American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  I sat down beside her. “My brother’s here. In L.A. He wants me to come hear him tonight on Central Avenue.”

  “You’ll like it there. The best music in town.”

  “I don’t want to leave you like this.”

  “Flora’s here, and I’m going to be sleeping anyway. I’m so tired and my head is splitting.” As if to prove it, she yawned. “You go.”

  After I was dressed and ready, she said, “Did they find out what caused the horse to bolt like that?”

  “Most likely a loud noise or a sudden movement.”

  “Is the police guard still out there?”

  I checked. “Yes.”

  She nodded, set her glass down. “I think I’ll close my eyes for a bit. I may even go to sleep. I may already be asleep right now. You have a good time, Hartsie. Tell that brother of yours hello for me.”

  “I will.” I picked up the empty glass, and by the time I was at the doorway, looking back, she was sleeping.

  TEN

  Babe King, Hal MacGinnis, and I headed south and east toward the high-rise buildings of downtown. I read each street sign to see if we were there yet. We sped past downtown, away from the lights, but we weren’t going fast enough for me. I wanted to get there before Johnny Clay changed his mind and went home or took off somewhere else. Hurry hurry hurry. We turned down one dark road, little box houses on either side, close together. We turned down another dark road, and then onto a broad street, empty field on one side, a few clapboard shacks on the other.

  Then, all at once, I could see the lights ahead. Hal swung the car toward them and into them, pulling over and parking so that we could get out and walk. He said it was the only way to see Central Avenue.

  Pool halls, barbershops, barbecue joints, restaurants, five-and-dimes, doctors’ offices, furniture stores, and jazz clubs lined the avenue on either side. There was an office for the colored newspaper, the California Eagle. The sidewalks weren’t big enough to hold the crowds of hot dog hawkers, shoe shiners, street musicians, newsboys, fortune-tellers, bums, and men in brightly colored zoot suits. An armless boy shot marbles with his toes. Across the street from him, a little boy with a telescope was charging a nickel to look at the mountains of the moon. I could hear the music, blazing hot, coming from open doors.

  The farther we walked, the more elegant and beautiful the people—beautiful suits, beautiful gowns, beautiful faces. Hal said the heart of it all was the Dunbar Hotel, where everyone from Langston Hughes to Billie Holiday to Duke Ellington stayed, and the clubs that surrounded it—Club Alabam, the Downbeat, the Last Word.

  The Downbeat’s address was 4225 Central Avenue, which matched what Johnny Clay had written down. We ducked inside and off the street.

  The club was built like a box, with a bar along one wall and the bandstand the other. The only seats we could find were at the bar, but there were mirrors behind it so you didn’t have to turn around to see the stage. A tenor sax player named Gene Montgomery led the house band, which played a kind of wild and rowdy blues. Except for five or six others, we were the only white people there, and it reminded me of the juke joints I’d been to in Nashville and North Carolina, the music throbbing and pulsing until I thought my eardrums would bleed.

  No one danced because there wasn’t room, or maybe because they wanted to concentrate on the music. There were no live palms or stars on the ceiling, no green silk curtains and matching sofas, no revolving stage. The space itself was pretty plain. But I’d never heard music like this before.

  “What in the world is it?”

  “They call it bebop,” said Hal.

  The music was ugly and lovely and wild. It went off in every direction, like it couldn’t be contained. Just when you thought it would go one way, it would switch on you and go another. It was a frustrating jumble of notes and phrases that didn’t seem to be linked by anything. But you could hear the steam rising off the stage.

  Just before ten o’clock, a new group of musicians wandered onto the stage. Three colored men—one with a hat—on piano, saxophone, and drums, and there came Johnny Clay, carrying a trumpet.

  I said, “Since when does he play trumpet?”

  Babe raised her eyebrows. “That’s the best-looking boy I’ve ever seen.”

  Hal nudged my arm. “What’s wrong, Velva Jean?”

  I was staring at the fifth member of the band, who had just walked on, carrying a steel guitar, cigarette in his mouth, talking to someone in the crowd. He leaned down, grinned around the cigarette, and came back up laughing, sweeping the dark hair off his face. The hair was a little shorter than the last time I’d seen him, barely brushing his chin. He’d let his beard grow in a little. He still had the gap between his two front teeth. He wore a suit, but no tie, and at his open collar, I could see the Indian medicine beads and the dog tags. There was a new tattoo on one hand. There were the half-Choctaw, half-Creole cheekbones, the dark, hooded eyes. He fished in his pocket, came out with the broken bottle neck he used as a guitar slide, and said something to the band.

  Babe said, “That one’s good-looking too. They’re all good-looking.”

  Johnny Clay had sat in my dressing room and talked about his friend, and I’d never once thought he might be talking about Butch Dawkins.

  They played for over two hours, and they were good. Even with part of one finger missing, my brother tore up that trumpet like he’d been playing all his life. He was better on the trumpet than he’d ever been on guitar. The drummer was a wild man, shouting out to the crowd, hollering lines of music every now and then. The piano player, the man with the hat, didn’t look up from the keys once. The saxophonist jittered about the stage, like he couldn’t keep still.

  Butch Dawkins glanced up from his guitar every now and then, but most of the time, like the piano player, he bent his head over the instrument, lost in the music. He only introduced one of the songs, letting us know it was something they were still working out. In the same whiskey-and-cigarettes voice I remembered, he said, “I first heard this tune in Chicago. I thought, ‘I’ve got to get a little bit of that song,’ so I asked the fella if I could have the chorus.” The music was different from any I’d heard Butch play before. Something in it smoldered, as if any moment he might let loose, but for now was holding himself back.

  Around twelve thirty, the band walked off the stage, and someone else went on. A few minutes later, my brother made his way through the crowd, trumpet under his arm, stopping to shake hands with the people congratulating him on the show. He leaned against the bar, ordered a drink, and said, “Well, little sister? What’d you think?”

  I said, “When did you learn to play trumpet?”

  He laughed and laughed, delighted with himself. “Training camp. After I busted the lip of our bugler, they made me play reveille every morning for a month. I found out I was a natural.” He looked down at his finger, the one that was half-missing, and then nodded at Babe and Hal. “Are these fine people your friends, Velva Jean?”

  “Babe King, Hal MacGinnis, my brother Johnny Clay.”

  He shook hands. “Sure, sure, I recognize you. Y’all are movie stars.” He winked at Babe.

  I said, “You forgot to mention that Butch Dawkins was the friend you kept talking about.”

  “I was so happy to see you, little sister, it slipped my mind.” My brother was nearly impossible to be mad at, something he knew.

  At some point, he said, “The Downbeat closes around one thirty. What say we go over to Lovejoy’s? They go till six or seven, and there’s always a jam going on.” Before I could say anything, he fixed a look on me. “Butch is going to meet us over there.”

  Lovejoy’s Breakfast Club, “Home of the Big-Legged Chicken,” was located at Central Avenue and Vernon. Inside, we walked through a crowded, smoky hallway, up a crowded, smoky stairway, through another crowded, smoky hallway, and into a crowded, smoky room, where J
ohnny Clay’s drummer was pounding away, and a man, as wrinkled as an old nut, sat at the piano.

  Butch sat at a table by himself, bottle in front of him, guitar hooked over his chair, which was tilted back on two legs. His arms were crossed and he was watching the piano player. He didn’t see us till we were standing there, and then he stood and nodded at everyone and said, “Velva Jean,” like it hadn’t been two years since we’d seen each other. He pulled out the chair next to his so I could sit down.

  We ordered fried chicken baskets, and glasses for the liquor Butch had brought, and then a good-looking colored man walked up beside the piano and started to wail away on the alto sax. Johnny Clay said, “That’s Charlie Parker, god of the future.” While Hal sat across the table, drinking too much, Babe was next to my brother, laughing and talking. Next to me, Butch drank his liquor and smoked his cigarette and watched the musicians through heavy-lidded eyes. We sat close because there wasn’t much room, and every now and then his arm brushed mine.

  Finally, he reached for the bottle, poured himself another glass, and said, “I’m glad you’re okay.”

  “I’m glad you’re okay too.”

  He tilted the rim of his glass to mine so that it clinked like a piano key.

  “I reckon it’s a miracle any of us are here.” He ran his fingers through his hair and leaned on the table, so our arms were touching. I studied the new tattoo, which looked like a bear claw. Under the table, his leg pressed against mine. Both of us sat, staring at the musicians, and I wondered if he felt the same thing I was feeling.

  After all this time of carrying him around in my mind, wondering where and how he was, he’s flesh and blood. Warm to the touch. Real.

  As if he could read my thoughts, he propped his head on his hand, and gave me a long, sleepy look. He said, “Girl, you been on my mind.”

  I was home by three, but I didn’t sleep. I lay in bed flat on my back, resting on my side, facedown, stretched diagonally, curled into a ball. I closed my eyes, I opened them. I closed them. I opened them. It didn’t matter what I did. I was wide awake, and Butch was everywhere.

  ELEVEN

  The last scene of Home of the Brave was scheduled to be shot on November 12—Betsy Ross’s trek to Valley Forge. I was out of bed at two thirty every morning because I had to be made up and costumed and at Malibu Creek State Park by five thirty a.m. Framed by sloping mountains, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, the Pennsylvania military camp of the American Continental Army sat in a valley of white, surrounded by oak and sycamore forests. The white spread endlessly—interrupted only by the log huts and tents of the encampment—created with artificial snow, a combination of confetti, foam, soap flakes, and liquid starch. Giant fans hooked up to generators, cords trailing for miles, blew the snow in gusts.

  One thousand extras dressed as soldiers covered the ground like ants, some in ragged uniforms, some barefoot, some moaning from sickbeds, the victims of typhoid, cholera, or dysentery. On the first and second day, it rained, melting our fake snow. On the third day, the valley was covered in a thick, heavy fog.

  On the fourth day, Felix Roland found me sitting alone in the dark, wrapped in a blanket, the air still cool and nightlike. At first I didn’t recognize him because he looked older and thinner than the man he’d been when he first walked onto the set. There were rumors of a breakdown or nervous collapse, and no one had expected him back.

  He said, “When you’re out there today . . .” He squinted at the sky. At the curve of the horizon, there was a gathering of clouds, but no sign of fog or rain. “And it looks as if you will be out there—I want you to think about standing at the edge of a cliff and what it feels like in that moment to know you could jump or you could turn back.” Something in his voice gave me chills. “For an instant, it’s really a flip of the coin. You could live or you could die, and that choice is up to you.” He stood and smiled, and it looked hollow, ghostly. “Or, if that doesn’t work, just ham it up.”

  Thirty minutes later, as the giant fans created a swirling, roaring blizzard, I made my way through the snow, my poor face rouged pink for the freezing temperatures, my poor hands numb with the cold, clutching the hand-sewn gunpowder bags to my breast. At one point, I was supposed to collapse in the snow, too weak to go on. On the ground, looking up at the sky, I thought how easy it would be just to lie there.

  Of course I wasn’t Betsy Ross, and I wasn’t lost in a blizzard. I was Velva Jean Hart under a California sky. But for those few minutes, I was on the edge of a cliff, looking down into darkness. One step, and I would be safe. One step, and I would be gone. I was amazed at the idea of it.

  And then I thought of all the soldiers who were counting on my gunpowder bags, and before I knew it I was on my feet again and pushing through the storm.

  We got it on the first take. And just like that, we were done.

  Almost immediately, the wounded and dead walked off, smoking and talking. The set was pulled apart, tents collapsing, snow swept away, equipment shut down and unplugged and loaded onto trucks. As I stood watching, people marched by, nodding, shaking my hand, hugging me, already on their way to the next thing. Good work, Kit. Good luck. Hope to do another picture together again.

  Ophelia Lloyd had already announced she was going back into retirement. Nigel would move on to his next film, Latimer, with Billy Taub attached to produce and Felix Roland to direct. Meanwhile, Mr. Mayer had purchased the rights to the comic strip Flyin’ Jenny, in order to create a series of films for me to star in. Jenny was a pilot, spy, detective, daredevil, and, because I was playing her, a singer. Hal MacGinnis was cast in the role of Jenny’s patient, handsome boyfriend, Rick Davis, and Babe King would play her kid sister. We would start filming in a week, followed immediately by the second Flyin’ Jenny. Metro planned to hold the release of both pictures till after Home of the Brave premiered.

  A voice behind me said, “You know, I think I’ll miss you most of all.”

  I turned to find Sam Weldon, eyes dancing, mouth curved into a smile.

  “Are you going home?”

  “I am. Will you miss me?”

  “No.”

  He laughed. “At least you’re honest. I’ll miss you, Pipes. You’re about the only thing I will miss.”

  “Well . . .” I wasn’t sure what to say. “Good luck.”

  “I’d kiss you, but, let’s face it, I’m too vain to risk injury. So I’ll just shake hands.” He held his hand out. When I didn’t take it, he said, “Come on, Pipes. I don’t want to leave knowing you think I’m a complete asshole.”

  “Only a partial one?”

  “Yes.”

  I hesitated, then put my hand in his. He laced his fingers through mine. He turned my hand over, exploring the palm, the fingers. He looked down and I looked down, and we watched him do this like it was the most fascinating thing. I told myself to pull away, but there was something lovely about it. Something innocent. He said to our hands, “You make me feel as if I’m twenty. Or fourteen. I can’t decide which.” He looked up again. “Friends?” he said.

  “Friends.”

  He said, “You’re different, Velva Jean Hart.” He dropped my hand like it was a hot potato. “I’d better get out of here before I forget that.”

  With Home of the Brave behind her, Mudge became more and more her old self again. Mallory Rourke had gone away, taking all the stress and unhappiness with her. Now that the picture was finished, the studio guard in charge of watching the house had gone away too. The living room coffee table, the dining room table, and the desk in Mudge’s office became covered with books about John Neville, Baron Latimer, his marriage to Catherine Parr, his rebellion and kidnapping, her struggle to survive in his absence, and his return to free her, after she was taken hostage by his enemies. Mudge was beginning her campaign to play the pious and patient Catherine. With Pia still in Los Angeles, Latimer would most likely be her only chance
to be alone with Nigel.

  I was already filming the second Flyin’ Jenny movie when my work on Home of the Brave ended December 9 inside the scoring stage. The room was divided into three glassed-in booths and a large, open area with wood-paneled walls, padded doors, and a vaulted ceiling that reminded me of a church. Chairs, music stands, microphones, and a black grand piano faced an enormous white movie screen. The microphones looked like giraffes, necks extended, mounted on wheeled tripods. A square, boxed platform sat in the middle of the floor.

  I knew from Harriet Fields that Judy Garland had once stood on this very platform and recorded “Over the Rainbow.” I also knew that Miss Garland had recorded “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St. Louis in one take, and that even after she flubbed a line, Arthur Freed and the famous Freed Unit decided to keep it anyway because of the “pure, driving emotion of her delivery.”

  It was my turn to stand on the wooden platform. Rosie sat in the monitor booth with the technicians while a man named Howard adjusted the microphone to the right height and angle and then I said, “One, two, three,” and, “This is Kit Rogers, recording ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ for Home of the Brave,” so they could find the right level for my voice.

  Color flashed onto the white screen, and there was Betsy Ross, a widow for the second time, watching as the very flag she had sewn years earlier, after a fateful visit from George Washington, unfurls over the bloody battlefield. They played the scene through once, so I could get an idea of the timing, and then they started it over.

  It was like stepping from one world into another. For months, I’d been Betsy Ross, and now, as they readied the score for Home of the Brave, shot retakes, created bridgeovers, montages, and other special film effects, I was pilot Flyin’ Jenny. Velva Jean Hart. Clementine Roux. Kit Rogers. Betsy Ross. Jenny Dare.

 
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