. The sky was a soft pink-gold, and the sun was rising fast, as if it couldn’t wait to shine again. We propped the front door open and I showed them what stayed and what was going with me. Flora would move in for good soon with her daughter and son-in-law and grandbabies. The California Eagle reported that racial covenants around the city were lifting and blacks were starting to leave Central Avenue one by one.

  I moved around Butch carefully. For years, I’d felt as comfortable with him as family, but now I found myself thinking about every word I said or look I gave him. As a result, I tried not to be alone with him, not yet, darting in and out and never landing in one place, like a butterfly or hummingbird in wild, erratic flight.

  Even as he was carrying things down the walk, Johnny Clay said, “I still don’t see why you need to leave, Velva Jean. Why don’t you wait for Dawks and me? We’re not going to stay out here forever.”

  “Because I’ve got to get going, Johnny Clay, you know that.” I wanted to ask him to come with me, but I was afraid he would—not that I didn’t want him to, but because I knew this was where he needed to be right now, and because this was a trip I needed to make on my own.

  He said, “I love Helen.”

  “Helen who?”

  “Helen Stillbert. I should have told you, little sister.”

  He walked on down to the car, leaving me standing on the lawn staring after him. When he came walking back to me, I said, “Does she—does she know?”

  “She does.”

  “Does she love you back?”

  “She will.” He grinned. “Listen, I know I’m not the guy girls end up with. I’m the one they want before they settle down, you know, the one they have fun with. But I aim to be that guy for Helen.” Behind the grin, I could tell he was dead serious. “I’m thinking I might even go to school. Maybe get me an education. Now that would be something to see.”

  Here was one more thing he hadn’t let me in on, just like playing the trumpet or coming out to California. But instead of being angry with him, I told myself: This is the way life goes. He’ll always be a part of me, and I’ll always be a part of him, but we can’t be every part to each other.

  I said, “You don’t need to do another thing, Johnny Clay. She’d be lucky to have you.”

  “You aren’t mad?”

  “No. I guess we’re growing up.”

  “I guess we are.”

  Butch walked past, carrying my guitars. “You could always punch him in the jaw.”

  Johnny Clay threw back his head and laughed.

  An hour later, it was done. Johnny Clay said, “I’m going to ride with you as far east as I can, little sister, and then you drop me off before you leave Los Angeles and I’ll hitch my way back to Central.”

  I handed him Daddy’s letters then, because whether he wanted to or not, I thought he should see them. He said, “Are these from him?”

  “They are. I didn’t know he’d been writing me.”

  “I’m not all that interested in anything he’s got to say.”

  “You don’t have to read them.”

  He glanced past me at Butch, and then told me he’d wait for me in the car while I said good-bye. He took the letters with him.

  Butch leaned in the doorway of the house, hands in pockets, watching me. Suddenly, there was nothing left to do but say good-bye, and so I brushed past him until I was standing in the entryway. He followed me in, and then I walked into the living room. He followed me in there. When I started for the dining room, he said, “What are we doing, girl?”

  “We’re making sure I didn’t leave anything.”

  “Okay.” He led the way through each room, and we double-checked closets and cabinets and drawers. I suddenly wished for more rooms so we could keep checking. That way, I wouldn’t have to say good-bye.

  Finally, we stood in the last room, Mudge’s room. I could still smell her perfume, still hear her voice.

  “Time to go align those stars, Velva Jean.” Butch stood smiling that crooked smile, one hand against the doorjamb.

  He was right. I’d checked every corner. There wasn’t any other place to look. No more delaying it. But there was something I was leaving behind that I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave behind.

  I made one last turn of the room, and then looked at him straight on. “Will I see you again?”

  “As long as I know where you are.”

  “Most girls would stay.”

  “You ain’t most girls. If you were, I wouldn’t want you to stay. You got to do this, Velva Jean. What’d I tell you years ago, back when we first met? If destiny don’t come to you, you got to go to it. You owe it to yourself.” I didn’t say anything, just nodded. “And what’d I tell you about a certain door? Anytime you want to open it and go down that road, I’m ready to go with you. You just let me know.”

  My heart started skipping beats. “That’s true about the stars. You can’t always wait on them. Sometimes you have to align them yourself.”

  We both seemed to freeze, as if time had stopped, and then we moved toward each other at the exact same moment. His eyes on mine, he brushed the hair out of my face, tucking it back behind my ears.

  He took my face in his hands, gently, as if he was afraid it might break.

  He leaned in, so close I could feel his breath.

  His lips hovered, barely brushing mine.

  I closed my eyes.

  When nothing happened, I opened my eyes, making sure he was still there.

  “Girl, I’m not going to kiss you only to send you off across the country. The first time I kiss you, it won’t be to say good-bye. It’ll be to say hello, I’m here, and I ain’t going anywhere. I’m not going to kiss you until I can keep on kissing you.??
?

  Something inside me deflated like a balloon. We broke apart and moved away, and then I was leading him down the hall and down the stairs and onto the front stoop. I reached inside and flicked off the light switch and turned the key in the lock. Butch Dawkins and I walked side by side to the car.

  “Well,” I said, my hand on the door. In the passenger seat, Johnny Clay was reading the letters.

  “Well.”

  Butch smiled. I smiled.

  “I’ll be seeing you, Butch Dawkins.”

  “I’ll be seeing you, Velva Jean.”

  Johnny Clay rode with one arm out the window, checking himself out in the side mirror. He was talking a mile a minute, and I was glad because otherwise I might have turned around and gone right back to Butch and never left and seen what was ahead of me.

  My brother said, “You could come down to Central Avenue, get you a room at the Dunbar, cut another record with us. We’re practically famous.”

  He talked on and on, until finally I said, “‘If now is only two days, then two days is your life.’”

  He got quiet, remembering. There was nothing he could say to this because it was something he’d once said to me.

  But just in case he didn’t remember, I added, “If you’ve only got two days, you need to treat those two days like a lifetime. You’ve found your place, Johnny Clay. Now I need to find mine.”

  I was three miles from the Arizona state line when I caught sight of the motorcycle in my rearview mirror. It was coming up fast behind me, and without thinking twice I eased off the gas even as I told myself it might be anyone.

  In the left lane, cars passed me one by one, until I was barely crawling along. Thirty miles per hour, twenty-five, twenty, fifteen . . . Soon the motorcycle was on my tail, lights flashing.

  I pulled over onto the dirt shoulder, my heart thudding hard and fast, so hard and fast that it took my breath. I got out of the car, the door standing open, one hand grazing the warm chrome side of it, keeping me steady. Butch Dawkins kicked off the engine and dropped the bike on its side so that it went skidding in the dust. He came striding toward me as I stood waiting, every step bringing him closer, closing the gap between us. I wanted to go to him, meet him halfway, to help him close it faster, but I couldn’t move.

 
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