By Nekanuq <Nekanuq@aol.com>
Submitted January 11, 1998
Summary: "Wanda Detroit is my name. I sing for drinks down at the docks. But it wasn't always like this." The opening lines of a great work of literature? You be the judge. For the first time anywhere, the romance novel, written by Lois Lane's own hand, appears in its entirety. Oh, the drama! The passion! The histrionics! It's all here for your perusal.
Editor's Note: I was hacking around on the internet one day and managed to break into the database at the Daily Planet. Found a bunch of old news, obituaries, wedding announcements, legal notices, boring, boring, boring. Just as I was about to cut the connection, this caught my eye, an unpublished novel by a rather prominent reporter. I started reading it online, and it's a hoot! Man, you'd think a world famous reporter could think up something more believable than this, but I don't really know much about the author, besides hearing the name, so maybe she knows what she's doing. Is hackneyed in? I had to download it before I got caught with my phone line in the wrong computer, so now I've got this thing hogging up space on my HD. I thought about just deleting it, but hey, what's the point of hacking if no one knows you've done it? So I figure I'll let every one see what kind of a writer the great Lois Lane really is. It doesn't look like it's been worked on in two or three of years, at least, by the date of the file and it ends kind of funny, to me anyway, so I'm not sure if it's finished or not, but I'm not real up on what good writing is, so you all take your chances. All I know is, if Wanda was real, she'd talk your ear off. I ran a spell check on it, which was not easy, let me tell you, but besides that, this is pretty much the way I got it from the Daily Planet.
The True and Amazing Adventures of Wanda Detroit
*The Real* Lois Lane
Wanda Detroit is my name. I sing for drinks down at the docks. But it wasn't always like this.
My story begins in that capitol of big bucks, fast living, and Broadway Babies… New York City. I was doin' eight shows a week, showin' more flesh than a girl oughta, when he walked in. The man to whom I would give my heart, and who would give me nothing in return, Clark. At first, I thought nothing of him. I taunted him with my smoldering smile. I knew Clark wanted me, but I didn't care.
I had just become a headliner. Worked my way up from strippin' to hoofin' to chorus girl to my name in lights. It was intoxicating, scanning Broadway from 42nd Street and seeing "WANDA DETROIT" in a million tiny light bulbs. "It's no kick in the teeth," my manager liked to say, and he was always a straight shooter with me. Yeah, I had a manager, once. I had a limo. I had an entourage. I *had* it all. You think I ain't played Vegas? You think I ain't played New York? I dated a duke, doggone it. When I first carved my footholds into the towering walls that surrounded show business, pulled myself outta the morass of nameless nobodies lookin' to get where I was goin', got to the top of that wall to see what was on the inside, he was there, lookin' for his own break to the big time, and I was it.
Clark, he was there too, lookin' at me from outta the dark, sittin' at the bars of the saloons I was singin', and I could feel him, watching, leaving almost physical impressions on me with his eyes before I even knew, or cared, he existed. I'd always used the smoke in those joints as a barrier between me and the black-hearted shadows that were men sitting out there, hollerin' whoops and cat calls like I was one of their lost huntin' dogs listening for the signal that would bring me to them. Clark's eyes burned right through the smoke, straight down to my soul.
One night, my show done, I went to the bar for a drink, and felt his eyes on me from the other end. I looked across at him. He got the courage to find a stool next to me. I lit a cigarette, smoke ready to barricade, and looked him over. He was darkly handsome, broad shoulders a pedestal for an angular face and jet black, but somehow soft, hair. His eyes, with their ability to sear me across the nightclub, took me unawares with their gentleness, protected by black-rimmed glasses. I crooked one corner of my mouth upwards in a knowing smile and blew smoke at the ceiling. Just another good lookin' Joe, I figured. Harmless.
"If you're gonna sit there starin', Sugar, you might as well buy me another," I said, clinking the cubes in my empty drink.
His mouth dropped open slightly, a hesitancy in his voice, "I…"
Behind me, the sound of glass breaking and a chair being knocked over got everyone's attention. I turned to see what was goin' on. A drunken sod of a man was standing over another with a broken beer bottle. Before the bartender could get his baseball bat and come around the bar, a third guy, a friend of the one on the floor, swung a chair into the back of the first oaf's head. That did it. Chaos broke throughout the bar, objects flying everywhere. A young sailor hit the rail of the bar next to me, and sank to the floor, blood gushing from his nose. I tried to move around behind the bar for protection, and came face to chest with a cliff of a man in my way.
"Hey girlie, ya tryin' to leave before the fun starts? C'mere, I'll protect ya." He grabbed at my arm, but I swung it out of reach, then back at him, slapping him in the neck with my lit cigarette. He let out a yell, grabbed my hand away from his neck and glared at me in his bleary drunken rage. He pulled me to him by my arm, and I used the momentum to drive my knee into his groin. He kinda got ticked off at that. My dress was too snug around my legs to give me any more freedom of movement, and he twisted me around and held my arm behind my back.
I kicked my heel into his leg, dragging hard down his shin, and stomped on his instep, when my arm was suddenly let loose, and a thud shook the floor under me. I spun to see the drunk lying at my feet unconscious. A broad shouldered, beautiful hunk of man flesh stood over him, looking at me and smiling.
"I suggest you get to a back room where it's safe." He motioned behind the bar, and I followed his direction. As I passed by him, he nodded a little gesture sorta like, "Pardon my forwardness, Miss," and said, "Excuse me. I have to help that lady over there." He looked past me and moved swiftly through the brawl.
>From Gus's office, I could hear the sounds of the fighting subside, and then the cops coming to haul everyone away in the wagons. I examined a rip in my dress. This one was gonna be a loss. The door opened.
"Damn it, Gus," I said, not looking up. "This is the third dress this month. And my favorite. Much as I love singin', I've about had it with the fringe benefits I get in this joint."
The voice that answered was not Gus' and I looked up sharply. "You shouldn't have to put up with this kind of behavior. I know where your talents might be better appreciated."
My orbs met the most dazzlin' smile, flashing brown eyes, and muscle-rippled body it would ever be my pleasure, or destiny, to meet. My rescuer from the human wall. He stood in the doorway, filling the space almost completely with the width of his shoulders. I had started tapping out a cig when he walked in. I set it to my lips, barely able to steady my hand. How peculiar.
Gus walked around him into the room. "Wanda, I'd like you to meet Mr. Tucker here. He's a producer off-Broadway." He put his hand on my shoulder as he spoke. "How ya doin'? Ya didn't get hurt out there, did ya?" He owned the night club, and gave me shots at standing out from the rest of the girls that danced for his clientele. "You look hungry enough to make a go of it," he'd said, "but once you're out there, you gotta do it on your own. Just puttin' you up there don't make you a star. You make you a star."
Tucker took my hand and I was surprised by a shock of static. The tingle lingered. We looked in each other's faces, and I let out a small "ha." The intensity of his gaze was electric in itself. "Call me Kent," he finally said. "I've been watching you on stage. You need a bigger audience."
That was the beginning of it all. Kent was just finding his own way into the business, but he had a power all his own when it came to gettin' where he wanted to go, or what he needed. I knew what I wanted, too, and where I was goin'; we were good together that way.
It was a crazy roller coaster ride we took. We headed uptown, not quite on Broadway — yeah, and iced tea is not quite whiskey. But the interest was not on how thirsty men could get ogling disrobing dames anymore, it was about art. That ain't so pretentious as it sounds. I was gettin' my chance to be noticed for more than gams that could do splits vertically, hips I threatened to knock men off their stools with, or a flexibility that made them drool. I would be heard.
We worked like hell, gettin' the show put together, Kent gathering the people for the production while I selected songs and worked out choreography. Some nights, he'd appear at my walk-up, and we'd look over what we'd each discovered and decided. It was a small production, but we had a theater, and Kent seemed to have supernatural resources for getting the show to fly. He didn't have many connections in the theater world at first, but people were drawn to him like graffiti to clean concrete. Kent had a purity about him that didn't tarnish under the enormity of what he had taken on. I was struck, over and over, with awe at the way he handled everyone who tried to latch on to what they saw as a sure thing waiting to happen, trying to take advantage of any opportunity this toadying business allowed them, and all the while he smiled, teeth gleaming, patiently handling individual cases and sifting through the day to day garbage that blew his way to find a rare nugget of gold.
The show was gonna be a showcase of my talents, the hoofin' and singin' I'd got my education in, from the school of Gus and a few others like him who always figured they knew what was best for a gal like me, never mind their particular knowledge of the business. I had a new teacher now, the director of the show, whose more experienced ways began influencin' me. But I didn't always like what he thought was best.
"Toots, where'd ya get the idear ta sing that like yer a two dollar tart on the corner? Yer goin' at it backwards." He was a round, bald, little man, and his voice would come booming out at me from different dark corners in the seats of the theater. A condition I was intimately familiar with.
I called out to him, unseen, "I figured ya knew what they cost, Sugar. You want it should sound more like a fifty dollar hooker?"
"I want ya ta sound like yer outta my league, Honey. Yer all wistful about it. Ya've been stomped on, dragged around, tossed in the alley when it's over. But ya still got yer pride."
**Yeah, I hear ya, Frank, too well,** I thought. "Fifty bucks it is." I nodded to the band, "Let's go again, boys." The music started up. Just before my cue, I saw a figure in the light of the side door before it closed behind *him.* I could tell he was talking to Frank, but the song took over. I sang:
*Love for sale,
Your love for sale,
Love that's fresh, and still unspoiled,
Love that's only slightly soiled,
Love for sale…*
"Hey, Cookie, okay, that's pretty good. Look here, I got someone ya gotta meet. This here's…Barre, what's yer first name, again?" Frank paused, and looked at the man next to him.
"Clark," he said. "Clark Barre."
It was *him.* I remembered him from the last time I played Gus'. The night of that bar brawl that marked the beginning of my new life. He'd disappeared when the fight started, and I hadn't thought of him since. **Clark Bar, huh? Well, he spends time in bars, I know that.**
"Yeah? What've we got, Frank, the new prop boy?" I pulled a cigarette outta my sweater pocket, lit it, and leaned against the piano on the stage.
"One of the agencies sent him over, Sweetcakes. I wanna try him out as yer dance partner."
"Whoa, whoa, waitaminute! We never discussed a partner. It was gonna be me in front of a chorus line. What's this huckleberry bein' singled out for?" I watched him as I dragged on the butt, and saw his eyes narrow at my comment. Like a guitar string, I'd plucked a nerve.
He jumped onto the stage with less effort than it takes most men to forget to put the seat down on the can. I harpooned Frank with my look. Who was this Joe with such moxie? "C'mon, Frank, I'm sure he's got the Macarena down cold, but can he move his feet?"
*He* spoke up. "I assure you, Ms. Detroit, I know a few other moves," he hesitated, then said, "on the stage."
Men. Both the most transparent, and densest things in this crummy, flea-bitten world. They wanna be in charge, and they want sex. Question is whether they're willing to give one up for the other. I always thought of men as paper napkins. Ya pig out, clean up the mess, toss 'em. Ya wave a pair of longer, thinner stems in front of one, and sooner or later, you'll find him caught like a deer in her headlights. That happens to ya a couple times, and ya get to realizin', they just ain't worth it. Any self-respectin' gal would start beatin' 'em to the punch, right? Now, this one, this…Clark, where did he think this line was gonna get him? Like I haven't put enough men behind me to recognize when one's tryin' to get ahead. I stifled a snort.
"Frank, I don't know what ya've got in that cockamamie brain of yours, but I didn't get this far to have some guy share the spotlight who's gonna be nothin' more than window dressin', far's I'm concerned." I stood on the edge of the stage, waving my cigarette and looking down at him.
"I'm gonna see if something I've been thinkin' over would work, so yer just gonna have ta humor me, Sugar Plum. Let's start with the steps we were working on yesterday. Barre, I want ya ta step in at the first chorus." Frank continued his directions, a stubborn, bulldog look to him, deep creases of skin furrowed between his eyebrows, hanging heavily over his eyes. If only he had a row of crooked lower teeth, some trapping his upper lip behind them, to complete the impression.
I stabbed the cig out in an ashtray on the piano, watching as the latest addition to the company listened to Frank's instructions. He stood relaxed, confident, intent, in a sweatshirt, leggings, leg warmers. Powerful legs. Dancers thighs. He could probably crack walnuts with them.
It didn't matter. I didn't want a partner. I didn't need a partner. I could command the stage and the audience myself. Men could be decorations on my arm, nothin' more. It's a man's world, but I'd already staked out my claim to a corner of it, and I'd had more than one claim jumper try and take it away. I'd lost ground before, but it wouldn't happen again. This guy would know his place in my territory. I'd make sure of it.
"Hey, Doll, c'mon, get with it here. We got work ta do. Ya been payin' attention at all?" The bulldog glowered at me.
"Yeah, yeah, Frank. Believe me, I know what's goin' on." I walked to the center of the stage. Barre was a few feet away, waiting for his cue. **Good boy. Keep your place. Don't push it.** The music came up, and I moved with it. At the chorus, he was there. He'd glided smoothly into the beat, then drew me into his arms. He spun me around, lifting me without a grunt. As we moved close together, he said, "That song, before, the Porter, interesting choice. But I might not sing it so down in the mouth. I mean, down, sure. But not so totally out."
How someone with both feet in his mouth could call hoofin' his profession, I ain't sure. I laid out the rules. "Keep this in mind, Barre. You dance for me. Supportin' role. We are not Steve and Edie, Burns and Allen, or Siegfried and Roy. This is my show. I get top billin'." I saw somethin' in his eye, a spark that said he had an answer to that. He opened his mouth. "Don't even think it, Sugar," I said, giving him a smoldering look. His mouth shut.
But then he caught me by surprise. I was unexpectedly spinning away, only to be stopped and pulled back toward him, then taken into a dip as deep as the Marianas Trench. I wondered briefly if I would get the bends, if I came back up too quickly.
"What about Fred and Ginger?" he asked, leaning over me, my back arched, with only his arm for support. I couldn't get away. "You know what they said about them…She gave him sex, and he gave her class." He pulled me back up, twirled me away again, and this time…he let go.
Blood rushed to my head. I fought away the feeling that my face was turning pink like a pair of underwear in the wrong load of wash. I looked back at him. He stood there, smirking smugly, while I fought for control.
**Don't flatter yourself, Barre…** I thought. I started to say it, but was abruptly reminded that we were not alone.
"Woo hoo! Haven't seen chemistry like that since I blew up the lab in high school. Barre, yer on. We'll see if we can't work ya into a few more numbers." Frank's arms were wavin' ever which way as he started throwin' out ideas, planning choreography, rescripting spots. The cogs were spinning too fast. My place in the company was about to shift. Not somethin' I was thrilled to see.
"Just a damn minute, Frank. Where you gettin' this idea that a coupla winged steps on a stage'll make for a whole show?" I shouted, tryin' to get his attention.
"Honey, ya shoulda seen the two've ya together. Dance in a mirror with him, you'll see. This is gonna work." He walked away, instructing crew members as he went.
"Hey, Cheri, I need help with this zipper!" I called out from the doorway of my dressin' room. I was lookin' out through the sea of dancers that made up the chorus line, but every one of 'em was runnin' around, in their own frenzies, and I couldn't see her.
"May I help you?"
I turned to find Kent smiling at me, placidly standing in the eye of the hurricane. I instantly felt calmer than I had in days, yet my heart raced at seeing him here. As the production had progressed, I'd put in longer and longer hours at the theater, and tired nights at my walk-up, soakin' my achin' dogs. I hadn't seen him in weeks.
"Ohhhh, Kent! Um…yes, could ya please?" I turned, showing him my back, reaching behind me with one hand to point out the zipper, and over my shoulder with the other. "It's stuck, and I can't…" I felt his warm hands, one on the small of my back, steadying me, while the other jiggled the tab. The zipper came loose and went down a couple inches. I drew in a sharp breath.
"I apologize for that. It was quite stuck." He pulled the zipper smoothly to the top of my dress.
I had pulled my hair outta the way, and now as I let go, it fell back down over my neck and shoulders.
"Thank you," I said, finally breathing, and turned to look at him. I was met, once again, with the sparklin' smile and flashin' eyes that always threatened to pull me outta my body and swallow me up. Sometimes, I thought, if I stared too long, I'd forget my own name, and the thought flitted through my mind that some day I might wanna give that a try.
We looked at each other a moment, then both started to speak. He smiled again at me and I let out a low, throaty giggle. Oh, God, what's happenin'? I ain't the gigglin' type. I can't remember the last time gigglin' was an option. I ain't some silly school girl. Nobody's silly in the School of Hard Knocks. No one who survives, anyway. And I've always been a survivor.
"Are you ready? This is the night." Kent spoke, his soothing voice pulling me outta the fire of overwhelming thoughts that threatened to consume me.
"I was born ready, but ya can still wish me luck, Sugar." I took the opportunity to pat him on the chest, my hand lingering momentarily on the firm, massive pecs which the shiny polished fabric of his suit failed to disguise.
"Luck has nothing to do with it, Wanda. You make it happen. But for superstition's sake, break a leg." He rested his hands on my shoulders, gave me a reassuring squeeze, and kissed me on the cheek. I felt his lips graze my cheekbone, his warm breath flush my skin. I gulped in a startled breath of air. Time stopped.
And started again. The stage manager walked through the milling dancers. "Five minutes to curtain, everyone, five minutes."
"You're about to turn this city upside down. I'll be watching from the wings," Kent said.
I nodded silently as he turned and walked away, his glittering smile still hangin' on the air. I suddenly realized I'd been holdin' my breath since his kiss, and let it out. And then I hiccuped.
"Oh, God, *hic* not now, *hic hic*," I said out loud, just as Barre walked up to me.
"C'mon, you ready? The music's starting." He peered curiously at me.
"Get me some *hic* water, quick! *hic*" His mouth dropped open, incredulous. "*hic* Now!" I shoved him. In a moment he was back with one of those triangular little paper cups that hold about as much water as a shot glass…but unfortunately not holdin' liquor. It'd have to do. I held my breath and drank the water.
I let my breath out. "I think…that did it…C'mon, what're you staring at? We gotta move! *hic* Damn! I can't sing like *hic* this. What are we gon*hic*na do?" I looked at him, half expectin' to see that smirk of superiority most men spend their whole lives perfectin'. Barre pursed his lips, grabbed my hand, and pulled me around backstage.
"The first number's just dance. You can get through that. If you've still got them after that, we've got a few minutes to figure something out." He'd maneuvered me into the wings, stage left, ready to go on.
The music swelled. I looked out onto the stage to see a spotlight beam on an empty mark — a mark where I was supposed to be. Barre pushed me. My feet took over and I glided into the light. I paused a second as I heard polite applause from the audience, and the spotlights lit the stage. Another hiccup tapped my body like an amorous football player with a tackling dummy, and I moved with the music, hoping to cover it. Barre was by my side, on cue, and I heard more applause as he moved into the light, wrapping me in his arms.
"How are you?" he whispered in my ear, and I answered with a volley of hiccups. He lifted me, set me down and spun me around.
"They're *hic hic hic* gettin' worse."
Barre's jaw clenched, and I noticed his eyes held a strong…somethin', determination? smugness?…in them. Maybe because he wasn't wearin' his glasses, I noticed they were a deeper brown than I'd thought before. More likely, I suspected, he'd got color contacts. Maybe it was the glare of light hittin' the lenses, or that when they'd take them off, their faces would look blank unless they were squintin' to look at ya, but I couldn't ever really see people's eyes when they wore glasses. Behind specs, Barre's eyes didn't stand out more than anybody else's.
The number was endin'. I'd gotten that far. But the hiccups were worse, and I had to sing next.
The music began to fade, and Barre dropped me into the final dip of the dance. His face neared mine, and where he stopped close to me in rehearsal, this time he did not. His lips closed over mine like butter melting on a hot dinner roll. His hand broke away from my arm, fingers brushing gently over my skin, creating goose flesh and a tickling chill, which competed with the fever raging through the rest of my body, on their way to cradling my head. His tongue met my molars in an introduction that had my pulled wisdom teeth achin' to come back. I gasped for breath as he created a vacuum in my mouth, sucking all the air I had to give. I thought angrily of pushin' him off, then thought of the hundreds of people watchin'. **The show must go on** did a jig through my brain. And anyway, it was a good kiss. A very good kiss. I put my arm around his neck and kissed back.
The music was gone, the stage dark. Suddenly a collective sigh was released >from the audience, and excited applause followed. Somehow we'd made it through the opening number, and were working our way backstage as the chorus line began to file on.
I turned quickly on Barre, catchin', I thought, a very pleased grin on his face. "Just who the hell do ya think you are, pullin' a stunt like that? What gives ya the right to…"
"How are your hiccups, Wanda?" He stood comfortably, eyebrows raised.
"I…they're gone!…You did that to…" **Oh, God.** "You're quite the thorough professional, ain't ya? I thought you were a dancer, not a method actor." I turned on my heel and walked to my dressing room. I heard a faint, "You're welcome," behind me.
Light bulbs flashed in my eyes like popcorn with no lid. A microphone appeared under my nose — a black carrot danglin' before me as questions tempted me to bite at it.
"We seem to be a hit," Barre whispered in my ear. **We?** I thought. **Sugar, yer just hoppin' a ride on my steamroller.**
"Miss Detroit! Mr. Barre! Lovely show! Do you have a moment?" I squinted at the outline of a reporter near the flashin' camera. "A question or two?" I recognized her, a local theater reporter from the newspaper. Her picture stood attention over her weekly column of rumors, gossip, and just enough accurate speculation to make ya wonder which of the rest was true. Someone ya wanna be on the right side of. I paused, smiled at her photographer, and spoke in my most theatrical voice.
"My pleasure, Ms. Applegate-Smythe."
"Please, call me Dorothy. That was quite the opening number. Who knew you could choreograph fire?"
I was decidin' whether or not that was rhetorical, when Barre started to speak. "Actually, our direct — " This was gonna be my interview, not *his*. I spoke up.
"Frank Swan, our director, and I worked out most of the choreography. Clark here came late to the production, and we just fit him in where we could."
"Darling, those moves!" I watched, amused, as she stroked Barre's arm. "You mean to tell me, you didn't start out with this…amazing specimen at your side…" I smirked inside. **Specimen…ha!** She continued, "…that you planned the end of that opening number without a partner in mind for it?"
I felt Barre shift next to me. I said, "Well, Dorothy, I'd been thinking about how that should end up. It just needed something more, ya know? We hadn't really run through it much before the show, but we want it all to be dynamic and spontaneous, so sometimes you just have to go for it. How do you think we did?" I gave her a sly smile, and resisted the urge to wink.
"Darling, how *didn't* you do?" Ms. Applegate-Smythe was nearly arm in arm with Barre by that point. I had to get us both the hell outta there before he said somethin' that made me look the fool. I turned toward him just enough to reach my hand behind his arm and push on his tuxedo jacket, aiming him toward the door, and away from that shark of the Great White Way.
"You'll have to excuse us, we really must be getting inside. Glad you liked the show!" I didn't stop pushin' until we were inside the restaurant, where a tray with drinks on it glided by at a waiter's shoulder. I took the nearest one off.
"What was all that?" Barre blocked me from beginning to enjoy the openin' night party Kent had arranged. "You're taking credit for having the hiccups?"
I tasted my drink. Scotch. "Sugar, ya got an interestin' improvisation technique. But this is business, and if you're gonna ride on my train, it's gonna be all the way back in the caboose." I moved around him and into the adoring arms of the — my — party.
"Toots, I don't know what possessed ya ter end that openin' number like ya did, and I ain't crazy 'bout ya ad-lippin', but ya done all right." Frank bulled his way through the crowd, putting an arm around me, and pulling Barre in close on his other side. We were a three-headed beast plowing a wake through the room. "And ya gotta admit, I wasn't blowin' smoke up yer skirt about that chemistry thing!"
"Yeah, maybe it'll work out, Frank." I was cautious of Barre on the other side of him. Humor them. Seemed the best approach. As we paraded through the room, company members patting our backs as we went, I watched Barre outta the corner of my eye behind Frank's head. I caught him looking back at me. I slid my eyes slightly toward Frank, and said, "Is Kent here yet? And how long before the reviews come out? "
"Haven't seen either yet, Darlin'. Reviews should probably be," Frank looked at his watch, "oh, 'bout another half hour."
A tray of drinks passed by me and I took one down. Gin. My evening gown was form fittin', but I'd come prepared. I pulled a cigarette outta my bra strap, and looked for a light.
"Ah, Dumplin', sorry, this joint's no smokin'," said Frank. "Best we could do tonight."
"With all the people on our crew? The real party's gotta be out in the alley, then. Which way?" Frank nodded his head toward a dimly lit alcove. I headed for it.
Out in the cooling night air, I found half the cast and crew, smoke swirlin' above their heads, joking animatedly, and walked into the midst of them. "Did we pull off a show, or what?" I said, coolly, but excited nonetheless. Cast members agreed all around. I held my cig to my lips as one of the boys flicked a lighter.
"*You* pulled off an amazing exhibition, Ms. Detroit."
I turned to an interestin'ly cultured voice, words enunciated so distinctly, I could almost hear the silent e's. He walked outta the shadows into the small circle of light, smoking a cigar — Cuban, I guessed, just because this was a man who didn't look the type to smoke somethin' cheap and easy to get. I knew who he was, anyone on Broadway that knew anythin' about the biz had heard of him. To meet him was another matter. He was nearer myth than man. That he didn't appear with a shimmering aura or a centaur's body brought me back to earth only slightly.
The most powerful man on Broadway, maybe even the whole New York/East Coast show business community. His public appearances were rare to nonexistent. Every company rumors that he's been in their audience, looking for the next Lana Turner, Kathleen Turner, hell, even Ike and Tina Turner. Could this really be him standing in an alley, smoking with an off-off-off-Broadway chorus line? He held out his hand. "A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Detroit, I am…,"
"Rex Rullor, Broadway producer extraordinaire." I gasped the words. He shook my hand with a warm, firm clasp, covering the exposed back of my hand with his left. The contact was of human flesh, and I came back to reality, giving him a firm handshake before pulling my hand away, slowly. The cast members had gone all silent behind me. My mind raced like a quarter horse on a dry track. To be associated with this man could send my career into the stratosphere. All those years of toiling obscurely behind me, like so many roach-infested dives I'd lived in, I thought. But I wasn't about to gush like some empty-headed, gum-chewing starlet that thinks the casting couch is somethin' she oughta carry to auditions with her. I straightened my shoulders, and looked the man straight in the eye.
They were sharp eyes; I doubted they missed any details in a room, much less an alley, and they glinted with the knowledge of power. They were also guarded, I guessed for the same reason, but I thought maybe they softened ever so slightly, watchin' me.
"Yes, good, well then, we needn't stand on formalities," he said. "I think perhaps I have a proposition that may interest you."
The door to the restaurant opened then, and Barre peeked out around it. "Hey, guys, reviews are up. Anybody seen Wanda?" All heads turned silently towards me, and Barre's followed them. He came around the door then, and hovered behind me.
"Mr. Rullor, this is a member of the company…" I didn't want to introduce him, but didn't quite see how to get around it. It occurred to me that Barre either had really bad, or really good, timing, dependin' on who's angle ya looked from.
"Clark Barre. Yes, nice journeyman performance. Perhaps with some long, hard effort, you could rise above the rabble." Rullor eyed Barre with something like mirth. Neither one extended his hand. Barre huffed in my hair.
"Wanda, Frank's waiting for you. You want to hear the reviews, or not?"
"Mr. Rullor, will you join us?" I paused on my way into the restaurant, when I realized he wasn't following.
"Ms. Detroit, I already know what they say. I must be going, but I'll be in touch with you. Good evening." He walked outta the alley and into a waiting limo.
"What was that guy doing standing around in an alley behind a restaurant?" Barre said in my ear, as he opened the door and waited for me to pass by inside.
"Well, Sugar, he wanted to meet me," I answered matter-of-factly, as if, why else?
"Uh…huh," was Barre's only response, but I heard enough meaning in his voice to create statistical analyses.
"Awright, people, here we go! This is 'The Sphere's' review…" Frank stood on the band stage to be eye level with cast and crew. He looked my way. "Nice of ya ta join us, Puddin'." He found his place in the newspaper again, and started readin'. "Hieronymous Grey's the critic here. The headline on this one says, 'Sweet Smell of SucSex'. Uh, I think that's good…" The company twittered.
Rumor on Broadway for the last month has been of an almost wholly unbelievable old-fashioned cabaret being put together far from the district, but with the potential to storm down the Great White Way, overcoming everything in it's path. Ladies and Gents, tonight I saw what all the hubbub was about, and I must inform you, Theatre has nothing to worry about.
The company held its collective breath. This wasn't startin' off great. I took a glass of wine off a tray as it slid by. They're all based on alcohol, that's the main point.
Barre had been standing at my shoulder for the reading. He said quietly, "Don't you think you ought to slow down? Why do you drink so much, anyway?"
"'Cause it's stronger than chocolate," I snapped back, taking a large gulp to emphasize the point.
"Fine, I hope you don't throw up all over the stage during tomorrow's matinee."
Frank continued readin' the review.
This isn't Greek tragedy or Shakespearean comedy. This show does not break any new ground. But then again, what today does? No, what we have here is a good old-fashioned musical revue, no plot, no mystery, no earth-shattering drama.
And yet, there is an earthiness about it, especially in the talents of the two leads, the hitherto unknown Clark Barre and Wanda Detroit. Make no mistake, these two will be known throughout the theater world soon and for a very long time, and probably with their names linked inextricably together…
The cast twittered again, and I felt dozens of eyes aimed in my direction, and, oh yeah, Barre's direction, too, seein' as he was standin' just behind me. I loved to bask in that glow, when it used to shine on me. It was my reason for being. But, that night, somethin', I don't know, it coulda been the drink, or that I'd had so much attention already that night, or them listin' Barre's name first, but it all started gettin' under my skin.
…Why? Why indeed. The sexiness of these two on stage is palpable, the husky, painfully sensual voice of Ms. Detroit searing through three hundred hearts, and the raw heat exuded by Mr. Barre nearly setting sprinklers off, all mixed in an alchemist's brew by the director, Frank Swan, a formerly pedestri…
"I think we can skip that part," Frank said, skimming through the article. "Hey, I like this…"
Mr. Swan has found a maturity in subject and execution that rival any of the present so-called "masters" of the stage. He seems to have found his niche, and we are going to be given a front row seat to see his own evolution and development of a company and a show before our eyes. With the gifts endowed to them, Mr. Swan and his stars may have endless material to cover, but it is only a matter of time before they come rolling down Broadway with it.
Simply because, with a single kiss at the end of the opening number, their fate was sealed, and so was Broadway's. We in the theater district have nothing to fear, we have only to watch the waves crash on the shore, and if we're smart, ride on the tide. No, this show is not breaking new ground. But you will break a sweat.
Whoops and hollers and clapping sounded throughout the restaurant, but I could feel the blood thunderin' in my ears. I pushed past Barre towards the alley door and out into the cool night air, so I could think and breathe. I lit a cig, drawin' smoke in as deeply as my lungs would allow.
It was what I'd always wanted, the fame, the glory — worked damn hard at gettin' it — and now it was all bein' split in half, and given to him. Where was he when I was payin' my dues? I spit out a piece of tobacco loosened >from the cigarette.
Well, he hadn't ruined the show, I'd have to give him some credit there. But how was this show gonna evolve, like the reviewer wrote. Bigger part for Barre? Less for me? I didn't even know if he could sing. I hadn't bothered to learn much about him at all. It didn't seem important before. Suddenly though, some old saying about keeping your enemies close like your friends popped in my head. I decided it was time I got to know Clark Barre. I turned around, and almost crumpled my cigarette into Kent's chest. I stepped back.
"Oh, Kent, I- I'm so sorry," I moved to brush ash off his breast pocket. **This habit suddenly ain't so glamorous,** I thought, dropped the cig to the pavement, and ground it under my shoe.
He took my hand gently in his own. "Please, don't worry about it." Still holding my hand against his suit jacket, he looked directly at me. He always had such a strong, bold look to him, yet the gentleness I found in his eyes was softer than cashmere, and without the sneezing. "Congratulations. This show will be a success because of you."
"No, Kent, I…it wouldn't've ever been anything without you. What I put on the stage was because of you — your support, I mean." **Just don't mention what I put into that kiss, whatever you do.**
He read part of my thought. The wrong part. "You could get into trouble improvising things like that kiss, you know. You were lucky tonight, but I worry about something like that getting out of control."
**Outta control? OUT of CONTROL? It ain't life or death, at least in the traditional sense. Or did he see somethin' else that worried him? Was he jealous?** I couldn't tell him the truth behind the kiss, but how could I lie to this man? "There was a reason for it, Kent. It's not what you think." I pushed softly against his chest and he released my hand. I turned and took a step away. "Now everything's gettin' so twisted because of it. This show's got a life of its own." I hugged my arms around myself.
Kent didn't move, but said, "Don't worry, Wanda. This looks like it's going to work out just fine. Look at the reaction we're getting. You nearly gave us heart attacks at the time, but look at the advantage we have because of the risk you took."
**Risk. Yeah, right. If he only knew.** "Well, maybe you can be there to catch me the next time I slip," I said softly.
"If it's within my power, always, Wanda." He set a hand on my shoulder then, a reassuring gesture, but somehow tentative, and it flitted through my mind that for all he was able to do for the show, it didn't seem like enough to him, that there were too many external forces at work, no matter what he planned for. And I was one of them.
Regret churned through my insides like bad milk. "I'm sorry, that was selfish. I know you have plenty of other things on your mind without worrying about me screwin' up the show."
He chuckled quietly then, and I turned to look at him. The half-smile on his face was warm, the sparkle in his eye, inviting. "Don't you ever worry about there being too many other things on my mind, Wanda. I'll always be here when you need me."
Several chorus members spilled out into the alley then, talking and laughing. Seeing Kent, they clustered around; he was at once a beacon around which the moths swirled. He congratulated them all, and made them feel at ease with him, rather than in awe. After a few moments, he excused himself, and came over to ask me if I needed a ride home, considering the time. "I have a vested interest in seeing you safely tucked in your bed at a decent hour."
"I'd like that," I answered. "Um, a ride." **And to have you tuck me in,** I thought, **but you never stay.**
Frank's mind had been workin' overtime. Over the next couple weeks, he made alterations to the show, changin' the choreography of the opening number to smooth the transition into the kiss. Eight times a week Barre and I had to look as spontaneous as that first night. Frank wanted it hot enough "to turn tuxes into smokin' jackets."
We must've been doin' somethin' right. Box office was good for a show in the sticks. If there was a night without a full house, Frank fretted that we'd gone predictable and the next day we'd be fiddlin' with arrangements and timing and order again. Barre had been fitted into more numbers and was bein' billed as my costar, but I stood firm that my name would stay on top and be bigger.
The week following my opening night, I got a hand-delivered message from Rex Rullor asking me to dinner. It said he wanted to discuss my "future in the theater." This was it, I figured. Nothing could stop me gettin' to the top. Hell, I was practically already there. I accepted the invitation, eagerly.
I'd been workin' hard for days on end, gettin' through the shows, making it home in time to collapse in bed before we started the whole thing over the next day. One night, Barre came up to me as I was puttin' my street clothes on over my leotard.
"Hey, uh, Wanda? I was wondering if, well, how'd you like to grab something to eat?"
"Dinner? You wanna take me out? Kid, I doubt we draw from the same date pool."
"Oh sure, only someone like Rex Rullor is good enough for you. What about Kent? Is he too good for you? You moon around after him, but I don't see him calling you to go out."
"Mr. Rullor said he has a proposition for me." Barre rolled his eyes. "You just look here, buster. This is business. I didn't get where I am by sleepin' with every Tom, Dick or Rex that promised me a Tony award. Kent understands that. Why can't you?"
"Well, Ms. La-Tee-Da, I'll be interested to see how high you hold your artistic integrity when push comes to shove. And it'll happen sooner than you think. I asked if you wanted to grab a bite to eat, not prostitute yourself." With that, he was out the backstage door before I could reply. I hate that.
And he was wrong, I knew he was wrong about Rex Rullor. A man with his connections? What would he want with someone like me unless he saw my talent? He wouldn't bother otherwise. Barre was just jealous. That was it.
I was picked up in a stretch limo the size of Idaho and transported as if by sedan chair. Before I could catch my breath, I was escorted into the most exclusive Park Avenue building where Rex's penthouse surveyed all that lay before him. A private elevator shot me skyward, above the street smells, past the grime of a never clean city, through the polluted air, and deposited me in another world, where you could forget everything below existed.
I stepped out into an atrium, almost a jungle, really, which I somehow knew would come complete with some sort of tropical birdlife. A flutter in a tree from a darkened corner set off a game show "ding!" in my head. If I could just answer the rest of the questions right like that, I'd bet everything on Final Jeopardy. The atrium was dimly lit, being mostly from skylights I saw stars through. I moved further in, wondering if there were headhunters or cannibals in the jungle, or would I make it safely through to find Rex at a Bedouin camp in the desert on the other side of this oasis.
"Good evening, Ms. Detroit. Please, come this way." I saw a silhouetted figure at the end of the atrium, beckoning me with an outstretched hand. I was led through high-ceilinged rooms, elegantly decorated with all manner of show business memorabilia, most of it rare or believed lost. Rex didn't limit himself to Broadway. Much of his collection came from the worlds of television and movies, and some even seemed to come from the old radio era. I had been left in a room with a full-sized stuffed camel; a rounded, molded lump of rubber; a small, clear, empty, enclosed, glass cube, and more that I could not take in before I heard someone behind me.
"I trust you realize the history of these objects, Ms. Detroit, that their import is not lost on you?"
I turned to see Rex in a dinner jacket, swirling a lit cigar about his head, the smoke rising in uneven air currents as it dissipated. "Good evening, Mr. Rullor." I reached my hand out to be taken in his in a gentlemanly handshake, and once again his fingers lingered.
"How are you this evening?" His eyes were fixed on mine.
"Very well, thank you." I broke the hypnotic gaze to look around the room again. "I can't say I spent my childhood in a movie theater much, but I think I could make an educated guess or two." I nodded at the camel. "I'd say that's something to remind you of 'Lawrence of Arabia'," **and not from "Hawmps",** I bit back on my tongue.
"Oh, it doesn't just remind me of 'Lawrence,' Ms. Detroit, that was *the* camel O'Toole rode in the film. Nearly impossible to trace it down, but my people found her outside Algiers in a carnival giving rides to children for a few dinars each. She was easy enough to buy then, and have her shipped over. Alive would have been nice, but it really doesn't work well in a penthouse, so I had her stuffed." He leaned over to me, conspiratorially, "They aren't like cats, you know."
I didn't know whether to believe him or not, and smiled at him non-commitally. The Mona Lisa's got nothin' on my simmerin' smile. "This here must be from 'Citizen Kane'," I said, pointing to a sled. "Did Orson Welles give it to you personally?"
"As a matter of fact, no. That was found next to the Ark of the Covenant in a government warehouse-looking sound stage from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'. Actually, they were probably the same props used for a similar scene from 'Citizen Kane', hence the connection between movies."
**Uh huh.** "This, I am only guessing now, is, maybe, the hump for Charles Laughton in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'?" I quirked an eyebrow upwards.
"Not quite. Lawrence Olivier as "Richard the Third'. But nice try."
"I'm curious about this cube." I said, moving on. "I can't imagine what this is from."
"That, Ms. Detroit, is vacuum-sealed, and it holds the plot to a particularly bad, but expensive, film about strippers. I keep it to remind me that lust and excess do not necessarily a profit make. One must always keep that in mind in this business, don't you agree?"
"Yes, I suppose it is good to try and stay grounded from those things. You have an interesting way of handling that, I must say, Mr. Rullor."
"Please, call me Rex. And if I may…Wanda?"
"Yes, of course…Rex." I felt so formal, I barely stopped myself curtseying.
"Dinner awaits us, through here, if you would like to begin," Rex said, motioning me through to yet another fabulously decorated room, with an elegant small dining table set and waiting for us.
"This is delicious, Rex," I said, looking through the candle light to see him watchin' me. "Never been much of a cook, myself," I added, self-conscious under his scrutiny. "But I love to enjoy an artist at work, and this was definitely a masterpiece." **Stop babblin', you fool. Just 'cause ya eat at a greasy spoon half-way between the theater and home doesn't mean ya have to go advertisin' it.**
"I can say, without reservation, Wanda, that I have seen the artistry of a master, as well, in your performances." Rex's intense gaze had never wavered, never even blinked, since I started talking. It was mesmerizing. I felt no desire to break the contact, but my mind wondered how far he could see into me, what he would take away when the connection was broken. I subtly changed my own gaze, from wide-eyed naiveté to one of my more sensual, smoldering looks, curious to see what effect it would have.
Rex's look changed then, too, becoming more guarded, as he had that first night in the alley. I suddenly worried I had pushed too far, without really knowing why.
I cleared my throat, tryin' to think of somethin' to say. I kept what I could of my smoldering look, and said, "You mentioned somethin' the other night about a proposition." If the mood broke now, I feared never knowing what he had in mind. Someone with as much power in this business as Rex had was as like a god as a man. He was well known for his kind acts on behalf of people or shows he thought were worthy not only his attention, but of the public's too. His endorsement could put a production on the map practically overnight. I shivered at the possibilities this night might bring me.
He sat straighter against the back of his chair, and dropped the intensity he'd previously been burning a hole through me with. "Ah, yes, so I did." He smiled at me then, startlingly changing his whole demeanor. The dark, almost brooding, man was gone, and had left this…this…Rex-Lite in its place. I almost couldn't reconcile the depths to this man who had done so much good for the theater community, but seemed so lonely, perhaps even misunderstood, because of his reputation, the label "legend" placed upon him, or the myths and rumors that swirled around him. He'd been set apart >from the world he helped shape, no longer allowed to take part in it as he might have liked, side by side with the residents of his community. Admiration and empathy swelled inside me for a man who gave so much of himself, with no expectation of getting anything in return.
He was holding my chair, patiently waiting for me to move, and he gestured me to rise and adjourn to a sofa in an alcove with a stunning view of the city's skyline. Lights from buildings glittered in a way no one would ever see from the street. I looked out in awe of the world in front of me that night, and imagined what it would be like to have this city laid open to me as it was for Rex. I went out onto a balcony, listening to noises which were so different when heard several hundred feet below. A warm breeze gently combed through my hair, and I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath. Maybe it was the wine, or the altitude. I felt a light-headed thrill rush through me, as if I could take off and float on all the pin-points of light twinkling around the city.
"It's quite a sight, isn't it?" I suddenly realized Rex had been watching me the whole time, allowing me to absorb at least a part of his universe. He stood leaning against the rail of the balcony, close enough to speak softly, reverently, of what I viewed, without crowding me.
I breathed deeply again. "Yes, it is." I smiled at him. "But this isn't why you brought me here."
"In part, perhaps, I did," he said, turning to look at his own view. "You could be on top of the world, Wanda. You could own it. Become the next Mary Pickford. America's sweetheart. I'd like to help you achieve that."
There it was. Suddenly my future was laid out before me, as I'd always wanted, as I'd scrabbled up from the seedy underbelly of show business, aiming for what was now bein' handed to me on a platter.
And just as suddenly, I realized I'd got this far on my own. Did I really need what Rex was offerin'? To be on his good side was one thing, to be in his debt was somethin' else entirely. What the hell'd I been thinkin'? And what was I supposed to do now?
"Rex," I reached out to touch his arm, my mind racing, "I…I'm flattered. You're offer is everything I've ever dreamed of. Your generosity…I'm…overwhelmed." I paused, thinking of how to go on.
Rex took the moment to elaborate on his vision. "You won't have to play the backwaters any more, Wanda. *You* will be the toast of Broadway, center stage. I can get you the best theater, the best director…I can have Julie Andrews singing backup to you." His eyes fairly glinted with the possibilities he saw, and he punctuated the air with the unlit cigar in his hand.
"Oh, Rex, please…this is all so fantastic. And so new to me. I can't just jump the ship I'm on so soon. There are people there counting on me, and well, I'd hate them — or you — to think I was so fickle." I smiled warmly at him, hoping he'd understand. I added, quietly, "I appreciate what you must think of me to make me such a proposal. But this is something I have to do for myself. Can you see that?"
Rex Rullor lived up to his reputation. "Wanda, I'm excited by the prospect of what you can do for the theater. It's bigger than I think you even know…this talent of yours." He picked up my hand in both of his, and patted it. "Of course I will respect your wishes. But I want you to know I'm here for you whenever you are ready to take the leap beyond the pedestrian ideas that rule Broadway these days. Promise me you'll think about it."
"Of course, Rex. This is all so heady for me right now…You understand I just need to get my bearings?"
"Yes, yes, I do, Wanda. You'll do fine. And we can talk about this again when you're ready."
"Thank you. I can't imagine what I've done to deserve your attentions. Or do you just go after all the new girls on the block?" I slipped him a sly smile, and squeezed his hand, which continued to hold mine firmly.
His face got softer, like it had earlier, the fervor he'd had when describing his visions of the future disappearing for the moment. His passion for the theater came through so strong, and I knew I felt the same way myself, if from a slightly different vantage point. His was a kindred spirit.
I was only too happy to rub Barre's nose in it the following day at rehearsal. "Note this, Sugar," I said, walking up behind him, "my 'artistic integrity' is still intact. I hope y'ain't too disappointed."
"I'm glad, Wanda. Really." He was doing warm-ups, and didn't seem too concerned one way or another. I felt my ears heat up. **First he accuses me of sellin' myself for my career, then he doesn't care. What gives?**
"I do have rules, Barre. I ain't morally destitute."
He stopped to look up at me, questioning.
I huffed. Why was I explainin' myself to him? "Look, I've never spent any time on a casting couch, and I never will, okay? And I had that rule way before you came along to be my conscience."
"Good to know," he said, continuing his warm-ups. "I just don't want to see you get hurt."
"Yeah, but you don't like gettin' shot down, either, do ya, playboy?" I turned on my heel and left him there, with his ethics and his pride.
It was strange, how he somehow knew I'd be home when he came by, and what kind of mood I'd be in. I wondered again at fate putting Kent and me in the same hemisphere, in the same city, at the same time, givin' us this link we had, that I felt, that he felt. Just seein' him there, standing at my door, my anger whirled outta me, down a drain, and I was left tired, in a relaxed sort of way, like a bowl of Jell-O that'd been sittin' at room temperature too long, and was liquid around the edge. I loved that feelin', and when he said, "Hello," I felt myself sloshin' around in that bowl even more.
"Kent!" I said it soft, almost breathless, but anyone could hear the exclamation. "Hi-how are you?" Great. Small talk. There musta been a cushion of Jell-O around my brain, too.
"I'm fine, Wanda, thanks. How are you?" God, it just wasn't the same at all. I ask a simple, stupid, innocuous question, and sound like some vapid local tv reporter askin' the survivors of a murder victim how they feel when the murderer gets the chair. Kent could ask the same thing, and the look in his eye, the directness he had, searchin' my own face, not allowin' me to lie, to cover up my thoughts around him, set me reeling deep down in a desire to pull every idea and emotion in my soul and hand it to him on a platter. Anything he asked would be his. I wished he would ask.
"I'm…much better…now," I answered, still breathless. I was almost shameless, but I couldn't help myself, and to tell ya the truth, I didn't care.
He nodded, a knowin' nod, one that said, "Yes, you're alright, you've always been alright, you just tend to forget, sometimes."
And I was alright, only…more so…around him. I couldn't decide, did I forget myself in his presence, or remember bits of me, long tucked under thick blankets, where I'd thought they'd be safe, safe from risk, safe from others, maybe even safe from me. I learned long ago I couldn't always trust my own instincts, not where men were concerned. It'd been better to protect me from myself. But whenever Kent was around…I don't know…I lost myself, or I found myself. I can't explain it any better than that. What he did for me, he might do for anyone else. But, it was…personal. I could see that, clear as an empty goldfish bowl. He singled me out, made me feel special, in ways I hadn't, for too long.
"Thank you," I whispered under my breath.
He was startled. "For what?"
I hadn't really meant for him to hear me, let him hear where my thoughts had led me, but, well, I guess I lost all fear, with him around. "I…well…ya just have a way of makin' a girl feel good about herself, ya know that?"
He ducked his chin down, his arms crossed over his chest, and somehow, he seemed embarrassed. "Wanda, you have everything to feel good about. You told me once what Gus said, remember?" He was lookin' direct at me again, the temporary shyness all but gone. "'You make you a star.' Well, you make you happy, too. You make you feel good. You're in charge of your destiny, Wanda. I'm…just here to help."
Parts of me puddled all over again. Did he really not know the lasting effect he had on me? On everyone he came in contact with? His modesty, his unassuming gentleness, I was overwhelmed with the lack of modesty I felt in myself, for him, right then. I stepped closer to him, and for once, it wasn't accidental clumsiness, or due to a show emergency. "Kent…" I put my hands out slowly, like I didn't want to frighten a cornered animal, until I could finally hold him by the shoulders. He relaxed, let his arms down, and I slid my hands down to clasp his. **Kent, you give me hope, you've given it to so many, can you really not know the meanin' you give to everyone's lives?** Maybe…maybe he needed hope of his own. Maybe I was just the one to give it to him. Maybe…"Kent…"
I pulled his hand up, with mine, to his face, stroked his cheek. He was starin' into me, like he always did, but his eyes closed ever so slowly, with my motion. He let go my hand, reached blindly for my own cheek, and found it, unerringly. It was then, or never, I figured. I tipped up on my toes, touched his lips with mine. He didn't dissolve in a mist, didn't run like a scared bunny. But there was the tiniest bit of hesitation there, I could feel it. Then it was gone, and he was there, in the kiss, with me. I felt myself gathered in his arms, pulled close in against that beautiful, massive chest, and the warmth emanatin' from it, like lava, trapped under a volcano, waitin' to escape in a slow liquid explosion of heat and fire.
And then it was escapin', pourin' through, from his mouth, into mine, his tongue was a molten river flowin' between us, creatin' something new, a bridge of land, spillin' into my ocean and sendin' up plumes of steam that fogged my senses, until I coulda swore my ears were ringin'.
There it was again. It wasn't just me. Not a ring, more of an insistent beep. Kent pulled away, breaking the connection between us in a jolt of reality. He stepped back, looked at me, then jerked his head toward the noise, pulled his beeper from his waistband, and studied it's message.
"I'm sorry…this…" he waved the thing at me, "requires my attention." He had stepped outta my reach, back to himself, and in another moment he would take flight out my door.
He held his hands up, towards me, an apology in his eyes. "I…have to go. I'm sorry." And he was gone, but I didn't feel alone.
The show continued to get good reviews and steady ticket sales. Kent was trying to arrange for a theater in the district, but it would be a few months before a decent one opened up. So, to gain momentum to go steamrollin' down Forty-Second Street when the time came, we took the show on the road. We'd play a few select Northeast and Midwest cities, then march on Broadway.
The first two legs of the tour went fine, well, as good as they could, considerin' disasters seemed to need averting daily. In Syracuse, the semi-truck with the set and wardrobes got lost and arrived at the theater just a few hours before curtain, and the entire company pitched in to get set up in time. Outside Buffalo, we were delayed for hours by a jack-knifed truck blocking the single lane that bottle-necked vehicles in a detour around road construction. It got better after that, from the production end of things, and reception of the show was as good as we could have hoped.
It was two a.m. when we boarded the bus leaving Columbus. The travelin' was startin' to fray everyone. We'd been stuck too close together a little too long. Crowded together in a backstage dressing area, getting jostled tryin' to put makeup on and nearly losin' an eye, well, that was one thing, but I was beginning to feel like Spam. We just kept gettin' pushed together, and pushed together, until we were molded into a blob of meat by-product. I staked out a couple of seats for myself part-way back in the bus, curled across both to send the message I wasn't entertaining guests, and fell into an uncomfortable sleep.
Grey light was seeping into the bus when I woke. Sometime near dawn. I could just make out in a few seats around me the huddled lumps of some of the company. The bus was stopped. I sat up straighter, looked around. Up at the front I could make out shadowed forms talking hushed, to not disturb anyone. I went forward.
The driver, Barre, and Frank were lookin' over a road map, Barre drawing a line on it with his finger. "It's off the beaten path, yes, but it's closer than anything on the freeway, and I'm sure someone there'll be able to fix the problem. I can hike there and get help. Take maybe two hours to get someone back here."
"I guess it's about the best choice we got right now, Clark, but we gotta get back on the road ta Richmond or we'll miss a show," said Frank.
"You know, Mr. Swan, we've got a bit of time before the show in Richmond. A couple days break might do everyone some good." I'd never known someone to be as polite as Barre was to Frank, and mean it.
"What's goin' on?" I crossed my arms and rubbed them together against the chill of the morning air. "Where are we?"
"Hey, Cupcake, what're ya doin' up? The bus broke down about an hour ago, and since we're in Clark's territory, he's figurin' out what we should do. Looks like we're gonna have a layover in…Pettyton? That right, Clark?"
"Uh, actually, we say Puh-TEE-ton. Folks can get kinda defensive around here with tourists making fun of the names of things." Barre shrugged his shoulders apologetically.
I took the map from Frank, looking in the general area Barre'd been fingerin' a moment ago. There were no freeways in sight, and most of the roads were drawn in grey. Main thoroughfares in West Virginia that were probably closed in winter. I couldn't see the town they named. I asked again. "Where are we?"
Barre reached around me and pointed. "I'm going to hike over these hills and bring back a tow truck and maybe a school bus and get us into town." I looked at the dot on the map. Petiton. I could just make it out in a deteriorating crease.
Something gnawed at the back of my brain, remindin' me I'd heard him talking about his hometown in the hills of a backwater state. "You're from there."
He turned his head down at me, cocked to the side, and one corner of his mouth quirked upwards. "Oh, so you've heard of it?" he said, amusement dancing through the words, the superiority of someone back in his element, surrounded by fish gaping for breath on a bank. He turned to Frank. "I'll get someone back here as soon as possible," he said, then was down the steps of the bus and climbing the first hillock. In a minute he was over the crest and gone.
"How'd we end up here, Frank?" I asked, still lookin' where Barre had been.
A moment's pause, and I turned to see the driver give Frank a shrug. "He thought he'd take a short cut." Frank said, simply.
I stepped out of the bus and looked around. The still of the early morning was broken only by the noise and motion now coming from inside the bus. The air cooled my lungs as I breathed in the freshness of the country. I lit a cigarette. A light mist clung low in the canopies of trees. I couldn't decide if it was risin' or fallin'. The smoke from my cig lay around me, too, givin' me no help on the mist issue. I walked to the rear of the Trailways charter, and noticed a flap open, revealin' the engine. A faint smell of diesel, rubber and oil reached me, and I inhaled fully. A city smell.
It was midmorning when we heard the first sound of an engine comin' down the road, breaking through the increasing noise of the wilderness we were in, a breeze lending movement to the trees, birds chattering to themselves or who knew what else, and insects buzzin' around, confused by perfumes not emanatin' from flowers. The company had been muted by the world around it, everyone murmurin', even whisperin', rather than disturb the clean country air. I had been wonderin', if I cranked a boom box to full volume, would wildlife leap out of the trees and bushes near us in a storm of confusion, to escape. I also hadn't figured out why anyone would build a road in a place that obviously only got used by city rubes that figured everything led somewhere.
There were several vehicles, I realized as they got closer, and they were not going anywhere near the speed limit. A low throttled whine was coming >from just around the last bend in the road before we would be in sight to the driver, but the seconds seemed to stretch to minutes until at last we saw the truck makin' the noise. It was a tow truck, like we expected, but ancient and rusted, and I couldn't see how it would be able to tow the bus anywhere. A procession of other vehicles followed the first, most of newer vintages. A couple of pickups, station wagons, a Volkswagen bus, and a van all stopped behind the tow truck, drivers piling outta them all.
The tow truck driver came up to our bus driver, recognized by his uniform. "Heya, y'alls the ones need help?"
I rolled my eyes. Stuck in the land that time forgot with a buncha hayseeds. Great. I flicked a cigarette butt to the pavement and ground it under my shoe.
Frank walked over to see what was goin' on. Hunched shoulders and overdone gestures, typical urban stance. The tow truck driver stood in his oil stained overalls, scratching his hair under his cap, and chewing on…what was that…I squinted to get a better look. **Oh please, don't tell me he's got a grass shoot in his mouth. Oh, God, we're never gonna get outta here alive. If I start hearin' banjos fight each other…**
I about jumped outta my skin. Cheri had put a hand on my shoulder. "Hey, where's Clark? I don't see him with these people."
She was right. I hadn't looked real close to all the drivers, but now that she mentioned it, Barre wasn't with them.
Frank came up to us, standing near the bus as we were, the thing we felt most comfortable to. "Okay, people, get yer bags — we're gettin' shuttled into town."
"Where's Barre, Frank?" I asked, tryin' to sound unconcerned. "And what about the bus?"
"They don't have anything to tow the bus with right now. They're gonna try an' get it runnin' out here and then bring it in. And Clark's back in town. Had some sort of accident gettin' there, er somethin'." I looked at Frank questioningly. "I dunno how bad, yet, Peach Blossom. Let's get into town so we can find out."
We all threw our bags in the pickups and piled into the rest of the cars. I figured if we were lucky, we'd make it to Petiton in time for lunch, or was that called supper in these here parts?
I was tryin' to work the knot gotten from someone's elbow in my back half an hour later, when we were all on Main Street stretchin' our legs. It was a pleasantly wide avenue, tree-lined, with neatly kept store fronts. It was busy, too. People crossed to and fro in the street, cars inching their way along. Throw in a couple of buildings higher than three stories, smudge it up with a little grime, and…nah, it still wouldn't look like Manhattan. But it wasn't as bad as I thought. There wasn't a tumbleweed in sight.
Frank had gathered most of the cast and was steering them toward a motel to check in.
"So, what do you think, Wanda?"
I pivoted, and there was Clark, leaning against the wall of the Dairy Freeze. The whole picture was so…down-to-earth. I felt a warmth wash through me, and I smiled. "You know, Holler-Boy, it ain't what I expected. You gonna show me around, or have I seen everything?"
"Your timing is pretty good, really. This weekend is the Allegheny Fiddle Fest. Lot's of activities. There's a picnic going on over at the park right now, if you'd like to join me. You can meet the town there."
"'Meet the town?' You mean Johnny-Bob and Billy-Joe-Bob and Sue-Bob and Rob-Bob? All right, but only 'cause my insides are gonna start devourin' themselves if I don't get somethin' to eat."
He stood up then, and a wince scrunched up his face.
"Hey, it wasn't that bad an insult…Oh," I said, rememberin' what Frank told us, "they said you had an accident or something gettin' here…"
He waved a hand, dismissin' it. "I twisted my ankle when I was hiking here, is all. That slowed me down and I didn't come out quite where I thought I would, with the fog, so I had to hike further. It took me a little longer to get here than I was figuring."
"Your ankle's twisted? How are you gonna be able to dance? We've got a show in a couple days…"
"It'll be fine by then, don't worry. And I can always tape it up good."
"Ya had to go off and be the hero, didn't ya? And now look atcha." The hairs on the back of my neck were startin' to prickle. **This is what happens,** I told myself, **just when ya start countin' on someone, they have to go and do some fool thing you'll be sorry for. Ya get so tired of trustin' anyone, after a while.**
"Hey, Wanda, come on, it's no big deal, honest. Look, I *can* walk on it." He limped around me in a circle. "I'll bet I have it walked off in no time."
"Typical football jock attitude. All right Barre, you better have that worked out by the next show, 'cuz I can't be trainin' everyone to kiss like you…" His head jerked up. **Brilliant, Sugar. What *are* you thinkin'?** "I mean, there's no time to get a replacement, and it's hard enough to make it seem fresh every show as it is…" I looked at him, then, and his smile dropped a bit with that, but his eyes stayed lit up, or at least his glasses made it look so. I rolled my eyes as far back in my head as I could, and groaned. **What had I just done? I could think more clearly, if I just had some food.** I pulled on his arm. "Come on, where's this hootenanny of yours?"
He pointed to one end of town, and we limped in that direction. I strolled along next to Clark, his sprain makin' progress slow. It dawned on me then that there really wasn't a hurry. We weren't in danger of being mugged 'cause we stayed on the streets too long. I even realized I could look people in the eye as we walked past, and not worry it would threaten them. And folks actually smiled back. Spooky.
It was further than a rock throw, but only barely. We came around a corner, and the town opened into a great expanse of greenery: rolling lawn, large, old trees, and down a slope was a large pond with paddle boats putterin' around it. Kids swung from the tree branches, others tumbled and played in the grass. People everywhere laughed and enjoyed the warm sun and waftin' scent of something roasting over a barbecue. We passed blankets and picnic baskets spread over sections of lawn, and made our way to a big roastin' pit.
"This is just way too pastoral, Clark," I said, pausin' to look around. "I've never seen so many content people in one place. Either this is a seethin' cauldron of hidden passion, or they're all robots. That sign welcomin' everyone to town — did that say 'Petiton', or 'Peyton Place'?"
He laughed. "Maybe you'd like to go the other way and call it 'Stepford'. C'mon, Wanda, not everywhere is a rat-infested, crime-ridden, gang-ruled, pit of despair. So maybe you can't get Chinese food here at three in the morning. Well, okay, so you can't get Chinese food here at all unless you cook it yourself, but these people think the trade-offs are worth it."
"You left out 'Mayberry'. What about you, Clark? You didn't seem to think it was worth it."
He made a face as he shifted on his foot. I couldn't figure if it was my question or his ankle that made him uncomfortable. "I had a calling to do something you just can't do in a place like this," he said finally.
I nodded. "Yeah, I kinda figured. It'd be hard being gay in this small of a town."
Clark's eyes flew open. "Gay? You think I'm gay?" His cheeks ballooned as he let out a low whistle.
"Hey look, it's no big deal. I mean, ya know, most dancers are. And you really are, um, a good kisser, and with your looks, I just figured…"
"I seem to recall asking you out to dinner, a while back."
I shrugged. "I figured you were coverin'. I can't remember ever seein' you with a date."
"Wanda, trust me on this. I am not gay. Yeah, I like to dance. I have a real feel for music, and I can play just about any instrument you give me. You can't make a living with those talents in a small town, and anyway, I wanted more than playing in bars on weekends." He looked at me calmly, no hint of defensiveness anywhere about him.
"You're different, Clark Barre, I'll give ya that."
"Clark, honey! What are you doing here?" A woman in her late forties or so walked up and took Barre's face in her hands and kissed him on the cheek. He hugged her and kissed her back.
"Mom! I tried to call you earlier, but you were already out and about. Our bus broke down, so here we are." He grinned broadly at her, holdin' her at arm's length to look at her, then turned to me. "Mom, this is Wanda Detroit."
"Oh, honey, it's so nice to meet you. I'm Margaret." She clutched my hands in hers. "Clark's told me all about you and the show." Her eyes danced happily, and I could see where Clark got his expression. Her warmth was infectious and I grinned back at her. Still holdin' my hands, she looked back at him. "She's just as pretty as you say, honey."
I tilted my head at him, saw him tinged with red all the way into his scalp, and suppressed a smile.
"You could have called the cell number, honey. Your dad and I both carry ours everywhere."
"Ah, but then I couldn't surprise you like this, could I?"
"Oh, honey, you know we're just tickled pink to have you whenever you can get out of the big city. Let's go find your father."
Margaret had a spot staked out upwind from the barbecue pit, where a pig was roastin' on a spit. Spread around her blanket were dishes of potato salad, pasta salad, fruit salad, three bean salad, cold fried chicken, bread, rolls, condiments, cookies, brownies, two pies and a cooler of beer and soda. I looked first at Clark, then at Margaret, wonderin' how much two people could eat. She smiled, readin' my thoughts. "You never know who's going to drop in at a picnic," she said. "Here, take these plates over and get some barbecue. Hank's there now."
Clark stepped up behind a man a little taller than himself, hair greyin', with a bit of a paunch around the middle. "Hey, what's a guy gotta do to get fed around here?"
The older man turned from tending the roasting pig. "Clark! How are ya, boy?" Clark was suddenly taken up in a bear hug. He laughed and patted the older man on the back.
"Doing fine, Dad. Can you get away from the pit and come eat with us?"
"You betcha, son." He loaded up a couple plates of barbecue, pork ribs, and ears of corn. He paused, noticin' me. "Oh, hey, you must be Wanda," he beamed at me. "I recognize you from the picture Clark sent. But it doesn't do you justice."
Clark sent his parents a picture of me? I looked at him again, expectin' another blush. This time he shrugged, and said, "I sent them the program."
I suddenly felt flushed. "Oh, God, that picture's awful," I said. They had them all printed before I got to see what they'd used. I'd let anyone in earshot know what I thought, but there wasn't enough money in the budget to print new ones so I'd just have to wait until they were all used. Fortunately, the way the show was doin', we'd have new programs in no time.
We all settled down on the blankets, eatin' ourselves sick. It was wonderful. Clark explained about the bus to his parents, and how he sprained his ankle.
"When I finally made it here, I got Junior Hastings to gather up folks that had enough car space to get the company into town, and found Doc Imers to look at my ankle."
"Doc Imers, honey? You went to the veterinarian?" Margaret asked.
"Couldn't find Dr. Winthorp, Mom. I didn't think it was too serious anyway. I just wanted to get a wrap and an ice pack, and Doc Imers seemed like a good bet." Then Clark added, "Of course, he wanted to put a plastic cone around my head so I wouldn't lick my injury." He grinned wickedly. My mouth started to fall open, unbelievin', until his parents began laughing. I laughed, too. I was amazed at how comfortable I felt around these people already.
"Junior Hastings? Was that the guy who came out in that beat up old tow truck? I thought for sure I'd gotten lost in 'Deliverance'," I said, helping myself to another spoonful of potato salad. "I mean, this would be the perfect place for some serial nutball to live, with who knows how many body parts buried in the woods."
Clark laughed. "Junior? We grew up together. He's doing correspondence courses, working towards a degree in Business Finance. Doesn't have much more to go, I think. Then a bigger city will have to try and handle him." Clark leaned nearer to me, "I'll let you know if there's a sudden squirrel population explosion."
"Clark, honey, you stop that," said Margaret.
"Well, now I know who to ask for some dirt on Clark, here. Everyone in the company thinks he's so squeaky clean."
"Well, there was that time when Clark took one of the ponies…" Margaret began.
"Mom!" Clark stopped her. "Don't make it too easy for her."
"All right, honey, but you better not forget Mother's Day again," she said, pattin' his leg.
We walked, well, Clark was still hobblin', back up the street to the hotel where Frank was takin' care of our lodging. Several girls from the chorus stood around outside, and I noticed Cheri.
"Clark, Wanda! Where've you been? Frank's been looking for you. We've got trouble with the hotel rooms. There's not enough for all of us. This joint's been booked up with the fiddling contest going on."
"How bad is it?" I asked. I was really lookin' forward to some privacy, after the confines of travelin' on a bus for the last few weeks.
"Frank talked them into putting roll-away beds in all the rooms we could get, so it's going to be six to a room. And they're all worried about overoccupancy and fire hazards, so if we complain too loud about it, we're out on the street. Even then, we're still short two beds."
The Barres' car had pulled up a few minutes before, when they'd packed up all the picnic supplies, and Margaret had got out and overheard. "Well, honey, we can take care of that. You'll stay with us, and I won't hear another word about it."
"That's awful kind of you Margaret…" The generosity they showed was so much more than I'd ever expect from anyone, anywhere else.
"…and we'll call around and see if any of our neighbors have any room for any of you," Margaret was sayin'. "Might be hard. A lot of folks are housing musicians for the festival. But we'll see what we can do."
They did quite well. The company was spread over an area the size of Rhode Island, but everyone had a comfortable place to sleep, and the hotel calmed down about the safety codes.
The Barres' farm was a few miles outta town, down a shady country lane that opened into a wide, shallow valley. The house was half hidden by trees, and further down the track was a barn. **So this is where he spent his childhood.** It seemed a very foreign existence to me.
Inside the house was cozy, but not overstuffed. I don't know what I expected… the clutter of newspapers and magazines 'cause they didn't get TV? A livin' room full of 1950's style furniture in that pinkish beige color that everything that comes from that era seems to be? A pot-bellied stove as their main source of heat? I saw none of that. It was bright and cheerful. A computer was set up in one corner of the livin' room, all the electronics I could imagine in an entertainment center against the opposite wall. I decided it was best to stop assumin' anything.
I needed to work off some of what I'd eaten at the picnic, so Clark showed me around the farm. I saw a satellite dish behind the house, and something else behind that in a tree. I walked that way. A tree house! I smirked at Clark.
"Let's see, ya prob'ly played pirates up there, and cowboys and Indians, and…"
"I sang 'Pirates of Penzance', is that close enough? Hmmm, defended the Alamo a few times, had secret clubs — 'No Girlz Alowd', that sort of thing. Too middle American for you?"
"Norman Rockwell had nothin' on you."
"Tell me, Wanda, what was it like for you? You're awfully young to be so…"
"Bitter? Jaded? Cynical?"
He looked like he didn't know if he should've asked, wasn't sure how I'd react to gettin' personal.
All I can say now is I was lulled into a sense of security I'd be sorry for later. My belly was full, it was a beautiful, warm spring evening, the clean, fresh, country air had gone to my head. "All right, but remember Sugar, you asked for it."
He nodded, and motioned to walk down the track past the barn.
"My ol' lady, she had her hands full raisin' me and my two sisters when the old man walked out on us. He was no good. Always had these grand ideas that were gonna make us rich quick. All they ever did was make us poorer and poorer. We were livin' in a one room dump with a dirt floor by the railroad tracks when he left. Went off to meet some con artist or somethin' one night, and never came back. Lemme know when I'm borin' ya."
Clark stopped and turned to look at me, empathy written all over his face. He cleared his throat. "No, please, go on. That is, if you want."
We had come to a pond, and were walking an overgrown trail around it.
"We moved around all the time after that. I think my ol' lady was afraid he'd track us down or somethin', 'cause she started changin' our name every time we moved."
"Wanda Detroit's not your real name." He whispered it, the idea dawnin' on him that something had been under his nose the whole time and he'd never seen it.
"It is now. I made it legal. It's the one thing I can call my own."
"How'd you come up with a name like 'Wanda Detroit'? I mean, do you lie in bed at night thinking up names, or what?"
"I told you my ol' lady kept changin' our name. Whatever town we'd just moved from, that became our last name. I was Wanda Omaha, Wanda Dallas, Wanda Tucson, Wanda Denver…I gotta say, I really, really hated livin' in Walla Walla and Wichita."
He let out a short gasp, almost a chuckle. It occurred to me that my life sounded as foreign to him as his was to me.
I shrugged. "Detroit was one city I liked okay when we were movin' around, so I picked it and made it mine." I looked around. The light had gotten dusky while I was talking, and trees loomed large and shadowy around us. We were on the far side of the pond now, and I saw something hanging over the water. A tire on a rope.
"Well, I'll be…this is one of those *gen-u-ine* swimmin' holes like ya see in the movies, ain't it?" I walked toward the tree the tire was hangin' from. Another rope tied to the tire was draped over the stub of a broken branch. I took it and pulled the tire to me.
"Wanda, I don't think you want to do that. This water gets pretty cold in the evening, even as warm as it's been today."
"Don't worry, Clark. I just wanna swing. We never gotta do anything like this, growin' up. I'm not planning on swimmin' in these clothes anyway." I hooked a leg in the tire. "Just gimme a push, will ya?"
He smiled, shaking his head. "Do you ever not get your way?" he asked, and shoved me out over the water.
The air rustled through my hair, the warm night relaxin' me like… I couldn't remember when. I swung back towards shore, and Clark gave another gentle push. "Mmmm, this is nice," I said, quietly, but in the still of the evening, he heard me.
"Mmm hmmm," he said.
Another push. I closed my eyes. A poppin' sound disturbed the quiet above me. Then again. "Pop!" The rope gave way at the end of the arc, and I was suddenly flying free through the air. I shrieked, and hit the water. Cold. He said cold. That water must've been channeled directly from a polar ice cap. Freezing. I came up to the surface.
I broke the surface, screamin'. I looked around in the dimming light. Dark forms were hard to distinguish. "Clark?" I couldn't see any movement. "Clark?" Which way was the bank?
Something brushed against my side, and I shrieked again. Then he was with me in the water, his arms supportin' me. "You're okay," he said in my ear. "Just hang on."
I didn't need to be told twice. I clutched my arms around his neck, feelin' his bare skin against me as he pulled us back to the bank. In the shallower water, he stood and waded, lifting me easily in his arms. He set me down in a patch of grass away from the water. My teeth started chatterin'. We were both out of breath.
"Th..tha..nk you." Where had the warm spring air gone?
"Here, my shirt's dry. We can warm you up better if you change into it." He was rubbing my arms.
"Y..yeah, o..k..kay." I stood up and went behind a bush. I pulled my blouse off and hung it over the top of the bush with a "shlup" sound. My bra felt scratchy from the water, and I took it off as well. I slipped into Clark's denim shirt. I tried to find a button and couldn't. I didn't think my fingers were that numb. I ran my hand down the placket. There were no buttons. He must have popped them all off trying to get it off. The shirt was plenty oversized on me, and I overlapped the front. "Clark, you wearin' a belt?"
"Can I have it?"
"Uh, okay, sure. You okay back there?"
He tossed the belt over the bush. I wrapped it around my waist. "I'm fine. Well, good. I'm good," I said. His shirt fell to my knees, and I figured that was good enough, so I took off my slacks. I was feeling warmer by the minute. I came out from behind the bush, wringin' water out of my clothes. My shoes slurped as I walked.
I looked up at Clark. He'd shaken the water out of his hair and it stuck ever which way. I put my hand up to my own head. My hair was pretty well plastered down against my scalp. I ran my fingers through a couple times, hoping to style it passably.
Clark was watchin' me. "How do you feel? Are you getting warmed up?" He stood in front of me, bare chested, one hand restin' on a hip. I looked him over from head to toe, his wet jeans clingin' tightly to his thighs. On the way back up, I found I couldn't move my orbs above that broad expanse of pectorals. He was cold, still, that much was evident, but somehow I didn't feel too guilty about havin' his shirt.
"Um, uh huh," I answered absently. His arms moved self-consciously to fold across his chest. I finally looked up. I noticed my fingers were stopped half way through my hair. I shook them out. "Yeah, I feel much better. Thank you, Clark."
He reached out and rubbed my arms, my shoulders, the friction startin' to warm me. More than just my arms, I was suddenly aware. I could feel a flush start way down in my center, and a flutter around it that seared me.
"We, uh, should get back to the house. Really dry off," he said.
We walked back to the house, neither of us speaking, my squishin' shoes and his wet jeans makin' the only noise.
We walked into the livin' room. Margaret was at the computer. She spoke without looking up. "I was beginning to wonder about you two," she said, clicking the mouse a couple times.
The computer spoke. "Your mail has been sent."
"Just checking my email." She got up, saw our state of dress, or undress. "Oh my…" There was a twinkle in her eye that said she thought there was more to us than we let on.
"Wanda decided to take a swim, Mom."
Her mouth dropped open for just an instant. "Honey, you know how cold that pond is this time of year!" Her arm went around my shoulders as she hustled me down the hall. "We need to get you warmed up."
"I'm fine, Margaret, really. I just need some fresh clothes."
"You'd be best taking a long, hot bath. Now just go on, and I'll get your bag out of Clark's room. And I'll put the tea on." She showed me to the bathroom and went off on her missions.
She was right, I felt much better after a shower. I came out of the bathroom and walked toward voices down the hall.
"It's real hard to tell her 'no,' Mom. Once she's got her mind made up…"
"Son, I wish you'd be more careful. She could've been hurt."
"The rope just snapped, Dad. I didn't realize how rotted it must have been. And I got her out as quick as I could. I think she'll be okay."
I spoke up. "I *am* fine. I appreciate all your concern, but I'm fine."
Clark stood up. "You look…good." He smiled, then looked at his parents. "You know, this has been a really long day. I'm just going to grab a blanket, and the couch is mine." He always seemed to do that. Something nice, helpful, complimentary, then he'd disappear. He kissed his mother, and told his father and me good night as he walked by in the doorway.
"He's got a point. I could fall asleep right here, I think." I stifled a yawn, unsuccessfully.
"Oh, honey, let me show you to Clark's room." Margaret led me to the back of the house.
We joined the rest of the company wanderin' by all the booths set up for the festival. More food. After the previous day, I didn't think I'd eat for a week. We strolled over to the high school. Campers and tent trailers and pickups with shells were scattered over the parking lot, many with fiddlers joined together in jam sessions, waiting their turns in the competition. Clusters of onlookers milled from band to band gettin' tastes of the different fiddlers. In the gym of the high school was the serious fiddlin'. The competition was in full swing, judges listenin' hard, and an audience more polite and respectful than outside. We stuck our heads in the door of the gym, but I felt like spendin' more time in the sun, and went back to listen to the jammers.
I was already snappin' my fingers in rhythm to one group before I was even close enough to see the band through the crowd. I found Cheri up in the front, swaying to the music, her eyes closed. I tapped my foot in time, but the music was stronger than toe tappin' allowed.
I whispered to Cheri, "Come on, follow my lead."
She smiled. "You're on."
We stepped out front, jiggin' wherever the music took us, in a sort of unchoreographed symmetry. It wasn't long before several more on my chorus line joined us, and we all took turns leading while the others picked up the moves in concert.
There was a freedom about it I hadn't enjoyed in a while. The precision of our emotional expressions in the show were so much tighter than now. I started clappin' to the beat along with the audience. I looked out over the faces of people there for the pure enjoyment of the music and the artists. We were collecting quite a crowd.
The fiddler finally wound the music to an end. "You folks look like y'all could go on for a while, but I gotta take a break!"
We laughed along with the crowd and gave the band a hand. Our audience whooped and whistled and applauded for everyone.
I called out to the fiddler, "You catch your breath, Sugar, and we'll come see ya later."
We walked off to the edge of the crowd.
"Sugarplum, yer givin' me such idears, I dunno if I can keep 'em all in my head." Frank was huggin' my shoulders to him, shaking me happily. "I gotta go get some of these down on somethin' 'fore I ferget." Then he was off, like he always was when he was about to revamp the whole show. I sighed.
"You really know how to let your hair down, don't you?" Clark said. He was standin' a little ways out, where the crowd was thinner.
"If I got some to let down, yeah. Feels good."
"Like last night."
My head jerked at him. "All right, I admit, sometimes I take the plunge without lookin'. Like with Kent. Somethin' told me to take the chance that his ideals were special in this business, that I- we- anybody could reach the next step because he made us believe we could. So now you wanna tell me what happened last night, what I told you, was me decidin' to trust you for five minutes, and you takin' advantage?"
"What? No, Wanda, I…"
"'Cause I don't need you to verify my worth. I got where I am on instinct, and I plan on keepin' on with it. My past is just that — past. I look up, not down."
"Is that your instinct telling you to chew on me right now, or habit? You were relaxed last night — well, right up till you hit the water — and I thought you enjoyed that. Just like dancing now. What's wrong with that?"
I didn't know what was wrong with that. I didn't know why I was so angry all of a sudden. You can take the gal outta the city, but you can't take the city outta the gal? Because Frank was gonna take our little hoofin' exhibition and make it work instead of play? 'Cause I was havin' way too nice a time in some backwater? 'Cause this guy actually got to me? 'Cause I told him things about myself I'd never told anyone before?
"Just…just keep last night to yourself, 'kay? I told you more than you need to know, and more than you'll ever learn again, and I wish you'd just forget it."
"Wanda, I have no intention of telling the world any of what you told me. I wish you could believe that."
"Uh huh. I guess we'll see, huh?"
The bus was repaired and waitin' for us at Junior's garage the next morning. As we stowed our gear, I felt the mood of the whole company. The constant feel of static electricity hoverin' over them two days ago was gone. I'd almost shook that feelin', but then I went and got it again.
I said my good-byes to Clark's parents. I tried to make it simple, but neither one of them would hear it. I was hugged by each of them, and couldn't help but hug back. "Thank you. You've been so kind," I told Margaret as I let go.
She patted me on the back. "Anytime," she said simply.
I watched Clark talking with his friend Junior, and thought the mechanic's demeanor wasn't nearly like the hick we'd first seen. I shook my head to myself. No one's ever what they seem.
My dressin' room in Philadelphia was filled with flowers. The mingled scents of uncounted varieties of flowers wafted out of the room in the instant I opened it. I plucked a couple cards out of bouquets. From Rex. I'd got flowers from him after each of the shows in the other cities, but this was far beyond the typical nosegay. I had wondered with each of those whether he was tryin' to let me know I was in his thoughts, or instill memory of himself in me. A vase of roses on the vanity held a larger card. "Success be yours in a triumphant night on the eve of your soon to be heralded turn on Broadway. Love Rex." I inhaled the fragrances. Either way, it was workin'.
And we did have a smashing last show on the road. Frank had been tweakin' the show all along the road, and since our stay in Petiton, he'd wanted to throw out a major portion of the repertoire in favor of his latest brainstorm. We'd worked on the new routines between Richmond and Washington and Philly; they were rough, but I figured they'd work when we had time to smooth them out. Two hours before the curtain in Philadelphia, Frank gathered the company together.
"I wanna toss the Hoagy Carmichael bit out and go wi' the modified square dance number. We're gonna have ta rearrange a couple of ya in the line so's ya can get in position better for the next number. Okay, Jay, Cheri, Sloane…"
"Frank, you're nuts," I finally spoke up. "This ain't worked out all the way, and we don't even have costumes for that bit, yet."
"Yeah, I don't wanna go with traditional outfits on this one. We're gonna juxtapose the dance and the dress. Toots," he looked at me, "you and the girls are gonna wear evening gowns, and boys, you're in the tuxes for that number."
A collective gasp went up. He was tryin' to kill us at the last possible moment. I saw my shot at Broadway dive like a hawk on a rodent. And where'd he learn a word like juxtapose, anyway? Musta been listenin' to some word power tape all those nights on the bus. Great time for a mid-life crisis.
"You got a fever or somethin'? We're gonna look like fools out there, and the only thing that'll keep 'em from noticin' when we miss the cues'll be them laughin' at our outfits."
"Now, Buttercup, we're all professionals here. Ya had it down the last rehearsal, so I don't see the problem. It's a small part of the show, and I need ta gauge the audience response before I make the rest of the changes. We're gonna do it, so you'd better get ready." He looked up at everyone. They stared back. He spoke very softly, "Um, I think that means you all should GET MOVIN' NOW." The bulldog snapped, and for once, his bite sounded worse than his bark. The entire company jumped, and ran for their professional lives.
"Fasten your seat belts," I muttered, "It's gonna be a bumpy night."
I'll be damned if it didn't work. The audience loved it. The critics were enamored. Frank Swan was theater's version of Andy Warhol. That 'Sphere' reviewer, Grey, had been right when he talked about alchemy. His touch turned everythin' to gold. The stroke I almost had that night was replaced by my increased respect for the man.
And with that, we stormed Broadway.
A new theatre. A nearly all new show. Our new openin' night. My name in lights! I'd walked one helluva rocky road to get there. Climbed every mountain, forded every stream, followed every rainbow, I did it my way.
Kent had acquired us a beautiful old theater, one with a colorful history of legends troddin' the boards and successful long-runnin' shows. Ornate engravings depicted mythological fables on decorated columns, the edges of the stage, around the orchestra pit, and the balcony and box seats. They don't make 'em like that anymore. Our show would bring out the spirits of a bygone era. That was why I loved what I was doin'. If I could evoke the emotions of the audience and take them back to a simpler, maybe happier, time for a little while, or take them and myself out of our bodies and transport us where the cares of the everday world just didn't exist, then I'd learned my craft well.
Yeah, yeah, I know, sex sells. And we were sellin'. It was all part of playing the game. Ya gotta get 'em in the theater. I thought of that as an outta body experience, though. Or wish it had been. I'm sure it evokes fond memories for people. Somewhere.
Opening night was a sell-out. Advance tickets had been unavailable almost since we were still on the road. And there wasn't a seat to be bought legitimately for two months down the road. The scalpers, however, were improvin' their styles of livin' by us. I wondered if they were overconfident, dressing better than they used to, and comin' to the theater in cabs. But we hadn't disappointed 'em yet.
The company was comfortable together now, too. We knew each other's talents, relied on our partners and friends with the sure belief that we wouldn't be let down, trusted Frank implicitly, took any crises in such calm stride; it was like a normal day at the office. We had something special, and we knew it.
And Kent. Oh, yes, Kent. Kent, who never failed us, never second guessed our plans, always happy to assist in any way, Kent was our guardian angel. He'd rescued me from a fate worse than AM radio, less than a year earlier, become a beacon to the down-and-outers on the fringes of show business, listened to my opinions about our show without his hands ever once wanderin' toward me in order to stake some sort of territorial claim. He asked for nothin', but seemed to give everything of himself. I would never believe it was any sort of act to promote himself. He only came out when some truly dire problem emerged, then stepped back into the wings, waiting and alert, trying to anticipate the next problem. I had never imagined anyone in my life like Kent, before he came, but now I didn't know what it would be like without him.
Then there was Clark. He was like a favorite old slipper, somethin' you could slip into when you were home alone with a bottle of tequila. Sure, we bickered. We annoyed each other, just to see where each other's buttons were. He was like the brother I never had. I thought that was what it would be like to have a brother, anyway. Someone who protects you from bullies on the playground, but beheads your favorite dolls at home. Well, if I'd ever spent much time on a playground, or had any dolls to play with. I had come to count on him always being around. Chalk up another prediction for Hieronymous Grey.
It was still hard work. Frank wouldn't let us sit on our laurels, and I couldn't have done that, anyway. The bulldog's ultimate goal seemed to be to figure out how to bring every nerve in the audience's bodies to the surface where he could electrify them into a state of sensory overload.
"Ya ever go hot-tubbin' in winter, and ya pop outta the tub long enough to roll in the snow, and jump back in?" he asked us once when we were trying to work out a new routine. I had to shake my head "no" on that one. I think we all did. "Yer skin tingles, like the top layer's bein' burnt off ya. The sensation's exquisite." **Exquisite?** I screwed up my face in a look of utter peculiarity. "Aw, just go try it sometime. That's what we're gonna do ta these people. They're gonna come in here paragons of virtue, but when they leave, I want 'em ta feel like someone's run their fingers through their hair, scratched fingernails down their backs — I want 'em ta feel like they need a cigarette by the time they get ta the lobby."
I shook my head with some mirth. "Frank, if we go any farther, we oughta just go into the audience and give 'em orgasms."
"Yeah, Honey Pot, but we're gonna do it *legal*." Frank's grin was almost depraved.
Rex had been payin' me quite a bit of attention since our return to New York. More flowers in my apartment when I got home. An invitation to the opera. Dinner at the most exclusive restaurants.
"You were born for this type of existence, Wanda," Rex told me. "I want to acclimate you."
I playfully slapped his arm. "Now, Rex. I'm *not* that kind of girl."
He chuckled. "Ah, Wanda, you have such élan. Where have you been all my life?"
**On the other side of the tracks,** I thought wistfully.
"I'd like to see you Monday evening. Shall I pick you up at 8 o'clock?"
"Monday? Well, um, I…the company is getting together to hear the Tony nominations. We just barely got qualified, ya know. We're celebrating if we do well. Would you like to come?"
"My dear, I'm a selfish man. I want you all to myself." He squeezed my hand. "I'll leave you, then, to the company of your compatriots for one evening. But if you wish to get away later, just let me know." He brushed my lips gently with his own. "Good night, Wanda." He left me in my doorway, not for the first time.
Poor Rex. So isolated in his ivory tower. I wished there was some way to bring him back to what he loved, but whether he had distanced himself, or been pushed up on his lofty pedestal, he was afraid to come down off it. I could only hope that being with me in some way reacquainted him with what he missed in the world of theater.
Geysers of champagne spouted everywhere, as the bottles' pent up energy was released, overflowin' into willing cups and glasses. The cheers and applause were our own that day; we thought we had conquered the universe. Six nominations bestowed on us by the rest of the theater world. My dreams were all coming true.
"A toast," I said, raising my glass, "to Frank. We thought you were crazy as an Eskimo in the Congo, but we wouldn't be here without ya. Thanks for draggin' us into the jungle with ya. And may the best director — and the best choreographer — win!"
Cheers went up again, and someone shook up a bottle of bubbly and sprayed the room.
I raised my voice above the din. "And to Kent, who can't be with us tonight, because he always seems to be off saving the world from ruin. At least our little world. Where would we be without him? I know he'd say he'd be nowhere without us, but we know the truth. He is more than our benefactor. He sees the best in all of us, but more than that, he makes us see it in ourselves. I don't even want to think what the world would be like without Kent Tucker."
This time, the applause was more sober, and I took a sip of champagne and thought for a moment.
"And here's to Wanda and Clark!" I looked up as Frank took the floor, "Who took a plain ol' show and fired it up in a sexy display of talent and brass and spunk. The two of ya click like magnets, whether y'admit it or not. I wouldn't wanna think about what it would be like to separate ya. And as long as I have a say in it, you'll be together, one way or another."
The room was quiet a moment. I felt Clark's hand touch my shoulder, and my face heated up like a furnace blast. I looked down at the floor. After an eon, someone started clappin', slowly, then the whole company joined in. I swallowed air, as much as I could get. My heart beat like a rabbit's. If this was what it was like to get a nomination, I thought I'd explode if I won. I reached over and hugged Frank. And suddenly, everyone was huggin' me, and Clark, and Frank. I'd never felt so at home before. Here was where I belonged.
"It won't be long before you have so many of those, you won't have room for them," Kent said. We stood, arm in arm, looking at the glistenin' statuette where I'd set it on the old mahogany mantle, amid garlands of roses, and spotlighted. Everything glittered. Maybe it was the tears of absolute joy in my eyes, refracting light like prisms, enhancing what I saw. It wouldn't stop; the tears kept flowin'.
I turned to face Kent fully. "It's just a representation of what other's think, a little campaigning, some politics. It's nice, but there's so much more to life than that, don't ya think?" Our favorite song played softly in the background, and we swayed slowly with it. "This, for instance." I half-smiled at him, cradled in his arms, safe from the world. My mouth parted, thinkin' of the touch of his lips on mine, his breath filling me.
He smiled that gleamin' smile of his, and still the light bounced off everything, filtering broken bits of images into my mind's eye. All the pieces of him were as beautiful as the whole, and if I had to, I'd take them all and glue them together. A picture of Kent as a Picasso entered my mind, and I thought, **Maybe not.** I smiled, a little girl smile, and he caught it. "What?"
"Nothing." A throaty chuckle. "I'm just so happy, right now, right here. With you."
"Then I'm happy, too, here, now, with you." He drew me closer to him, movin' us both rhythmically to the music, humming in my ear. I followed his lead, and crooned.
*…you beneath the moon and under the sun.
Whether near to me or far,
It's no matter, Darling, where you are,
I think of you, night and day…*
He twirled me, held me close, toured us around our private ballroom, danced with me cheek to cheek, whirled us both until the ostrich feathers from my dress began flying away. They billowed all around the sparkling art deco room, dipping and rising in our wake. "Oh," I sighed, breathlessly, "it's like floating on air…dancing with you. I love this. Kent, I love you."
His eyes, those semi-sweet morsels of chocolate that enveloped me in their rich, creamy-smooth taste, twinkled, then darkened with his passion, as his face lowered to meet mine, to take what I would willingly give him.
I started back to reality at the junction between the Star Spangled Banner and off-the-air static, the movie over. I was suckin' on my hand.
"They're beautiful, don't you think?" Clark held his trophy next to mine in the lights outside Radio City Music Hall.
I hesitated before I answered. "Uh…yeah- Yes, they are, Clark."
He looked at me curiously. I glanced from him, to the awards, and back, and gave a crooked smile. "They're great," I said, tryin' to sound more convincin'.
"Their beauty will never outshine yours, my dear," Rex said softly in my ear.
I turned my head slightly towards him and smiled as he lifted my hand and kissed it.
"Shall we go? I have reservations at 21. I knew a celebration was in order." Rex motioned towards his waiting limo.
I looked over at Clark. His face had become tight, serious. I didn't understand where this animosity came from, but the tension between both men flowed like electricity. Someone was gonna get burned.
"Good night, Clark."
He broke his stare contest from Rex. "Good night, Wanda…And Wanda…take care of yourself."
I tilted my head, raised an eyebrow. **Of course I will. What's the big deal?** I got in Rex's limo. I looked back at Clark as we pulled away from the curb. He was still staring after us. I settled uncomfortably in the seat.
"Wanda, you mustn't worry too much about your friends. Cream rises to the surface, and they are simply going to have to get used to the fact that they are the curds."
"Huh. According to the rest of the theater community tonight, they — *we* — are all the cream, Rex. Not just me. And they deserved it, too."
"Yes, you're right, they did," Rex nodded. "But for all of that, you still stand far above them. You soar through the clouds, while they are set in clay. I see no way around that fact." He picked up my hand again. "Look at that statuette, Wanda. You are destined for many of those. I can't guarantee that the rest of your gang would fare so well on their own."
I let out a deep breath. Time would tell. My drive and ambition were strong; they'd got me this far. Were the others weaker than me? Clark? He had a different attitude, that was for sure, but he was driven by something. I hadn't figured out what yet, but I was workin' on it. Frank had been a second rate director until he came to the show. Now he had come into his own. Whether he could take this success beyond our show was the question. I laid my head on the back of the seat. How well did I truly know these people? Rex could very well be right. I ran my fingers over the prize in my lap. I decided it was best to enjoy this moment, than ponder what I had no answers for.
Rex had arranged a private room for us at 21. As we walked through the restaurant, I was recognized, and a polite applause began, which grew stronger, more enthusiastic, as more joined in. I nodded my head and waved. My dream…my dream.
Tucked away in our private dining room, outta the glow of the limelight, I set my focus back on Rex, but I wished, just for once, and that night, of all nights, we coulda eaten out there, amid the attention of my fans, sure, but also just for the human connection. Rex treated me like a bird in a gilded cage…or he was himself the bird, and to have contact with him, I had to climb in the cage, too. I wanted to flap my wings.
"Wanda, I'm going to be serious for a moment," Rex said, lookin' intently into my glimmerin' orbs. "We spoke once before about what I could do for you, for your career. I understand you wanting to accomplish what you have on your own, but you've done it now. I have a theater waiting for you. A show being developed just for your talents. You have only to say yes, Wanda, and it's all yours."
The answer was easier for me this time than the first. I had gotten to the top by my own talent. No one could say I didn't earn this. We all had, Kent, Frank, Clark — the whole company — we made a good team. We'd all gotten noticed for it, too. The critics touted so many aspects of the show, nearly everyone got some credit. And now we'd got accolades from our peers. I'd proven myself in that atmosphere. I had confidence that I could go on to even greater work from this starting block. Another challenge waited just around the corner.
"Rex, you're wonderful to think so much of me." I had to ask. "A show just for me?"
"Yes, Wanda, no one will mistake who the true star of your show is."
"I- I can't, Rex. I can't take advantage of you like that. You don't have to ply me with money, or a theater, or my own show, to keep me near you. And I guess I just think of my career as mine. I'd like to keep it that way." I implored him to understand with my eyes. I had no desire to hurt this man, and yet, I had to be true to myself.
He cracked a wan smile. "I wish you would reconsider, but I will try to understand. I admire your ambition, Wanda. It's not often that someone with your passion comes along. Forgive me for wanting to be near that spark. You've rekindled my own fire for this business."
"It has nothin' to do with us personally, Rex. I enjoy your company. We don't have to stop…"
His dark brown eyes regained some of their sparkle. "I certainly hope not, my dear. I have many plans for us."
"What're you boys doin' here so late?" I asked Clark, Frank, and some of the band members.
"Poker game, Wanda. Want to ante up? Somehow I think you'd be very good at this." Clark said with a devilish smirk.
"Thanks, but no thanks, Barre. Rex'll be pickin' me up any minute."
"Huh, I thought we were finally on a first name basis, *De*troit. We wouldn't care if Rullor threw a few bucks in the kitty. Make this worthwhile." He shuffled a deck of cards.
"Go ahead and try him. He's usually got better things to do, but it might strike his fancy." If Clark could be a snot, so could I.
Rex walked briskly through the backstage. "Wanda, dear, I'm sorry I'm late. Some of my plans took a bit longer to enact then I anticipated." He looked around. "Well, this is quite the little party, isn't it? Don't throw your nickels away too quickly." Turning back to me, "We should hurry if we're to make this engagement. Shall we?" He held his arm out for me to take.
"Mmm. I think we shall," I said, looking back at Clark. His head turned away as I did so. I smiled inwardly.
Outside, the air, chilly from an evening rain, reminded me I'd forgot my wrap. "Oh, Rex, can you hold on a moment? I just realized I forgot something."
Before he could protest, I was back in the theater. It wasn't in my dressin' room, so I figured I'd at least got it as far as the poker game. I came down the gangway, smellin' the smoke from the stinky, cheap cigars the boys must've been puffin' on while they played. It was an odd odor, nothing like Rex's cigars. Like the sounds and smells of the street didn't belong in the rarefied air around his penthouse, the differences in their worldly pleasures separated the man from the boys here.
"Clark, you're sittin' on my wrap."
He turned away from the table to look at me, then at the back of his chair. "Feel happy I picked it up off the floor," he said, pulling it out and handing it to me.
I gave him a wincin' smile, just as Rex came back in the theater lookin' for me.
"Wanda, we really must be moving along. We're late as it is."
I nodded to him, and turned to walk out, then turned back around. "You ain't smokin' cigars." Clark and Frank looked at me like I was a news bulletin. "I smelled smoke upstairs…I assumed you boys were stinkin' up the place."
We all raised our eyes to the rafters together. I couldn't see anything in the blackness of the eaves, then I realized that I should be able to see the catwalks and lighting equipment. A lick of flame caught the corner of my eye.
"Oh, my lord…" Frank started.
"Everybody move! Get out of here!" Clark said, pushing people towards the exit.
Rex tugged on my arm, "Wanda, hurry…"
A mad rush of pandemonium ensued. I turned to follow Rex and the others, when the heel broke off my brand new Manolo Blahnik stilettos, four hundred dollar shoes I'd just bought for the evening, and down I went.
A poppin', crackin' sound caught my attention and I looked up again, in time to see a catwalk swing in a long arc towards Rex and me. I opened my mouth to warn him, but everything was happenin' at double-speed, and I couldn't get the words out in time for him to know what was behind him. The metal framin' smashed into him with a solid crunch, and he slid across the stage. He pushed himself up on his arms, shaking his head groggily.
"Wanda! Rex! Where are you?" It was Clark's voice, from the direction of the stage entrance, but the air was thick and hazy now, and I couldn't see him.
I yelled over the increasing roar of the inferno, guidin' Clark with my voice. I looked back to where Rex lay, started to move to him. My eyes burned from the smoke, my lungs seared by the heat, but I was mere feet away, ready to reach my hand out to him. A strong arm pulled me back. I heard, or felt a dull thud vibrate the stage, and wondered if I'd hit something, but I felt no pain.
Clark had a hold of my arm, standin' between me and Rex. Flames consumed the curtains on the sides of the stage, and I thought of the heavy bundles gathered and hangin' above us. I suddenly feared the sky was truly fallin'. I could see something, a big lump laying across Rex's sprawled form. I moved toward him. A sandbag, pinnin' his leg down. Clark rolled it off, and together we lifted Rex by his arms and pulled him towards the door.
I couldn't see anything. Could barely hear, I thought, sirens over the cacklin' rage of the fire that was our theater, the history and memories that were now fallin' about us in charred ruins. Clark guided us, I don't know how, to the exit. Behind me, I felt debris — equipment, rafters, curtains — shake the floor as gravity pulled their weakened forms downward.
A wall of flames descended in front of us, sprayin' sparks and cinders as it crashed to the floor. I raised my arm to protect myself, and felt something larger, a body, shield me from the flames. Clark had pulled all three of us into a huddle, his own back closest to the incendiary barrier on our path to safety.
We moved to the left, tryin' to get around it, all the while the smoke becomin' thicker, the heat hotter, our breathin' harder, our consciousnesses dimmer. We found a gap in the flames and pushed through, working our way back to the exit.
As we neared the open door, my watering eyes made out the diffused red light of a fire engine, a flashin' beacon markin' our way to safety. We spilled out of the theater, coughin' and gaspin' for fresh air.
The cool night air felt good, but I could still feel the intensity of the blaze behind me. A blanket materialized on my shoulders, and I was being pulled further into the street by an EMT, then an oxygen mask was shoved in my face, and skilled hands examined me for more serious injuries. I looked around frantically for a familiar face, and as if in answer, Kent appeared next to me. I reached out to touch him, wantin' to be sure he wasn't some illusion of the smoke. He was as solid as granite, and I breathed deeply in relief.
"I came as soon as I knew. Are you alright?" He reached out tenderly to brush a stray hair away from my face.
"Oh, Kent- the theater. I'm sorry." I sobbed suddenly as the impact began to hit me. Kent pulled me to him, wrappin' an arm across my shoulders. No matter what, that gesture made me feel I'd always be safe under his wing.
"I'm just happy you're safe, Wanda. You, and everyone in there, are far more important than a building."
"Great, now I feel like a heel worryin' about the show." I sniffled.
Kent laughed softly. "Wanda, the loyalty you have for this show is something I admire greatly. It's that fire I first saw in you down at Gus'. Don't you ever lose that."
My head was nestled on his shoulder, I felt so right in the crook of his arm. I raised my eyes to look at his face, my nose running, tears streakin' down my cheeks, and if my hands were any indication, my face was smeared with soot. Kent's gaze never wavered, his grip never loosened, his smile never faltered. I was sure he knew what was in my heart, and suddenly I was sure what was in his. I shifted a little straighter in his arm. "Kent, I-"
"Mr. Tucker, the Fire Chief would like to speak with you over here," a fireman walked up to us, and gestured behind a fire engine.
"Excuse me, Wanda. Duty calls." He set me gently upright, and moved away with the fire fighter. I watched his back until he disappeared, took a few deep breaths to pull myself together, and looked up at the still blazing theater. Streams of water arced through the night air, but the flames shootin' from the buildin' lashed back, the tide of the battle not yet turning in our favor.
I stood on shaky legs, wonderin' how everyone was. I hadn't seen anyone since we stumbled onto the pavement. I'd only taken a few steps when Clark was by my side, streaked with soot, eyes reddened.
"How are you?"
"Are you okay?"
We spoke at the same time. I nodded to him, and inhaled the oxygen. He smiled, and I saw worried creases in his brow relax. Whether they stood out as charcoal etchin's, or he'd always shown this much concern, I wasn't sure. There was something about his expression that said more about what he was thinkin' than I'd ever known. An image suddenly flashed through my mind of the looks I could feel in the dark corners of those saloons I started in. Burnin' stares that said, "I know who you are, and what you pretend to be." I shifted, suddenly uncomfortable.
"Thank you," I said. I meant it, even through my strange uneasiness, but Clark's continued study of me made me want to change the subject.
A creakin' groan welled up from the theater just then, grew to a crashin' roar, and the roof collapsed inward. Sparks shot into the air, red hot stars momentarily overtaking the ones twinklin' permanently in the night. I sighed. What was left, now?
I turned back to Clark. "I guess that's about the end of it, huh?" He nodded, slowly, sadly. "How's everyone? Where's Rex, is he alright?" I leaned to look around him, where an ambulance was parked. I could see a gurney, and a man strapped to it. I limped over to him in my busted shoe.
Clark followed. "His leg's broken, but they said he looked okay, otherwise. Same as us, mostly. Smoke inhalation. Frank and everyone else are fine. They've taken them all to the hospital just to make sure. I guess Frank raised a ruckus until he saw us come out."
I reached Rex, and took his hand. They'd snapped an oxygen mask on him, and, I imagined, pain killers. His eyes were closed, but opened at my touch. "Wanda," he rasped, smiled weakly.
"You hush, Rex," I said, pattin' his hand. It felt awkward, I was some odd mother hen, and it ain't something I'm good at. Rex relaxed, though, so I guess I was doin' something right.
The paramedics motioned me aside and pushed the bed into the ambulance. One asked if I wanted to ride with them. I looked up at the smokin', burnt husk of the theater, blackened, arthritic spires of the wreckage stabbin' into the dark of the sky. It was no more than a rotted out corpse now, and I had a sudden vision of my own future just as desiccated. I nodded to the man and climbed in the back.
Clark watched as the doors closed, lights strobin' across his strong features. Another EMT walked up to him, takin' his attention, as we lurched away, and I realized he'd never told me he was alright.
We stood, a small clot of people on the sidewalk, each assessing the damage for ourselves. Daylight did nothin' to dispel the images imprinted on my brain from the fire. A wisp of smoke floated up from somewhere, proving it wasn't just a nightmare. The silence spoke of the hopelessness we all saw. Frank delivered the bad news.
"Well, obviously we're shut down. The owner's not intendin' ta rebuild, and it'd be months before another theater could be found. Kent's up to his eyeballs tryin' ta salvage this, but, well, ah, the books were just startin' ta show in the black, an' expenses for startin' up all over again would be high."
"Whaddaya mean, 'would be,' Frank? Like, we ain't gonna?" Cast and crew shuffled restlessly behind me.
"It don't look good, Punkin. We're gonna have trouble payin' anybody past next week, so we can't really expect y'all ta sit around waitin' for us ta develop a new show."
My mind was numb. Mutterin' behind me told me some of the others were angry more than stunned. I turned on my heel. "I ain't gonna pretend this doesn't hurt like hell," I started, "and I don't want to be anywhere else than here, workin' with y'all. This is my life, my home," I steeled my eyes against the tears that threatened, bit back a sob. "But it's gone. We gotta go on from right here, right now. There's nothin' else…" I held myself tight, knuckles tensin' white on my arms. I whispered, "Nothin' else to do."
Kent stepped forward then, and for a split second, before the strength of the aura that always seemed to surround him came bursting through, I saw the wounded helplessness he felt, the trace of that shadow in his eyes, and I was crushed. Not because this was the one time he wouldn't come through for us; I'd lost count of everything he'd done. If he couldn't help us now, it was because we were beyond all help, all hope. No, I was crushed, devastated, that he should feel this as his failure, that he was letting us down, that it was his fault somehow, and I wanted to reach out to him right there, and tell him it was okay, and I understood.
But he was Kent, again, in the next moment, and he was there as our protector, looking out for us, in the face of what he couldn't save. "Folks, I'm sorry, we're trying everything, and if we find the answer that solves all our problems, you'll all be back together, doing what you've dreamed of. We'd much rather have you together, our extended family, but we know you have to do what's best for yourselves, and we don't want to hold you back." He was doing his best to convince everyone, maybe himself, too, that it wasn't the end of the world, his penetratin' gaze meeting everyone squarely in the eye. I don't think he knew any other way. He was like no other man I'd ever known. His unwaverin' look stopped on me, I felt him sendin' me an unspoken message, and I held his look, sending him all the support I could, back. "Each and every one of you has too much talent to hide away, you need to be seen, given an audience. This was just the beginning for you, but it most certainly is not the end. You have your entire futures in front of you."
I felt Frank's arm hug my shoulders.
Rex was recoverin' well. The break had been clean, so they set and cast it and sent him home late the next day. He asked me to dinner the followin' evening.
His face lit up when I walked into his livin' room, and he struggled to his feet with a cane.
"Oh, Rex, please don't do that for me." I put my hands out to motion him back down on the sofa.
He smiled warmly. "Wanda, I will rise to any occasion when you enter the room." He clasped my hand. "How are you, my dear? The theater, I understand, is a total loss."
I dropped my head. "Yes, it looks like the show's over. There isn't enough money to start over. Rex-" the idea popped into my head so quickly, I couldn't stop myself, "this is the sort of thing you've been looking for, isn't it? You could put this show back on its feet." I immediately regretted my words. How could I ask this of him, after what he'd been through? "Oh, God, I…I'm sorry. I never should have…"
He squeezed my hand tighter. "It's quite all right, Wanda, dear. I know how important this is to you." He smiled, but wearily. "Please, let's sit."
"Oh, yes, of course. Are you sure you feel up to having me for dinner?"
"Absolutely. If I had my way, you would have dinner with me every night. Now, Wanda, I want you to know, if there was something I could do to resurrect your show, I would. Unfortunately, circumstances won't permit that, exactly. But I do have an idea for you. You know I've wanted to develop a show around you. I can bring that project to genesis again. What do you say?" His eyes delved deeply into mine, searching for the answer he'd been wantin' for so long.
"Oh my. Rex, you would still do that for me?" I was taken aback, once again, by his altruism.
"Without hesitation. You have only to say the word."
"I…Rex, would it be possible for some of the others from the show to work on the new one?" My hopes were risin' for the first time in days. "Clark, perhaps, and Cheri, maybe some of the others? What about Frank?"
"I would be happy to see what we could do for as many of them as possible."
"Do you know you're keeping my dream alive? Rex, the answer is yes."
"And you are making mine finally come true, my dear. You know, I have another dream, as well."
I cocked an eyebrow at him. I couldn't imagine what else he wanted right then.
He struggled, a little awkwardly, off the sofa, onto his good knee in front of me. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box. My mouth almost gaped open.
"I was hopin' to ask you this the other night, but events rather overshadowed any appropriate moments, don't you think?" His eye twinkled. My mind was blank. "Wanda, would you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?" The box popped open, revealing a jewel of a size I thought only existed in museums, or royal treasuries.
My chest constricted, the unexpectedness of this turn of events taking my breath away. And then my body overreacted, and I started hyperventilating. Control. I needed to get some control. I pulled myself back together. I touched the ring. A definite glass cutter. "Rex, you never cease to surprise me. I don't know what to say."
"I know a one word answer that would make me happier than any man alive."
I smiled tenderly at him. "I had no idea. I mean, well, not quite yet, anyway. Rex, with everything that's gone on, I just need some time to wrap my mind around this."
"Of course. I understand. You've had much else to deal with lately. Please take the ring, and think about it."
"You, Rex, you're always waiting for me. I don't think I've ever met a more patient man."
"Clark, we can all work together again. What else d'ya want?"
"To not be under Rullor's thumb would be a good start."
"I don't get you at all. What's he ever done but try and help me, and now us?"
"Let's just say I have trouble believing anyone's that big hearted. Haven't you ever heard of ulterior motives?"
"And what's his ulterior motive, other than puttin' together a show, and creatin' jobs?" I put my hands on my hips.
Clark stopped pacin' and focused on me. "I don't know. A lot of things. Power, fame, money…you."
"I beg your pardon. He's already got all that…" I gulped silently to myself. Maybe he wouldn't catch it.
"Maybe he's got it, or maybe it's all a front. He had it once, but he's been a recluse for years…Wait, what'd you say, he's got all that? He's got you?" His eyes widened incredibly, and the color drained from his cheeks, like a vampire bit him.
I answered quietly, not lookin' at him, hopin' it would help the delivery of the news. "He's asked me to marry him, Clark."
His mouth worked a minute with no sound. Then, just as quietly as I'd spoken, "Did you say yes?" His eyes were shut, waitin' for the answer.
"I ain't given my answer yet."
His eyes opened, and he swallowed noticeably. "Wanda, you can't…please don't…" He moved close to where I was sittin' on his kitchen chair, crouched in front of me. "Wanda," he said, and I could hear the tremor in his throat, "Wanda, I love you. I…you can't do it, Wanda, please, he's not the man you think he is. I love you, Wanda, and I don't want to see you hurt."
My chest constricted again. This was gettin' too hard on my body. What was I supposed to believe? "You…you what? You're in love with me, and *he's* not the man I think he is? Clark, we're friends, or we were. If ya truly cared for me, ya'd be happy for me."
"You haven't said yes, yet. If you're so sure, why?"
"Look, with everythin' that's gone on lately, I just wanna make sure I'm thinkin' clearly…And I…there's somethin' I need to do."
Clark's face was dark, his mouth a straight, grim line. I didn't think I'd ever seen him like that. "You mean you want to throw it at Kent and see if he catches it or throws it back at you."
I stood up, the chair scritchin' on the floor behind me. "You… Whaddaya know about it? Ya sit there and try to manipulate me…You're *in love* with me? How… dare… you!" I walked out, slammin' the door behind me. It was turnin' into one helluva week.
The earth musta shifted on its axis, and now we were hurtlin' a billion miles an hour into the sun. Only explanation for the kinda stuff goin' on. I felt like I'd been knocked into a wall, lurchin' around that last astronomical corner.
What got into Clark? It was nuts, completely, certifiably, one-hundred percent, freakin' cuckoo. What was he tryin' to do to me? I wished he was happy for me. No, I *needed* him to be happy for me. Where did that come from? Since when did I need somethin' from him? It musta been the gravitational pull, creatin' a vortex that was drainin' my brain down into my shoes.
I was walkin', not paying attention to where I was, other than on a planet bent on destruction. I did need to talk to Kent. Clark was right about that. I headed in that direction.
Kent had been so solid, reliable, since the first time I met him. We shared a bond, he and I, and I knew he knew it, too. Especially after the night of the fire.
"Wanda, I'm sorry if you misunderstood in some way, but there *can't* be any 'us"."
"What do you mean, 'can't', Kent? We have somethin' special. I know you feel it, too. We would be so good together. It ain't hero worship. There's a man underneath this polished exterior. That's who I…love."
Kent's face was an imperceptible mask, I couldn't read anything in his eyes. There was usually such fire and intensity there, but it looked like he'd been doused, like the theater. "It's just not possible, Wanda. I can't…I won't… make your decision for you. You have to decide how to live your own life."
"I been livin' my life, all my life. I know what I want, and I've done pretty damn well up to now." My head was swimmin'. I couldn't be so wrong. "And look what we've done together, what we've created. We could go on to even greater things. It…this…is this because of the show, because of what happened, something ya couldn't control? Y'know I'd love ya if you were a street sweeper, and not the man who saved me from strippin' for tips."
He shook his head sadly. "You don't know me as well as you think. It has to be this way. I'm sorry."
I stood on the street again, wonderin' where it'd gone wrong. All of it. My friends — my family - how could they not be what I thought they were? I thought we would support each other through the bad times, and share in the good. I felt like I didn't know anybody, anymore, that I should stick to hoofin' and singin', 'cause I sure as hell didn't understand the quirks of the human mind enough to try actin'.
And yet, Rex was standin' by, waitin' to do what he'd always said he would, and wantin' me by his side doin' it. Maybe it was fate, all of this, the next step in my future. I was accomplishing what I'd set out for, and now I wouldn't feel like I was ridin' on Rex's coattails. My admiration for him had grown immeasurably, and I thought, well, I really liked him as a human being, I was sure I could love him, too.
I hailed a taxi. "Sixty-five eighty, Park Avenue."
"Wanda, is everything all right? You're okay, I trust?" He was a little rumpled, this man I'd never seen without a suit jacket before, and it dawned on me I had no idea of the time.
"Oh, God, Rex, I'm sorry, I should've waited, I didn't mean to get you out of bed," I babbled, and continued, unable to stop, "I just, I thought you should know, I wanted to tell you as soon as I knew, and…" I held the ring box out in my hand.
Rex looked at it, his eyes widenin', wantin' to know the answer. He reached slowly for it.
I smiled nervously, and spoke when his hand touched mine. "Yes, Rex, I will marry you. Yes."
His head popped up to look at me then, his eyes bright, smile warm. A whoosh of air escaped his lips, and I was surprised and heartened to realize he was as nervous as me. He held my hand and slipped the ring on my finger, then kissed it. "I'm so happy, Wanda."
Even at night, the hot, dry air was a startlin' blast after the air conditioned airport. It was a sand-blasted feeling, the desert surrounding the city able to do little else. Rex held my arm at the elbow, guidin' me to a waitin' limo.
"I was fortunate to get you this engagement, my dear. Wayne and I go back a long way, and he was only too happy to fit you in." He'd told me back in New York. It was not something I'd been expectin'. "And," he added, clutchin' both my hands, "we could make this," he brushed the diamond on my left hand with his thumb, "official."
"But, Rex, Las Vegas? What about a show here? I thought that's what we talked about."
"My dear, I have people working on that as we speak. But it will take a little time. I had forfeited my previous agreements when you…chose your other direction." I winced slightly. "Not to worry, Wanda, I meant it when I said I understood, before. And now we must simply begin again. In the mean time, this will keep you in the public's eye."
"You think of everything, don't you?"
"I try, Wanda, my dear, I try. I like to anticipate every variable. I find it a challenge."
So we went to Vegas. It was one city my ol' lady didn't drag us to, growin' up. We rode downtown, flashin' neon and blinkin', sparklin' signs turning night into day, gaudier than anything Times Square ever offered.
We were set up in a suite bigger than every place I'd ever set my bag in and called home, combined. The ceilin' high fountain in the center of the livin' area was a bit much. I wondered if anyone ever tossed coin in it.
The bellboy informed us, "Mr. Newton would like you to join him for dinner in his private dining room, at midnight, once you've settled in."
"Well," I said, dryly, "that's only 3 am on the east coast. Sounds about right."
The lounge where I'd be singin' was a cozy, intimate affair, a room where I could get personal with my audience, and the idea was appealin'. My thoughts went back to Clark and Frank, the old crew, and I worried where they were, how they were doin'. I pictured Clark on the stage with me, what kind of duet we could perform, knockin' the audience members right outta their halter tops and Bermuda shorts. I grinned to myself. Frank would love it.
I woke Clark up at 6 am, his time. I couldn't help it, couldn't wait any longer. His answer was as garbled as I expected.
"Clark? It's Wanda." A pause, then a grunt, and "oof," as he got himself situated.
"Wanda." His voice was carefully neutral, at least, as neutral as the crack of dawn allowed.
"How ya been, Clark?"
He cleared his throat. "Um, fine, well, you know, all things considered…Where are you?"
"You wouldn't believe me."
"Give it a go."
"Vegas. You should see this suite. It's gotta be the tackiest display of good taste I ever…"
"What're you doing there?"
"Rex brought me. He got me a gig with Wayne Newton. And…we…he thought maybe we could get married here."
Silence from his end. I went on, softly, "I…I wish you all could be here. I'd like you all to come to my weddin'."
I could hear him shiftin' around, maybe sittin' up straighter. "Wanda, did you know the theater was an arson job?"
One way to change the subject. Top it with somethin' bigger. I rubbed my forehead, blinked at the phone. "Why would someone do that, Clark?"
He sighed deeply. "Could be lots of reasons. Insurance, pyromaniac, somebody wanting to kill the show. They're trying to trace down the owner. Seems there are a bunch of shell companies to wade through. Someone trying to hide their tracks. They said the starting points of the fire were hot enough to melt glass. Someone was making sure that fire didn't get put out too soon. We were all damn lucky to get out of there, Wanda. Thanks to you."
"I- I don't know what ta say. What does it mean? It doesn't help the show any, does it?"
"Nobody can say anything, at this point. We were lucky to find out as much as we did. Frank's the one that told me."
"How is Frank? And…Kent?"
"They're worried about you, Wanda. When's the wedding?"
"Tomorrow, or the next day. We're just gonna play it by ear. I really wish y'all'd be happy for me."
"They- we all want the best for you. Why the rush?"
"Why put it off? The sooner we do it, the sooner we can begin spendin' the rest of our lives together. We know what we want-"
"I hope so."
"Say hi to everyone for me, huh? We'll all get together when I get back, 'kay?"
"Yeah, sure. Goodbye, Wanda."
It sounded final.
I perched on the end of the grand piano. A single spotlight, just for me. I held the mike nonchalantly, like I barely knew it was there, didn't care. Like I'd sing whether there was an audience, or not, 'cause I had to. The intro played, I sat, my head bowed, and slowly, I brought the mike up for the first verse.
*In my solitude,
You haunt me
With read glories, of days gone by.*
I brought my head up on that last note, wearily. I was someone who didn't think life was much worth livin' anymore. The audience would believe.
*In my solitude,
You taunt me
With memories that never die.
I sit in my chair,
I'm filled with despair.
There's no one, could be so sad
With gloom, everywhere.
I sit and I stare,
I know that I'll soon go mad,
In my solitude.
I'm prayin' for you
Dear Lord above,
Please, send back my love.*
I slinked off the piano, walked determinedly to the edge of the stage, loomed over the audience, clutchin' the mike to me like it was the only tangible thing left in my world, and I couldn't let it go. I ended the song in a raspy, hushed whisper, fallin' to my knees, the life seemin'ly sucked outta me.
The audience didn't know what hit 'em, and it took them a moment after the spotlight was killed to start clappin'. It was a warm reception, if not the resoundin' ovation I was hopin' for. I finished my set, workin' that crowd for every emotion I could wring outta them, to about the same result.
I walked between the curtains backstage. Rex and Mr. Newton were waitin' for me, smilin' politely. Rex reached for my hand.
"You were wonderful, my dear."
"Huh, funny, audience seemed to have trouble realizin' that."
Wayne spoke. "Wanda, you really are fantastic. Quite something to behold. But, do you…think maybe you could sing something a little more *up*? You've got to remember, the casino makes money on the gambling, and, well, happy gamblers spend more. Depress them too much, and they spend their money calling their mammas and crying, and their mammas make 'em come home."
"I see," I said, noncommittally. "You do know this is what I do best, what ya just saw. This, and hoofin', but the stage ain't big enough." **And I've grown fond of havin' a partner for that.** "I'm not Harry Connick, y'know."
"Yes, well, I'm hoping to get something a bit more positive, here. What do you say?"
"Ya want somethin' like 'Birdland'? 'Kalamazoo'? How about 'They Can't Take That Away From Me'? Oh, I know! 'I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket'." I had my arms folded across my chest.
Rex pulled me aside, whisperin', "Now, Wanda, there's nothing wrong with expanding your repertoire. Versatility is the name of the game, my dear."
I huffed, and turned back to Newton. "Can I meet ya somewhere in the middle, say, 'Embraceable You,' or 'Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good To You'?"
"Those would be fine, Darlin'." Newton smiled. "We're looking for 'perky' around here. That's the thing to remember."
He'd already turned away when I rolled my eyes. **Pleased ta meet ya, Sugar.**
We stood next to the fountain monstrosity dominatin' our suite, Rex's arms tight around me.
He spoke into my hair. "What do you say we make tomorrow the day, Wanda? We'll simply find a little chapel, whatever strikes our fancy, and become husband and wife. How does that sound to you? And then we can finally get…acclimated."
I could feel him smile at his little joke in my hair. I just nodded against him. "Yes."
A quaint little chapel, not quite as tacky as most, no neon flashing Midnight Specials, "Wedding & Divorce, One Low Price," or "We Create Complete Wedding Albums - You Choose The Size Of The Party." The ceremony was brief, I felt a little let down.
I was dressed in lingerie I'd bought just that mornin', a flowin', sheer gossamer peignoir, sleeves flared out, that hung limply around me in the chill air conditionin'. I lay in the bed, waitin' for Rex. He slipped in behind me, nuzzlin' my neck, murmurin' to me, and his arms folded around me, his hands caressing me in ways I hadn't felt in a long time. I leaned back against him, touched his hands as they roved over me, moaned low in my throat.
"Oh, Wanda." His voice sounded different, more like Clark's. I relaxed into him more, not questionin' why. I could feel his hot breath against my ear, his lips nibblin' my lobe.
"I've loved you for so long." He spoke low, and I thought…I saw Kent in my mind. Somehow I didn't care, so long as he kept doin' what he was doin'.
I closed my eyes, and let the sensations take over. I was floatin' on air, soarin' with each grazin' stroke of his hands. The peignoir billowed around me; my body tingled all over. I saw us sailin' through the open window, curtains flutterin' in the warm breeze, and us in a wispy cloud of gossamer.
We lifted higher into the night sky, my breath taken away by the upward rush, then restored with a squealin' gasp. The man I loved lay under me, his strong arms never ceasin' their erotic claim on me.
We floated through clouds, as his teeth nipped the back of my neck, raisin' the tiny hairs 'til they prickled.
"Ooooh, ooh, God," I moaned, and I rolled over to look at him, to watch him, watchin' me. I looked into the beautiful, warm, open face of Kent.
I lunged at his mouth, my mind reelin' at this illusion, the phrase, "Take no prisoners," lurching through my thoughts. I kissed him hard, deep, hungrily-no, not hungrily, I was a starving woman, and only he could satiate me. Our tongues met and danced together in a salivary ballet, partin' only to meet again like a rubber band snappin' back to itself. I didn't need air, I only had to breathe in him.
He held me tightly, in the murky whiteness enclosin' us in our own little world. We bobbed gently in the air, buffeted by breezy, soft turbulence, whiskin' us soundlessly in the clouds.
I closed my eyes, my head lolling back on my neck, and as our bodies began their rhythmic movements, he kissed my throat, nippin' and sucklin' until I could barely let out a guttural moan.
All the while locked in our primitive dance, I dizzily felt a shift, and opened my eyes to see the earth movin' *above* me, my body still arced against his strong hand supportin' me at the small of my back. My view kept changin', and soon I was lookin' into star-filled space. It started as a slow backflip, but we picked up speed, rotatin' faster and faster with the increasin' urgency of our desire. My arms had been wrapped around his neck, but the force of the revolution pulled me away from him, until we simply held each other's hands at arm's length, joined only by my legs wrapped around him. We were our own pointed little pinwheel. Spinnin'.
The rush of air took my breath away. I gasped in every time I whirled upwards, only to have it whooshed away again as I swung down. The lack of oxygen intensified the sensations coursin' through my body, and I felt a hot-cold, burnin' tingle start in the soles of my feet, run up my legs, and burst into a thousand tiny charges in me. I didn't know if my eyes were open or closed as wave upon wave of stars rocketed towards me from outer space-or I was sent hurtlin' to them, speeding through the void, stars streakin' by me as I rushed to the infinitesimal depths of the universe. I was part of everything, and everything — *everything* — was part of me.
We slowed, pantin' raggedly and gulpin' for air, comin' back to each other to embrace in the security of each other's grasp. My eyes closed, the sensation lingerin'. I lay my head on his chest, feelin' the poundin' of his heart, and my own.
"I love you, Wanda."
"Oh yes, God, yes," I lifted my head to look in his eyes when I said it. "I love you, too, K- lark!"
I plummeted, swiftly, the air screamin' in my ears, the ground rushin' to meet me, my arms and legs flailin' wildly. I couldn't stop. Faster and faster, the sky fell away from me, and I hit the ground with a sharp jolt that bounced me to sit upright in my bed, in the suite, alone. My chest heaved, sweat stickin' to my skin. The bottoms of my feet tingled, hot and cold.
The knock at my door was Rex. I froze for a moment, my reflection starin' back at me in the mirror, it as confused as I was. I couldn't shake the dream, it felt so real, so *close.* It didn't make any sense. My mind had to be workin' overtime, with all the changes goin' on, and Clark throwin' me a knuckle ball didn't help. Clark. I did miss him. He was warm and caring and passionate about his work, loved his parents, probably kind to children and small animals, too. *Stop it! Damn! You're marrying Rex. You're on the way to the chapel right now. You made you're choice. A good choice.* I gripped the edge of the vanity top. *But is it love?* I took a deep breath, stood tall, and walked out to Rex.
We drove out a ways on the Vegas strip. "Ah, that looks like a good one, 'The Happy Chapel of Eternal Bliss,'" Rex pointed out.
My eyes widened at the one I saw on the other side of the street, "No, Rex, that one!" I know I had a silly smile on my face, and Rex's quizzical look didn't help any.
"That one. Wanda. My dear…"
"I know it seems odd, Rex, but somehow, it just feels right to me." I shrugged my shoulders. I couldn't explain it, but I knew 'The Hound Dog Chapel' was the right place. "All services conducted by The King himself, Elvis Presley." I couldn't resist.
Rex sighed. "Only for you, my love." A slight glimmer in his eye said this might be okay.
We entered the small foyer and registered with a female Elvis impersonator, listenin' to instrumental renditions of Elvis' songs playing in the background. We were ushered into a waitin' area, with three other couples, two of the brides very pregnant. I was handed a bouquet of flowers, and Rex was draped in a high-collared, white, sequined cape. His expression told me this was turnin' into a bad idea. I was thinking maybe he was right.
My insides were goin' cold on me, the kinda slow chill that starts at the back of your neck, gets in your throat, and seeps down inside, like molasses creepin' thick through your veins. A vision of Clark appeared in my mind, his face stricken hard with worry. My stomach twinged at the memory of my experience just a few hours earlier.
We were shown into the chapel. Our turn was next. We walked down the aisle as "Love Me Tender" played, and stood before a passable clone of Elvis >from his Vegas years, the jumpsuit, the near mutton-chop sideburns. There's never any "young Elvis" imitators, it seems. Reverend Elvis had a guitar slung on his back. He spoke, and I wasn't too sure about his accent.
"Hey, man, d'ya take this here fine li'l lady ta be yer lawful wedded wahfe, ta have 'n hold, from here own out, as long as y'all're heppy?"
Rex spoke solemnly, rigid under the cape, "I do."
"Thank ya, thank ya vera much."
He turned to me. I watched his mouth move. I knew words were comin' out, but I couldn't hear them above the risin' buzz in my head. I stood locked in place, noticin' Elvis was just lookin' at me now, not talkin', and I figured it was my turn.
I couldn't swallow, or move my head, or think. I opened my mouth, tried to speak, and heard a little poppin' catch in the back of my throat, openin' and closin' with each effort to speak. "I- I- I-," pop, pop, pop. Then the buzz cleared, disappeared all at once, and I turned to face Rex. "I can't marry you, Rex. I'm sorry. Really sorry."
The words were barely uttered when the doors to "The Hound Dog Chapel" burst open, and there were Frank and Clark, runnin' down the aisle with police hot behind them.
All hell broke loose. Clark and Frank were wavin' their arms and yellin'. The police had their guns drawn. Elvis was holdin' his guitar in front of himself, for protection, or somethin'. I got pushed into a potted plant, and as I struggled outta the leaves, I saw Rex with his arms raised, starin' down the gun barrels.
"Rex Rullor," one of the cops spoke, "You're under arrest for arson. Come quietly. Don't make this worse for yourself than it is."
What were they talkin' about? I stood wrapped in the leafy plant, watchin' them all move slowly, easy, no sudden moves. Rex was limpin' away towards a side door, and as he reached it, I swear he yelled, "You won't take me alive, coppers!"
He pivoted on his cast, sequined cape flappin' behind him, yanked open the door, and came face to face with more police. He was subdued easily then, and everyone started movin'. Elvis strummed his guitar, singin' 'Jailhouse Rock'. I glared at him, icily.
Clark and Frank were by my side, pullin' me the rest of the way outta the plant. I hugged Clark to me so tight, my arms ached. He was a little slower, bringin' his arms around me, holdin' loosely, and then, he patted — *patted* — me on the back.
"I'm glad you're all right, Wanda."
"Uh huh, I could tell." I let loose my grip.
They steered Rex by us, readin' his rights as they went. He looked at me, hair disheveled in his brief struggle, eyes dartin' about rabidly. He slowed just a bit as he saw me. The guarded, but thawin', expression he usually carried had been eaten away, as if by acid, and replaced by something I hardly recognized. The curl of his lips was like a sneer gone bad. Real bad. "Don't worry, Wanda. We'll be together. Soon."
My mouth dropped open, but I didn't speak. I could only stare as they pushed him back down the aisle, and out the door.
We sat, Clark and me, in two of the few chairs set about to make it look like a real wedding chapel, where actual guests would sit, the bride's side, and the groom's side. Even then, they weren't tryin' to fool anybody too hard. The aisle wasn't near so long as it seemed, walkin' in. Clark picked up my hand.
**How do I tell him that I understand what he was sayin', back in New York? That I think I feel the same way. After what I said then. Who'd believe me? Clark. He would.**
"I had a dream, last night…" I started.
"I…we probably need to talk," he said at the same time, not meeting my gaze. "I…look, I don't want to you feel uncomfortable around me, and after New York…you made it clear how you felt…"
"Clark, that's wha-"
"Wanda, I'll never get this out, and I really want you to understand," he said, sneakin' a quick look at me, before goin' back to our hands. "You…you're very important to me-I mean, we work so well together, and I guess I was jealous that he'd take you and you'd go on without me, without the rest of us, so I said those things. I'm sorry, I know it seems really…I guess…devious. I wish I could take it all back. I didn't mean to hurt you. I know you must hate me, now…" he faltered, never lookin' at me.
I jerked my hand away. "Ya said ya loved me because you were afraid ya'd lose your *dance partner*?" I could feel my blood risin' up my neck, pulsing in a vein like a stereo speaker, and, it sounded to me, about as loud. "You…you…Is that why you're here, now? Come to collect your little Ginger Rogers? So I can dance backwards in high heels for ya? I…you…" I couldn't think of anything else to say. I growled instead.
"Wanda, I swear, I didn't see it like that. I truly didn't think…*he* had your best interests at heart. You know what we found out about him? You know how no one saw him for so long, everyone thought he was a recluse? He was in a mental institution. Apparently, fixations with particular women and playing with matches are habits he found hard to break."
**God, can I pick 'em, or what?** That didn't change the point. "Ya didn't know that when ya said those things." I was startin' to feel queasy, my colon was tyin' itself into a series of hangman's nooses. I was wrong about Rex. Wrong about Kent. And wrong about Clark. A convent was startin' to sound good. Maria von Trapp was almost a nun. There was a singin' nun in the sixties, or somethin'. **I've got the celibacy thing down pretty good, long as I don't have any more of those damn dreams. I could do this,** I thought.
"No, I know. I didn't. But…I came here because I didn't want you to get hurt worse. And I figured…well, even if you hated me, you had to know. And, I hope we can get past it, that…if…you can forgive me."
"Clark, I dunno what to think about anything, or anyone, anymore. Right now, I just wanna go home." We got up then, and headed out to the foyer. I asked the receptionist, Lauren, the name plate said, and my mind wandered over the mismatch of the name to the gum chewer sitting behind the glass screen…she looked more like a…Lurlene, I thought, "There was another guy-kinda looks like a bulldog-know what happened to him?"
"He went with the cops," she said, not lookin' up, but poppin' a bubble for emphasis.
"Can we call for a cab?"
"Isn't that your limo out there?" She pointed.
"Huh. Yeah, it is, thanks." We walked out.
"That's how we found you. The hotel called the driver," Clark said.
We got in and rode back in near silence. Clark tried once.
"You said you had a dream?" he asked.
"Earlier. You said you had a dream."
"Oh, yeah. It ain't important. I hate it when people tell me their dreams."
The cabbie yelled several choice words at a car with its windows rolled up, as we slammed to a stop near enough to Times Square to get out and walk.
"Clark, what are we doin' here? Reliving the past? We ain't exactly the toast of Broadway, right now."
"But this is where you felt most at home. You said you wanted to go home, so this is where I brought you."
I looked sharply at him. Funny time for him to get thoughtful on me. His face showed nothin' but a naïve happiness that he'd thought of this. Had to be that Holler-boy upbringin'. The simple things in life sometimes seemed so…simple.
We rounded the corner, and I found myself a few steps ahead of Clark, who had slowed and was looking across Broadway. I followed his line of sight. The marquee lights of a theater spluttered a few times before blinking on for good. "The Show," it read, "Starring," my mouth gaped, "Wanda Detroit and Clark Barre."
"Alright, Barre, what's the skinny?" I turned to see him beamin' like a ten-year-old with a frog in his pocket.
"Once the arson was determined, and traced back to Rullor, a clause in the insurance kicked into effect, and the policy paid up. Then Kent got lucky when a theater opened up. It's even better than the last one, if you can believe that."
I hadn't even known I'd walked the close distance back to Clark until I was goin' crossed-eyed looking at his handsome face. He peered down at me, his lips so close…I shook myself mentally. Friends. That's all. Anyway, I shoulda learned my lesson about men by now. "I, um, guess I forgive you, Clark." **Hell, did I say that out loud?** I stepped back, gave him back his space.
He looked startled. Then smiled, a genuine, relieved smile. "Wanda, thank you. Really. I promise not to let you down again."
Famous last words.
We were the golden children of Broadway. The new show was everything the old one was, and more. Frank could do no wrong. In our hiatus, he had gotten angry, and we found out, anger made him create up a storm. He sometimes looked like a cartoon wizard, waving his arms like wands, makin' his cauldron of dancers froth and boil over, in frenzied, inspired choreography.
Clark and I were as hot as ever together, on the stage. And we were comfortable off-stage, friends, good friends, who were there for each other. Without ever discussing it, we chose not to risk our friendship by muddying any romantic waters. I had managed to shove the dream into a forgotten corner of my mind, clamped down under heavy shackles, and it hardly affected me at all.
I was afraid to face Kent, at first, when I'd got back to New York, but he made it easy on me. Almost like it'd never happened. I still felt like he was watchin' out for me, showin' more concern than ya might think normal, given the limits he put on us. It was the weirdest sort of professionalism I could imagine, almost couldn't comprehend. If my track record with men wasn't such an artillery zone of blasted craters and unexploded shells, I might've pushed the issue. But my recent history was still a raw, festering wound, and I didn't feel like goin' out and tappin' all the ammo to see which ones were still live.
The next few months were quiet that way; maybe we were all trying to recuperate from those events. We focused all our energy on the new show, and it was showing in our performances. The reviews were great, most noting the sexual tension could be cut with a chain saw. Trouble with that was, if something didn't let out some slack, the line was gonna snap, and come whippin' back in someone's face. And just when I didn't think the line could be pulled any more taut, Clark Barre asked me out.
"Like on a date?" The idea started a feeling in the bottom of my gut, a quiver, like the choke bein' pulled on a cold engine, tryin' to get started up again.
"Yeah. A date. I pick you up. Dinner, a movie, walk in the park…"
"Not buddies hangin' out together. A date. 'Walk in the park?' This ain't the holler, boy. What happened to not ruinin' our friendship? You were worried about losin' your dance partner, remember?"
He shifted, a little uneasy. "I…um…well, maybe it got me thinking…that there was some other reason I was jealous, and…so worried about you." His eyes stared off at a point behind my shoulder.
I took a deep breath. Gamblin' ain't one of my vices. I like to know where I'm goin', what I'm doin'. I figure that's why I didn't get on too well in Vegas. Everyone bettin' happiness on a crap shoot. I worked hard for what I got in life. But…thinking I knew what I was doin' where men were involved hadn't worked out like I ever planned, so…what if I took a chance? I couldn't end up any worse than a fixated maniac in an Elvis cape, could I? "Alright. I'll go out with you. Dinner. Some place nice, not a hot dog stand. Pick me up at 7. Don't be late." I laid out ground rules like a test instructor. Use a number two pencil. You have ten minutes to complete the first section. Your entire future will be determined by your score. Screw up, and you'll be unemployed and homeless. Clark nodded, gave kind of a nervous smile.
I didn't know why I was so worried about goin' out with him, why I tore my closet apart lookin' for the right thing to wear, takin' more time to get ready for that than I did for the show every night. Yes, I did. The dam cracked, and the dream was spillin' into my consciousness. I hastily tried to do a patch job on the potential flood I was afraid I'd start feelin' down in the core of my body, but I didn't know how long it would hold back. I panicked. Why'd I say yes? I didn't have to put myself through this. The buzzer from the lobby rang. I pressed the button to let him up. **Too late, now.**
We walked along the sidewalk after a dinner that made sex seem second-rate. I was totally taken back by the romantic side of my costar, and that he was showin' it to me. He was a different man, here, in this atmosphere, and I'd been blind to it. There's too many people hiding in us all. How does anybody see what they're lookin' for in one? Now I was seein' a guy who's eyes reflected every reaction he had as we talked, warm happiness about his past, awe at some of my wilder experiences in the strippin' profession, a genuine interest in what I was sayin'. And when the conversation turned even more personal, I saw a heated passion that surprised me. And it was directed at me. The thought tingled up my neck and behind my ears, and my hair prickled all over my scalp.
It intrigued me, that feelin'; I didn't think I'd ever got a reaction to someone like that, before. Like my body was trying to tell my head something, and my head just didn't get it. They argued with each other, brain and body, as we walked, warring with each other about letting go or holding back. It's too good to be true, said my head. But it can come true, said my gut, and several other regions deep in me. It was my brain against all the rest of me.
Clark slowed for a moment, lookin' down the block a ways. We were down by the park, and he saw a stand sellin' something. His hand brushed down my arm, as he said, softly, his eyes twinklin', "Wait here just a sec, 'kay?" and he moved on down the street. I watched his smooth gait down the sidewalk, the confidence in his step, and maybe even a little extra bounce, that night. And suddenly my mouth watered. Yeah, that's right, watered. I wanted him. As much as I'd ever realized he wanted me, I wanted him. Nerves started flutterin' all over my body, and I felt hot in funny places. Oh, God, what was goin' on?
I stood a minute, my insides fightin' an increasin'ly raging battle, and I couldn't stop myself. I flagged down a cab and hopped in just as Clark came up the sidewalk holdin' a rose. He saw me as the cab moved into traffic, and I watched the flower in his hand slowly drop to his side, hangin' as dejected as the slack-jawed look on Clark's face.
I told the cabbie the long way home, I needed to think. Not that thinking was doin' me much good. I couldn't sort it all out, the feelings coursin' through me, my mind jumbled. I couldn't do this…it was too outta control, too overwhelmin'. There was no way I'd get any deeper into this.
Except, he wouldn't leave it alone so easy. He was there the next day, of course, and I had to face him. He didn't understand. Neither did I. Unless I told him I was lustin' after him, and I wouldn't be responsible for myself if I ever saw him *that way* again. Somehow I didn't see how tellin' him that would improve the situation.
"Oh," I waved off-handedly between us, "it was a good time…I guess I figured the longer we went, the more likely it might get spoiled." **Way weak.**
"Try again." He was lookin' me straight in the eye, and I couldn't meet him. I glanced at my shoes. "What are you afraid of, Wanda?"
**What ain't there to be afraid of? Look at my track record. Where's that damn convent, anyway?** I took a step or two back away from Clark.
"Don't do it, Wanda. Don't run. Talk to me." He was blazin' a hole in my head with his stare, but he didn't move, worried, maybe, that the slightest motion would set me to flight. "Let go, Wanda. It'll be okay." It was softly spoken, seducin'. And it lured me in.
I found myself out with him again, and it was wonderful, *again*. I did let go the reins I'd been pulling hard on, at least loosened them, some. We found we were outside my building, and he shot a look up towards my windows. He turned back to me, and grinned shyly. "Well," he said, "here we are." He'd had one hand in a pocket, and the other around my shoulders, and now he let it drop. He scuffed his shoe against the stoop.
"Clark…" It came out husky, tellin' him more than I was sure I wanted him to know.
He touched my cheek with the backs of his fingers, opened his hand to cup my face. I leaned into it almost without bein' aware. I felt his fingers brush against my ear, and knew the look I gave him could only be described as smoky. His head dipped to mine, the longing in his eyes shining through, then I closed mine just as his lips swept across my waitin', wantin' mouth. The barest touch, and it sent a flutter down the center of me, twingin' under my breastbone and ticklin' my stomach.
It wasn't like in the shows; it was…amazin'. I mean, I knew he was a good kisser, but with this one, I realized that for all the heat we emanated on stage, there was a professionalism in those kisses that was gone here. He'd been holdin' out on me. I felt an intensity, his passion, come through, now, and it lifted me right up off my toes to meet it. Filled me up inside, like all my organs were swellin', my heart, my lungs, all expandin' into every unoccupied space in my body; I felt like a parade balloon inflatin' for Thanksgiving. I'd liked kissin' him, before, but this…I loved this.
It was the most delicate feelin', that first contact, the taste of his lips on mine, the flush that tingled through me as his tongue teased along the outside of my mouth. I sighed against his cheek, just enough to invite him to delve further inside. It swallowed me whole, that kiss. He curled his tongue around mine, encirclin' it in the same warm security his arms provided for the rest of me. If I hadn't wrapped my arms around his neck, I thought the rest of my body might've dropped away, leavin' us just interlocked by that fragile contact. I breathed him in, tugging at, devouring his lips, his tongue, willin' the contact permanent to me.
I breathed in, and in, and in, until there was no more room, and I had to let go. I let out a shaky gasp, my craving for him just beginning. He was watchin' me, I finally noticed, when I was able to lift my head away from restin' against his neck, and could only stare back into his smolderin' dark orbs. He was breathing hard, too, his lips parted just enough to look like he was about to say something, but couldn't. Neither could I. I took a deep breath and swallowed, but our eyes never wavered, magnetized to each other. We didn't move, didn't say a word, but I felt his hand on my back, slowly washin' up and down my spine.
I floated up to my apartment.
I was almost giddy after that night, and I ain't ever been giddy in my life. I had to set myself still a minute to recognize it. **What *is* this…this twang in my gut every time I think of him? Why is my heart flutterin', my hair ticklin'?** My nerves were firin' off constantly, like spark plugs. My engine was firin'. Sheer giddiness. I had, really, truly, finally, let go.
Ya'd think it'd be smooth sailing from there on out, wouldn't ya? These kinda stories, everyone always lives happily ever after, huh? Yeah, well, don't count on it, Sugar. Where'd it all go wrong? Hell, it ever barely went right. We were just startin' to figure out what — *who* — we were to each other, and everything just went weird.
I guess it all fell apart when Rex showed up. He was in the alley next to my building one night when I came home from the show. Clark was walkin' with me. He stepped outta the shadows, Rex did, startlin' us both.
"Good evening, my dear Wanda," came the voice, smooth and cool as ice cream. "You are as beautiful as ever."
I was stunned. I didn't know what to think, what to say. I thought I'd put that man behind me, an error in judgment I'd been mercifully saved from. Suckered by his charms…I'd been a brainless snake swayin' to his flute.
Clark stepped forward. "Rullor, I don't know how you crawled out from under your rock, but you're going back where you belong."
Rex tilted his head at Clark, amused. His eyes, those secretive, darkly tinted windows to his tortured soul, flicked to me. "Slumming these days, Wanda? It doesn't become you. My dear, you have so much more going for you."
I still stood, frozen, mute. Clark shifted in his stance. "I suppose you think she'd be better off with you." I heard the levelness he forced into his voice, and the anger just beneath it.
"She thought so, once. I believe she still does. She will always be mine, first, and forever. And she knows it."
I could feel Clark's eyes boring into me now, waiting for some sort of reaction, my dismissal of Rex's claim…or my confirmation. But I was fighting in my own inner turmoil, the voices that screamed to knock this monster's legs out from under him, tell him he was wrong, that I didn't love him, hadn't ever loved him, never belonged to him. I didn't even know what love was, then.
The voices battled with another part of me, one that wanted to curl up in the tightest ball I could, make as small a target as possible for him to find, something insignificant, easily overlooked, and maybe he'd just go away, quit usin' me as his chew toy. I was so blind, such a fool, and everyone knew. And just when I thought maybe I could move past it, he showed up in my face again. How could anyone — how could Clark — not see how stupid I was? He, who'd told me to watch out. He, who was right about everything. He, who was cautious, always, and yet challenged me to throw fear out the window for him. I questioned every perception I had, after Rex, every thought, every decision.
I could picture the ulcers eatin' away at my gut, standing there, hearin' them discuss me like a prize hog at the county fair, drawin' all the different cuts of meat out with indelible marker on my hide before I'd even been slaughtered. Portioning me out. And I didn't feel like bein' anyone's side of bacon, just right yet. I never said a word, just walked past — between — the two, and up to my apartment.
It felt like this little tickle in my ear, at first, or maybe in my throat is more accurate, a hair that'd gotten down there, terminally annoying in the back of your mind, and ya keep trying to spit it out, but can't get it. Clark was distant after our encounter with Rex, but I couldn't figure how to explain what I felt. Couldn't decide if he cared enough to hear the reason. Couldn't tell if it was my shame or his apathy that was squeezin' tighter on my heart.
The last of my pride told me to accept the dinner invitation Rex sent me the next day. So maybe I could understand why he did the things he did, or why I fell for them. To see what those hooded eyes said now, if I could read them. How he was gettin' around when the cops surely had to be lookin' for him, I didn't know. Part of me wanted him safely locked away, but the part that wanted to know what he'd had in store for me kept me from turnin' him in. I guess Clark wondered why I didn't do that, too.
He said meet him at this restaurant, one where no one looks ya in the eye, or asks ya any embarrassing questions, like can they see your ID for a check. But then, I think all their business was in cash, anyway. A place with many tables tucked away in dim alcoves, where ya wouldn't be disturbed.
I got there, but didn't see him. Then he seemed to materialized outta nowhere, lifting my hand in his, and leading me to a far corner, where I was sure some of the lightbulbs had been removed, and I briefly imagined eatin' my food by Braille. I wondered how Rex knew about such a place, if he'd done this before.
"Wanda, darling, I promised you we'd be together again." He grazed my cheekbone with dry lips. I pulled my head away, to see his eyes, read his mind. Not that I'd ever been very good at it, with him. Or anybody else for that matter.
"Rex, why are you doing this? You know they'll find you."
"Pish tosh, Wanda. They can only catch me if I let them. Come away with me to the Casbah."
"Movie starring Charles Boyer."
"A figure of speech. We can go underground where these inconsequential bureaucrats with their insignificant laws cannot bother us."
"Rex, I'm not going anywhere with you. Bein' on the lam ain't all it's cracked up to be. Maybe this life ain't all I ever dreamed of, but parts of it're nice, and I'm workin' on the rest."
"We will hardly be fighting rats for scraps of food, Wanda. Together, that's all the life we need." He had reached across the table to hold my hands, bridging the gap between us, tryin' to sell me the Brooklyn, and the look in his eyes got brighter, twinkly, slick as snake oil.
I pulled my hands away before he latched on like a vacuum pulling a throw rug under until the motor starts burnin'.
He looked at me, penetrating my veil of privacy and seein' something he didn't expect.
"Wanda, something's wrong. What is it? You can tell me."
"Rex, I don't think you understand." An understatement of global proportions. **Of course he didn't understand. You nearly married a man you didn't love…well, thought you loved, didn't even hardly know, couldn't truly love, 'cause you didn't even know what love was-is-was, and you sure as hell couldn't tell what it was to be loved…**
"Look, Rex, I- I don't think we're right together, that we're good together. You and me, we're different. We ain't comin' from the same place, and we ain't goin' in the same direction…"
His eyes, then, oh, you wouldn't wanna see anything like that again in the same lifetime. The absolute blackness went so far, so deep, they were bottomless mine shafts. There was nothin', just plain nothin', to grab onto in them.
He grabbed my wrist, pulled me outta my seat. In that hideaway restaurant, no one cared, no one paid any attention to what was goin' on in someone else's hill of beans of a life. He pulled me outside, shoved me into a beater of a car. I didn't even know he knew how to drive-native New Yorker, and I'd only ever seen him in a limo. Turns out he couldn't. He ground the gears, then finally stuck the clutch in, and we lurched off into the night.
His voice was deadness, comin' from a grave of morality. I shivered. "You, Wanda, you belong with me, *to* me, and the world is going to know it. Now. Tonight. Forever."
He opened the stage door, pushed me in. The play was in full swing, switching into the fifth act, and no one paid us any mind.
It wasn't that I'd just let him lead me around by the nose. He'd driven the car crazily into the city, and I'd hung on to anything I could as a bracer. The gun he'd pulled outta his pocket, when he yanked me from the car, which wasn't parked, so much as left for dead, jammed against a street light, a new sidewalk obstacle to be negotiated, hubcaps spinnin', totterin' and finally clatterin' in the gutter, steam from the radiator mixing with the lingerin' odor of burnin' brakes…that gun was the most surreal thing I saw. Anticlimactic. I nearly laughed. **Really, a gun, Rex? How typical. An extension of your manhood? Should I swoon?** It wasn't the gun, but Rex's glacial expression that scared me quiet, really. But the gun was real, with his hand on the trigger, and it was pointed at me…the little hole in the barrel leadin' to a small, but dangerous, new reality.
I'd gone where the barrel told me to go, as Rex waggled it in the direction of the alley that held the door we'd entered. He'd motioned me through the backstage, into the wings, stage left. We stood, watchin' the performances for a moment, Hyppolyta telling Theseus, "'Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lover's speak of," when Rex nudged me in the back with the revolver. He leaned forward, his breath chillin' down my spine.
"Showtime, my dear," he whispered, and pushed me out onstage.
I stumbled two or three steps out before I could catch myself, caught in the glare of the spotlights, and the eyes of players and audience. Startled, I froze…what Rex expected, I didn't know.
My sudden appearance caught the other actors off guard, of course; live theater, by it's nature, is full of surprises, but it's kinda unusual that a torch singer interrupts a Shakespearean soliloquy, even in some bent director's modern interpretation of the Bard, and I wasn't on that evenin's program.
I knew the lead playing Theseus, a long-time Broadway fixture, known for his unflappable performances on stage, in all manner of circumstances.
Rex's timing was eerily perfect; my entrance interrupting Theseus.
"More strange than true. I may never believe These antic fables, nor these fairy toys. Lover's and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More…than…cool reason…ever compre…hends…"
Theseus paused in his delivery, apparently flapped, and we stared at each other across the set.
"'The lunatic, the lover, and the poet!' It's, 'the lunatic, the lover, and the poet! That's your next line!" Rex came on stage then, his voice projecting through a theater stunned silent. He pushed me further on stage, the gun now waving wildly in his hand.
"The lunatic…" Theseus started, but Rex cut him off.
"Yes, the lunatic! The lunatic, the lover and the poet Are of imagination all compact! One sees more devils than vast hell can hold: That is the madman!"
"No shit," said Theseus, his proper Elizabethan accent suddenly replaced with clipped Brooklynese.
"Quiet!" Rex was in a fervor then, sweat pouring down his face, pacing agitated around the stage. He threw his arm skyward, and the crack of the gunshot, when he fired, rang as little more than a sound of a whip in my ears. It was nothin' like in the movies, more of a popping noise, but I flinched anyway. Glass shattering, falling down around the props, and a slight dimming of the lighting registered somewhere in the back of my brain that at least he hadn't hit anything serious. The audience broke from it's seemingly hypnotic trance then, there were several startled shouts, I could hear them stumbling, climbing over seats in their urgency to get away, even if I couldn't see them.
Rex stood in front of me, so close, running his fingers down my cheek, and I could smell the heat from the gun in his hand, the acrid smoke. I swallowed, that sickening little smacking noise sounding unnaturally loud to myself, but I didn't move.
"The lover, all as frantic," he said quietly, his eyes darting around my face, "Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt. The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven…"
And he was gone from me again, speaking to the air, the world, the universe, claiming his insane right over me. He ranted on.
"And as imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name."
I could see police in the wings then, and rustling in the aisles below, and stood rooted where I was, hopin' it would end simply, fearin' it wouldn't.
"Such tricks hath strong imagination That, if it would but apprehend some joy, It comprehends the bringer of that joy…"
Rex swung around and stared at me. "'Or in the night, imagining some fear,'" he cocked his head at me, "'How easy is a bush supposed a bear!'" He raised the gun at me, pulled the trigger, and the world went black.
Clashing metal and dull thudding ended my short fall into the orchestra pit, my panicked leap at the sight of the gun aimed at me was my survival instinct finally kicking in. I'd landed on the drums, knocking cymbals everywhere, and every time I moved they clattered more. The theater was dark, but commotion surrounded me like flags whipped in a hurricane. There was shouting coming from the stage, and sounds of a struggle, and hands and arms and legs all pulling and prodding me where I lay. I couldn't get a handhold to stand up, and one foot was caught somewhere. My feet weren't under me. Finally the lights came up, and I saw the end of my leg being swallowed whole by a snare drum. My stiletto heel had pierced right through the taut cover.
"Are you okay? Ms. Detroit?" I looked into the face of a piccolo player, and nodded.
"Yeah, I think so." I held out my hand and he lifted me outta the mess I'd created. There was a groan nearby. I'd clobbered several percussionists in my dive to safety. People began hauling them from the rubble of instruments, and the clang of brass and wood started all over again.
Rex'd been captured, but not before putting up a fight, this time, including biting at least two cops. In the aftermath of his rampage, emergency personnel bandaged wounds, and insisted on checking me over for injuries. They were putting a dressing over the dental imprint Rex left as a calling card on one cop. He joked with one of his buddies.
"Ya know, man, I'm thinkin' just a tetanus shot ain't gonna do it. I think they oughta check that nut for rabies er somethin'."
"Yeah, bad as breakin' up a sorority party, 'bout."
"What play was this? *Midsummer Night's Dream*? *Midsummer Nightmare*, more like it."
They were chuckling and patting each other's backs as I turned away, queasy guilt roilin' in my stomach, my psyche more bruised than my body, and came face to face with Rex, for the last time, I hope. I took a shaky breath, and for once, this time, I didn't let him pass outta my life without question.
"I don't love you Rex. Do you understand? It's over." I faltered. This wasn't quite the coup I was looking for. "Get a life," I finished. Yeah, well, I never claimed to be profound. It was the best I could muster, and almost more than I could face.
I answered investigators' questions, and by the time they finished with me, Frank was there, and Clark, and Kent, all wantin' to know the story, to see if I was okay. So I told the story again, more tired, weary, and sick of it as I spoke. Clark was silent all through the telling, his face a mask to me.
Things weren't great between Clark and me, for sure. But I felt like I was doin' some personal housecleaning, getting my life in order, sweepin' the garbage, sweepin' Rex, out. I was startin' to sort through my feelings, what'd happened to me lately, where I'd been, where I wanted to go. Like lookin' through a high school yearbook, realizin' who I was, and who I knew, once. A scrapbook tellin' me what I thought was important once upon a time, but years later, couldn't remember why. I needed to clean my closets, throw out the lingerin' feelings that didn't mean anything anymore. I'd got Rex out. Now I needed to do something about Clark and Kent. They were both wedged in tight, and I'd kinda let it get that way, but then I couldn't get to anything else in the back of the closet, couldn't get past them to clear the oldest junk out. And somehow, that's what it was about. Gettin' past what I couldn't see around in my mind, lettin' go of the old clutter of hurt, fear and hair in the drain. Maybe then I'd be better able to sort through the newer stuff, make room for it.
Kent. And Clark. I'd liked them both where they were for so long. But Clark started expandin' in the closet, to the proportions Kent had always stood at, and there wasn't room anymore. Something had to give. I had to make a choice.
There was this thing about Kent. He had a draw, like smoke up a chimney, that I'd felt from the first moment I met him. I felt like the smoke, wispy and fluttery whenever he was near, like I could lift off and soar, curling my tendrils of smoke around him.
I was sure he felt something for me, too, something he resisted, something maybe he thought he had no right to. He lived an unusual life, what little I could tell of it. Always on call, answering the demands that often materialized outta thin air, busily jugglin' to keep all the balls of a production up at the same time. And he thrived on it; maybe more than anything else, that gave him his purpose. I realized I didn't know that much about his personal life, had only tiny glimpses that he chose to give me, and maybe, I was beginning to see, it was because that was his life-is his life. He chose to live in this odd service to others, dedicated himself to it, for what he thought was best. God, I had admired him for that.
But it didn't leave room for much else, for me. I'd been selfish, wantin' him for myself, thinkin' I had a right to him. I didn't. The thing is, that connection, that feeling that you really have some sway over someone, it's theirs to give you over them, not yours to take. For all Kent had meant to me, done for me, given me, he hadn't given me that. I'd wanted to take it, but it wasn't there. It was a hell of a lesson to learn, and it'd nearly blinded me to what I thought I could have, hopefully, with someone, someday. I was hopin' that I'd found the right one, Clark.
I felt it was only right to talk to him about it. I had my speech all worked out in my head.
"You and me, Kent, we've been quite a team in the theater, ya know? I- I guess I thought that meant we'd be good outside of it, too…But there's something, something that just isn't there, is it? Something…not missin' exactly, but…I don't know, outta reach? Something higher, some other duty you have to work for, isn't there? And I understand that, really, I do. But I- I guess I lead my life on a different plane than you, and I don't have quite the same goals for myself. You gotta do what you gotta do, and so do I. And in some ways, I hope, we'll always be together, or be able to get together. But in other ways, we're best if we're apart. Somehow, I think you've understood this a lot longer than me."
He'd stood quietly before me, the whole time I spoke, lettin' me get it all out. Always the gentleman. He had the tiniest curve to his mouth. Not smilin', not trying to hold back a laugh, just a placid look that said he was at peace with everything I was sayin'. His reserve that covered everything he was thinking.
"Wanda, you know I care what happens to you, and I'll always be there for you, no matter what, right?"
He smiled. "Good. And you're right, I think we're better this way. And that in itself is a formidable alliance, you know. Broadway may never recover." His grin widened.
I couldn't help but smile back. He had something there. It was like ruling the world, sometimes, what we'd done with theater. I hoped it would never end.
It was still a rocky road I had to travel with Clark. Rex bein' caught didn't seem to make any difference between us. The same man who goaded me into takin' a risk on him was available less and less to learn where chancin' it would get him. It was getting bad, his skittishness, to the point that I just stopped believin' anything he said. Like every other man I'd ever tried to trust. Why'd I bother?
I couldn't tell ya why, now. Once upon a time, I believed in true love, in happily ever after, in having a kindred spirit out there, somewhere, a soul matched to mine. Thought I'd found it. How many people are that lucky? Ya know the kinda people that believe in that? The ones who ain't ever been in love. Really, truly, head-over-heels, starry-eyed, morning-dewed love. If they'd ever felt the wringer love puts ya through, they wouldn't be so desperately searchin' for it. I know. I was one of 'em. I'm tellin' ya now, it ain't all those dead poets made it out to be. I figure there's a reason artists kill themselves so often. The truth never lives up to the beauty of their ideal. Hell, we couldn't live up to the ideal we put onstage for the audience. If ya thought it could, grow up. I'm just trying to save ya the heartache.
It took me a long time…too long. Yeah, I tried. I kept tryin', 'til there was nothin' left to try on. I was stupid. I made a fool of myself over *him.* Couldn't stop myself. I shoulda known when the end was comin', though.
Clark had been gettin' unreliable for anything. Not just with me, but with the show, too. He managed to show up on time, usually, but the strain was startin' to make itself known on the stage. We just weren't meshing like we once had, missing cues; there was no spontaneity in our stage presence. We'd gone flatter than beer in Texas in August.
His mind was wanderin' away from me, from us. And someone else was there, managing to be in front of him, every time he looked up. I couldn't figure if he was driftin' off, or bein' pulled. Men are funny that way. They'd like ya to think they stray without even knowin' it, like some loose dog's been runnin' and runnin' then finally sees it's lost when it's tired enough. But not before it's run through every back yard with a garbage can and a bitch in heat. I'd given up tryin' to figure it out.
Box office started feelin' the effects. The show was on shaky ground as it was, what with all the extra production costs to restart, and losin' momentum from the Tony's after the fire. Frank was stressin' so much, he was swiping my cigarettes for himself as fast as I could open a new pack. I was making short work of them, myself.
Clark wasn't talkin', and the only thing I could think was causin' all this was him thinking I was holdin' some torch for Rex. I was getting angry, if Clark had that little faith in me, until I even started wonderin' if he deserved any explanation.
Then again, he kept me off balance with his sincere looks, his promises, always, of "next time," his gentle doe eyes asking for understanding. Something…there was something I was supposed to see in him, not just that he had to realize from me. But it was damn hard to see anything when I was constantly starin' at his back out the door. Whenever we were together, he would just take off, no explanation. I'd be right on the edge of pourin' my heart out, and *bam!* he had something urgent to do. I'd fallen hard for him, in a way I'd never experienced. For that, I gave him the benefit of the doubt way past when I shoulda just quit and gone home. I kept hopin' for "next time."
I didn't even know what topics were safe to talk to him about, ya know? What were we to each other? I knew what I wanted him to be. It was more than I'd ever thought I could have with any man. What was I to him?
Seein' the figure standin' in the doorway to the alley pushed me to try something, anything. "Groupies really comin' outta the woodwork, ain't they, Clark? Ya gotta be careful these days. I mean, how often ya get on a first name basis with 'em?" I looked across to the lycraed floozy that used to hang around in the alley behind the theater, but who'd managed to rate backstage privileges lately. I wasn't positive Clark was the one lettin' her in, but he was definitely the one she was there watchin'. Clark looked around, confused, just for a minute, then he saw her, and his face did something, flashed a combination of jaw-clenched tension and relaxed brow at the same time. I didn't know such a thing was possible. Sure as hell didn't know what to make of it.
"Oh," he shrugged, "she's okay. She just wants to get in the business. She wanted to see how the place worked."
"Uh huh, so, Mallard Duck is her stage name, then?" I was treadin' a thin rope, I knew, but if he could play dense, I could play prickly. Ya play to your strengths. Ya gotta in this world.
"C'mon, Wanda, you know her name's Mallory." So. His interest in her was more than he would've liked me to think.
**Same difference,** I figured. "Yeah, well, if it looks like a bimbo, walks like a bimbo, and talks like a bimbo, I say it's a Duck."
I saw the impression she was making on him, was taken by surprise at the speed she was movin'. That chick could haul ass, in more ways than one, I suspected. Clark's mind was wandering like a piece of paper on the freeway. If women are fickle, men are indecisive. If I wanted to lead something around on a leash, I'd get a dog. It was looking like a good idea. I twirled it around in my head a bit. **Here, Fido. Here…Rex.** I shook my head violently, expellin' that dumb idea.
This life ain't fair for about a million reasons, most having to do with people. Yeah, I didn't like Mallory Duck. For what it was worth, she didn't like me, either. I could respect that. It didn't mean I wanted that cross town transit to toss her like rotten fruit into those experimental, spike-studded, cement, sidewalk café awnings. It shouldn't've happened at all, except the Teamsters that delivered them took their beer break with the things half off the trailer, blocking the sidewalk and the street at the same time. It was the kind of freak fatal accident that could only happen in New York. Clark should've understood that, shoulda known there was nothing he could do to prevent it. Maybe it was because he saw it happen, saw it start to happen, couldn't prevent it, could only watch her flip in a lazy arc over piles of garbage that could have cushioned her landing, to become awning art, instead.
It didn't help relations between him and me. He felt guilty, like he'd sent her across the street for a hot dog, and into the path of the bus. And after tha, I guess I looked like leftover meatloaf to him. It was like he thought he could stick me in the freezer until he sorted things out for himself. But I ain't anybody's leftovers. I coulda given him credit for not just usin' me for a fall back position, for havin' the decision made for him.
It hadn't been long, the feelin's we'd admitted to each other, but I thought they were strong, was so damn sure of it, and now it looked like I'd bet all my money on the wrong horse, again. I wasn't kiddin' before. Gamblin's for fools. You can hand your money over at a roulette wheel, or you can walk up to a bum on the street and tell him you love him. It all gets ya the same results. Empty pockets. Empty heart.
Except, my heart wasn't empty. It felt like it was swellin', actually. I couldn't forget that filled to the brim feeling I got when Clark kissed me. I wanted him, needed him, and he needed me too, I was sure of it, but he just didn't seem able to accept it. He just kept runnin' off.
The final straw came the night he checked his watch in the middle of a dinner he'd made special arrangements to have with me. It was a quaint little restaurant outta the city. Quiet. Private. I'd juggled my schedule especially for that evening, planned on clearin' the air once and for all. He left the table, and came back a few minutes later, tossing the car keys on the table, and making excuses again. Lame ones.
"I'll call you sometime, Wanda," Clark said, and disappeared for the millionth time. He had a secret he was hidin', I was sure of it. He made me angry like no other man could. I decided I wasn't gonna take it, and followed him out to his car.
**Clark Barre, I've had about all I can take of this. We're gonna talk, or we're through.** But he was hopping into another car that had barely slowed for him, and I didn't glimpse the driver well, but there was something familiar about him, a hint of profile, a strongly built body. Then it was too late, and they were gone, for the last time, before I could utter a word.
I had the car keys. I figured I'd follow him. Didn't even make it to the turnpike before a flat tire waylaid me. I sat there for the longest time, not comprehendin' what'd happened. I wondered what else could go wrong. I finally got out and opened the trunk, dug around, lookin' for the jack and tire iron, cussin' the damage I was gonna do to my nails, and the entire population of men on the planet. I found a duffel bag, unzipped it, and recognized the clammy sick feelin' ya get when ya realize ya been livin' next to a serial murderer for years. Almost as bad. I heard sirens in the distance, growin' louder. I hauled the spare tire outta its well, and shoved the duffel down in its place, pullin' the trunk's carpeting over it.
**So,** I thought, **turns out he was knockin' over gas stations. Left me in the car with a trunkful of cash and 30 state troopers on my tail.** I turned around as headlights, spotlights and flashers lit me up like a hockey game. Okay, maybe thirty's an exaggeration, but there were quite a few. The glare would light me with a flat, pasty complexion, I knew. Troopers sprung outta their cruisers, their silhouettes braced behind car doors, watchin' me. I yelled out, over squawkin' radios and car engines, "Hey, boys, I'm flat. Any of ya good with your hands?"
A police bullhorn blared, "Hold your arms away from your body."
I did as I was told, the tire iron danglin' in my hand. I was thinking I could rush at them and get this whole thing over with, once and for all. It was just all draggin' me down.
"Move away from the vehicle." I stepped towards the cops.
"Drop the weapon." I looked down at myself, and around, then back at the lights. "The tire iron, Lady, drop the tire iron." It thunked on the asphalt.
A trooper moved towards me, then, holstering his gun as he walked to me. When he reached me, he looked me over real good, then hollered back to his partner, "Hey, you know who this is? Wanda Detroit!"
"Who?" came the response from his partner.
"She's a Broadway star." He looked at me and smiled.
I returned his look. "That's my name, Wanda Detroit. Pleased ta meet ya, Sugar."
He was shaking my hand, pumpin' it hard, like he could get water to come outta me. "My wife had to drag me to your show, but then I couldn't get enough. We've been back twice."
His partner walked up, then, all business, professional. "What seems to be the trouble, Ma'am?" By this time I was surrounded by milling cops, static popping on radios, a dispatcher echoin' on all of them periodically.
I pointed to the tire. "Got a flat."
The all business cop looked at his partner, who'd finally let go my hand. "You want to call this in while I see what I can do?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah, sure," said my adoring fan, and he moved back to the cruiser. I watched the one pull the spare out of the trunk, and work on the flat, listening to my fan at the same time make his report.
"Central, this is Bravo Victor Delta Niner Niner, d'you copy?"
"Go ahead, Bravo Victor Delta Niner Niner."
The car was inching it's way off the ground, and the hubcap, I saw, was laying on the pavement.
"Yeah, Central, that's a negative on the Four-Oh-Nine. Lead was a bogus WD-40. Nothing out here but a Clorox 2 with a Pennzoil 10W-30, over."
**Hey, buddy, I ain't never bleached my hair.**
"Roger, BVD 99. Suspect has been spotted in the city, over."
The other cops had been dispersin', until just the two helpin' me were left. The one was tightening the lug nuts on the spare, leavin' the slashed tire layin' by the side of the car.
"Roger that, Central. Bravo Victor Delta Niner Niner, out." He got out of the car and headed back towards me. "I'm real sorry about the confusion, Ms. Detroit. You just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Well, the right place for me, though!" He held out a notepad. "Could I get your autograph? My wife will just go nuts." I obliged the officer, keepin' an eye on the other loadin' the flat in the trunk. The State of New York's finest tossed everything, jack, wrench, and flat tire in a jumble, hardly lookin' at what he was doin', much less examinin' the trunk any more carefully for ill-gotten goods. He shut the trunk, pulled the keys outta the lock, and handed them to me.
"Here you go, Ma'am. I suggest you get that flat repaired as quickly as possible, so you aren't without a spare."
"Thank you, Trooper…?"
"Blaney, Ma'am." He tipped his hat.
"Trooper Blaney. Thank you, very much."
"My job to be of service, Ma'am. I recommend you move along, now. Best not to be sittin' along the side of the highway."
I nodded, thanked the other trooper, my fan, who pumped my arm for well water again, got in the car and drove off.
I started shakin', barely controlling the car as I made it back to Manhattan. My life was a sham, that's all there was to it. Used, manipulated, betrayed by just about anyone important to me. I thought about the bag full of bills in the trunk. **I oughta take it and disappear,** I thought.
Another voice talked back. **Doesn't that make you just as bad as that no good, hunk-a-jerk, Clark?**
It'd never been about money. I lived most all my life without any; I could get by without it again. It was always about the singin', and the hoofin', too. The performing was the thing. I left the money inside the chapel of a church, ditched the car near a subway entrance, and got myself lost from that glitterin' world I'd known.
"That's my story, Sugar. Sorry, it ain't got a happy endin', but this is real life, not some bad romance novel. Some folks just don't get the roll of the dice, ya know? Doesn't matter what ya do, one day, the cigarettes and the liquor, they catch up to ya, and ya end up in joints like this, singin' for palookas like you." I swill some whiskey, drag on my cig. "So, do I get the gig, or not?"
"Lady, that's the sorriest tale I've ever heard. You sing with that kind of heartache, and yeah, you got the gig." He's big and burly, this barkeep. I can see the hair on his chest sproutin' up his throat the way you can tell isn't just the front of him, but the back, sides, shoulders, too. He's got his own personal wicking capability. I don't wanna be lookin' too closely to the clientele in this joint, or I'm sure to find more of the same.
Lookin' out over the room, with it's floor worn by years of hard, heavy boots, and tables, chairs and walls marred by long use, the barely raised stage at the front, across from the bar where I'm perched on this stool, is small, within reach of the lecherous arms of the longshoremen and seamen that come here to drink away their rough, dangerous lives outside the door. Inside here poses a different type of danger, but one they don't think about, late into the night, drinkin' themselves in a downward spiral to a hell of their own making, until fists are bared, and knives drawn. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" ain't the kinda song these fellas want, and anyway, I ain't in the mood to give it to 'em.
The footholds I'd climbed up the walls surroundin' show business, the grip I'd once thought I'd firmly taken, they were nowhere to be found when I let go and slid back down into the gaping maw of a pit that had always been lurking below my dream. I'd been flying without a net, I always knew that. This bar is just the latest in a long line of dives I've worked, earnin' enough to keep outta the rain. I don't - can't - stay still for long these days, some unknown urge not to rest. Gotta keep movin'. Honky-tonk bars and blues guitars. That's my life.
That other life, it haunts me, though. Like a dream. Sometimes, I think it was hardly real. But I ain't foolin' myself. I've got that first big review, right here. Ya can't read it, anymore. The creases in the newsprint fairly crumble like some medieval parchment. I've handled it so much, I know what it says on the back, too. Everything about that piece of paper. It's got my story on one side, and someone else's on the other. An incomplete story-a book review about some prince from Europe, exiled from his homeland, some little kingdom, once sovereign, but a part of France for so long, its identity had blended into the larger history, its claim to fame, a simple headcovering, the beret, usurped as a French signifier. I don't know the rest; it was cut off the clipping, I don't know the title of the book, or the name of the prince. I've always wondered about the destiny of that story, on the back of my own.
My story. The ink is faded, the paper yellow. But I know what it says. Every word of it. The future it spoke of, the promise it held. Once upon a time, I even believed it. Now, I know: I've always been a fool. The worry I had over that wasn't necessary; I'd've been better off embracin' the fact. Saved me some heartbreak. That review…what a joke. "Clark Barre and Wanda Detroit…their names linked inextricably together…with a single kiss…their fate was sealed…" Shyeah, right. I should've known, that first day in the old theater. Hell, I should've known all along. Meeting Kent, meeting Rex, meeting him. My fate with all of them, and without any of them.
Clark was maybe the biggest puzzle of them all, if the least likely. His strange confidence, brash, but gentle at the same time. Something he'd been born with, or given early, by his parents. His parents. Clark got along so well with them. It almost wasn't natural. Well, but I only have my own childhood to compare. And the Barre's didn't fit that backwards berg…or what it should have been. They had so many high tech whatchamathings, they probably needed their own satellite to make use of any of 'em. Who the hell needs that kind of equipment? Small European governments aren't that well supplied. Something's scratching at the back door of my thoughts, tryin' to get in, wantin' company. But right now, the door's swelled shut.
"Hey, Smoky, git the li'l lady a drink on me, why dontcha."
I shrug, pull out a fresh cig. "Sure, what's another nail in the coffin?" I look over my shoulder to see who's next in line, wantin' something from me. Except his is a face I've seen before, just when I'm gettin' used to all the weathered, bristled mugs runnin' together in an indistiguishable blur, and I'm just tonight's entertainment to them. Now they're startin' to repeat themselves. I sigh. "Kid, I think you're followin' me."
His face brightens, like a puppy let in the door. "You remember me, then? Aw, I knew it. I could feel it, when you was singin' down at the Salty Dog, somethin' between you an' me. You felt it, too, din'tcha?"
I roll my eyes. That saloon, what a hole. So delapidated, ya took your chances leaning on the walls, for fear of knockin' the whole place down. Sawdust was all over the floor, and I never figured out if it was termites, or the owner's way of soppin' up spilled booze. Maybe some of both. It wasn't the kind of place ya usually even looked for a singer, but it'd been a bad week for me, and I talked the guy into a trade, and sang for my supper. The food tasted like sawdust, too.
I remember the kid, there. He was too fresh-faced and wide-eyed, so outta place, and I remember thinkin', I wonder how long he'll last, how long before that car called life runs him over, or before he turns tail and runs back to his nice, cozy home, to his own bed, in his own room, with a baby sister, his mamma, and a dog in the backyard for company. This ain't the life for him.
He'd bought me a drink then, too, and I'd taken it, to wash the sawdust down. Maybe it'd've been better if I'd given him a kick in the shorts then, and sent him packin'. Sent him back where he belonged.
I drag on my cigarette, and blow smoke in his face. "What's your name, kid? Scarletti?" He nods eagerly, tail wagging, if he had one. "Ya know, kid, I like ya. But I'm poison. Trouble sticks to me like stink on old fish. Do yourself a favor, and forget me."
"Aw, no, ma'am, you ain't poison, you cain't be. And anyways, I like listenin' to your voice."
"Y'do, huh? Why's that?"
"It's- it's- well, my ma, she used to sing ta me…before I…left. You, well, you remind me of her. You sound like her."
I take another drag, and a swallow of the Scotch in front of me. They don't much bother stockin' any quality liquor down around the wharves, and this stuff I'm drinkin' is about as rock-gut as it gets. "Go on home, kid. Your ma's waitin' for ya. Trust me, whatever it was, it ain't as bad as ya think. You'll be happier."
He's got his head bowed, shakin' it from side to side, won't look me in the eye. "No, I- I cain't go back. They don't want me back." His shoulders slump, he's damned if he'll cry in front of me.
"Go on. Do it. You'll see. They miss ya, and they're worried. Ya got somethin' to lose?"
He looks at me finally, and I can see the battle churnin' inside him. He wants to believe, he really does. God, who am I to be convincin' this kid where he belongs? I must be crazy, as well as a fool. I can't help myself, I feel the softening in my face. "Go on, kid. Get yourself home."
And as simple as that, he gets up off his stool, puts a hand on my shoulder, squeezes, and without a word, walks out the door. God. *Now* I have influence over someone. I might've liked that, once, but I know better than to think I got all the answers, at this point. I'm tempted to call the kid back, tell him my advice ain't worth the paper it's written on. Or maybe I should stay outta other people's lives, starting now.
I start lookin' over the sheet music Smoky's brought out. The selection ain't great, mostly the type of songs ya find in karaoke bars, and a quick image comes to my mind of the seedy barflies in this joint standin' up in front of the crowd and singin' "Feelings" and "You Light Up My Life." I'd laugh, if I cared. I leaf through the pages for something to sing that suits my mood. I'm about to suggest to Smoky that he try to hire someone a little more perky to sing these songs, that maybe Wayne Newton can give him some suggestions, maybe help him line up Abba, or the Singing Nun-someone who can sing these odes to blissful ignorance-when I finally uncover a sheaf of music more to my liking.
I reach for my cig in an overflowing ashtray. Shufflin' through the music, I come across several Porters, something by Ellington, a Bernstein or two, and my mind wanders back to him, again, what he felt like, dancing, the looks between us when we sang together. God, will I ever get over this longin'?
I chuckle, an ironic note of cheer, when I find the song I will use as my opening number, and say, more to myself than anyone, "Yeah, this'll do. 'Nobody Loves You, When You're Down And Out.'"
"I do." The voice behind me is soft, tentative, sorta hesitant, but what it says sounds more assured. I jab my cigarette in the ashtray, thinkin' I wasn't so good at reformin' the kid as I thought, and I look in the dirt-streaked mirror behind the bar. I feel a hand gently touch my shoulder, just as I jerk my head around, not believin' what the mirror tells me. But it's true.
I can't say any more; the lump in my throat is as big as a grapefruit. My insides are expanding like a hundred sponges. His hand is electric on my shoulder. My mouth hangs open like some dumb fish, but I'm frozen, and can't do anything about it.
He takes my silence for a cue…I haven't slapped him, I haven't lunged at his throat, I haven't sicked Smoky on him, even though all those things rip through my mind, so it must be okay if he stays. He moves across behind me, pullin' a stool out to sit. His hand, with the lightest, fever-hot touch I could ever imagine, follows his direction along my shoulders and down my arm, stoppin' just short of takin' my hand. The tingling trail it leaves on my flesh seems to debone me in that single move. I don't know how I stay seated on my stool, I think I've gotta be slithering down to the floor in a heap. But his hand is holding me there, upright, and I'm starin' at him.
"Wanda…" he finally says. His voice. I shut my eyes, wantin' to prevent the hurt I know he's bringin'. "I've been looking for you…everywhere…for so long. Wanda, I…"
**Oh, God, oh God, oh God.** My mind's a whirl, a teacup ride spinnin' outta control, the sound of him, the touch of him, whippin' me around faster and faster, and I can't see, everything's a blur, I'm dizzy from bein' so close to him once more. I find my voice. "Y- you aren't who you pretend to be. You ain't who I thought…"
He looks down, away from me, but his hand is still on my arm, and it tightens. "Wanda, I tried…I'm sorry. I wanted to tell…I've never wanted to hide anything from you, truly I didn't…"
"You're a thief! And a liar! Man, can I pick 'em." I'm grabbin' the rail of the bar, white-knuckled. "You tryin' to tell me you *wanted* me to know you're an outlaw? You proud of that? You are an amazin' piece of work, Clark Barre." My voice is back, my skeleton's in place again, and I wrench my arm away from him, hop off the stool.
He's shakin' his head, vigorously, "No, no, I…"
The door to this dive opens, sun burstin' in where it's never been welcome, streamin' rays through smoke and dust that've hung in the air here forever, never settlin', never dissipatin'. The silhouette in the door multiplies >from one to several, the outline of their hats and the guns in their hands givin' them away as cops.
"Everyone freeze!" It seems sort of silly-noone has moved. There aren't many in the bar yet, and the customers that frequent places like this in the middle of the day ain't the type to move very fast to begin with. Me, I'm gettin' used to this sorta thing now, and it's startin' to get old. The cops come up to us, Clark, and me, and Smoky, who's been hoverin' around behind the bar through this new chapter in my life. Maybe he's writin' a bad novel.
A plain clothes detective comes in. "Farkle, book everyone. If he's here, I'd bet on this being the drop point. His contact'll be one of these…" he sweeps an arm around the room in a wide swath, "…dregs of humanity." He walks right up to us, "Clark Barre, you're under arrest. You have the right to remain silent…"
The ringin' in my ears wells up into a symphony of noise drownin' everything else out. If I didn't know better, I'd think I have a brain tumor.
They've thrown us in holding cells, and I'm spendin' the hours gettin' to know my roomies, a coupla hookers who look like they'd consider the term "street walker" as upper class. I think about Frank — Frank! I don't even know where he is, what he's doin' — and I'm tempted to ask their rates, see if two dollars is a good trick for them. I've given the cell a good once over, about a thousand times, all day long. I figure I oughta get to know my new digs; I'll be spendin' some time here. Face it. I'm guilty. I'm an accomplice to Clark's thievin' ways. If I'm not guilty of stealin' exactly, I'm sure as hell guilty of lovin' the wrong men. I'm an accomplice to the crime of my love life. Maybe some time away from them'll do me good.
"Woo, sister, you one of them uptown girls, wearin' them duds, you are," the gum chewer says to me. "How'd they catch you?"
I huff at her admiration, more to myself than her. This dress, it's about the last piece of clothing I own. The only thing I've got that hasn't been pawed and torn by the unending parade of bar patrons that make up my adoring audience these days. It makes me wonder, though, how do I deal with my cellmates? They might take me in for one of their own — I'm picturin' myself in a Women-in-Prison movie, me runnin' the cell block, all bulked up >from havin' nothing to do but lift weights, doin' chin-ups on the end of the bunk. I don't say much, and all the inmates fear me, scared just of lookin' at me wrong, so they bring me cartons of cigarettes. Even the bulls — that's what they're called, ain't they, the guards? — keep their distance. I can make up my destiny, let 'em wonder about my mysterious past. I could start right now. **Me? I'm just here 'cuz I murdered my man bare-handed. Kept swipin' my butts, and I got fed up.** Then I give 'em a look, and they're fallin' all over themselves to be the first to supply my tobacco. Or I can just be one of the gang, a street-wise, fast talkin' lady of the evening. Except I don't think these gals would ever call themselves "ladies."
"They didn't pick me up on the street. Something about a stolen car." I finally say.
"Honey, you oughta know better than to steal your pimp's wheels."
I roll my eyes. "Sugar, you're missin' the point. I ain't one of you. I'm a hoofer."
"Hoofer? That what they call it uptown?" She looks at my shoes. "Oooo, kinky." The gum chewer giggles and elbows her friend in the tiger print tube top.
I sigh. What's the point? Tiger Top pulls out a cigarette. I nod at her. "Got another one of those?"
She shrugs and hands me one. "Won't do you no good. No lights."
"Right now I think I could just chew on it," I say.
"In pretty deep, ain't ya?"
"Deep as it gets." I lean against the bars.
But only for a moment. The door clanks as a guard unlocks and opens it. He points at each of us, in turn. "Batter One, Batter Two, Batter Three, yer up," and he motions us outta the cell and down the corridor. We're ushered into arraignment court. My new way of life: I'll sit here on this bench with the "girls," waitin' for my turn in front of the judge. Then I'll wait through a bunch of other court sessions, then I'll wait in prison for the length of the sentence handed down on me, say, two to five.
I see them bring Clark in through the side door, the same door that introduced me to this courtroom, and I know I'll become familiar with the maze of passageways to the cells beyond, before long. He's set down on the opposite end of the room from me, and I look away when I see him start to scan his surroundings, put my head down, like that will hide me. He's a magnet I can't escape, though, and I find myself sneakin' looks in his direction. Okay, starin'. He's sittin', cool, in a way I don't expect, erect, dignified, not like some common, low-life criminal. Proud. He's got an air about him. I catch him lookin' in the gallery, and smilin' reassuringly. I follow his gaze. Margaret and Hank. They're as poised as he is, calm, at peace. This might as well be another town picnic. Maybe they've got a basket of cold chicken on the bench next to them, and they're gonna invite the whole courtroom to join them. Hell, they're probably roastin' in a pit in the parking lot.
Then I see who's sittin' with them, well, behind them, but he's leanin' over the back of their pew to talk to them. I go cold, clammy. Confused. He's talking to them, heads together, an intimate connection between them; they've known each other longer than a day. Kent's got his arm draped over the back of the bench, casually, but there's something in his manner that's deferential to the Barres. I'm tryin' to put this all together, in my mind, draw a link I've never seen before, and Margaret's eye catches mine. It startles me a minute, her acknowledging me here, and she smiles, nods knowin'ly, conspiratorially, and heat rises up my neck to the top of my scalp. I think I've been suckered. I turn away from them, starin' at the judge's bench, but not seein'.
The gum chewer nudges me. "That your guy over there, lookin' atcha?"
It's a reflex, that's all. She says it, I look. At him. And I can't tear my eyes away. They're locked with his. I think he's tryin' to tell me something. Probably, "You're screwed." But his face isn't hard, his expression's not vindictive. What's he sayin'?
There's a voice in my ear. "He's a cute one. Doesn't look too bad to work for…Hey, ya think ya can get me an *interview*?" I can see her "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" expression without turnin' to look at her.
"Ya don't get it, Sugar. We're hoofers, not hookers. *Hoofers*…Dancers, okay? Like on Broadway?"
"Uh-huh, okay, honey, if you say so."
I still can't take my eyes off Clark. And he hasn't looked away from me, either. I wish I understood him. Men in general. Maybe the human race as a whole. But right now, there's a fog around my thoughts, thick as stew. I can barely understand myself. There's still a little tickle in the back of my brain, tryin' to tell me something. But the harder I try and grab onto it, the further away it goes. I don't think I ever got rid of enough clutter in there.
We're next on the docket. The court clerk calls out, "The People versus Detroit and Barray."
"That you, honey?" Tiger Top asks. "Alrighty, you go tell 'em what's what, and who's who."
The judge asks the clerk what the charges are. "Your Honor, we have a stolen vehicle full of allegedly illegal, high-tech, electronic surveillance equipment, 243 parking violations, and a littering fine for all the tickets that didn't stay on the windshield."
"And it effects the people in front of us, how, Mac?"
"Well, Your Honor, the owner of the vehicle, Mr. Barray-"
"That's pronounced, 'bar'…" Clark interrupts, and the clerk and the judge both glare at him. "…Sorry, *Your Honor*."
The clerk continues, "The owner of the vehicle, Mr. *Barre*, reported it stolen, but he didn't know where it was stolen from, because he left it with his girlfriend, but he didn't know where his girlfriend was, but she was reported in possession of the vehicle by state troopers who helped helped her change a tire, but then it was abandoned, so she was missing, and it incurred 243 parking violations before they impounded it, at which time the highly sensitive electronic equipment was discovered in the vehicle, which Mr. *Barre*…" he finally stopped to take a deep breath, and glare at Clark again, "…claims are legal, but has no permits for, as he claims those papers were in a duffel bag full of French currency that was missing from the vehicle when it was found near the Fifty-second and Third subway entrance."
"You ever think of writing a novel about what you hear in the courtroom, Mac?" the judge asks.
"No sir, I don't think anyone would believe me."
"Gotcha, Mac." The judge looks at us. "How do you folks plead?"
I look at Clark, who looks at me. We're both confused. I look at the judge. "What was the question?"
This startles him. "Good question. Mac? What, exactly, are the charges?"
The lady is charged with grand theft auto, and leaving her vehicle in the gutter until no more tickets would fit under the windshield wipers, sir."
"Thank you, Mac."
"Your Honor," Clark speaks up, "I'd like to drop the charge of theft…"
"Trying to make my life easier, are you?" the judge says. "Cool. Okay, that just leaves the parking violations. How much does 243 tickets add up to, Mac?"
"Four thousand, three hundred, seventy-four dollars, sir."
The judge looks at me. "That's quite a fine you've got there, Miss…"
**This is it? What about the bag of money? French currency? What about Clark bein' on the lam? What about me bein' an accessory, like a matching purse and belt? What about getting thrown into the big house, where accessories are two shoes that match?**
"If you say so, Your Honor," I say.
"Well, I'm gonna say so, unless you convince me otherwise."
"I don't have the money to pay that fine, Your Honor," I say, then add, "It ain't my car."
"Hoookaayyy…Let's look at the other end of this, Mac. What about all these electronic gizmos you mentioned?"
"Well, sir, the FCC wants to know what this guy is doing with some of these things. The vehicle is practically a satellite on rollers. They want to know what he's beaming, and where to, so to speak."
"Mac, we got hookers on the docket sometime tonight, right?"
"Of course, sir."
"Good. Just checking."
**Interesting take on the law,* I think.
"Mr. Barray-" the judge starts.
"*Barre*, Your Honor."
"Barre. Mr. Barre, you want to tell me about Kit the Wonder Car?"
Clark shrugs. "It's legal, Your Honor."
"You got any proof of that?"
"Um, there should be records on file with the FCC. And isn't it someone's job to prove that they aren't legal? Not the other way around…"
"Mac, is this guy trying to tell me the law?" the judge says outta the corner of his mouth.
"Kinda seems that way, sir, but he has a point. There's nobody from the FCC here to prove they aren't legal."
The judge rolls his eyes. "Okay, what I see is we got a bunch of parking fines, and that's about it…I'm throwing out the litter fine because the meter maid was too stupid to have the car impounded earlier, at say 100 tickets, or 50. So, Mr. Barray…Barre, I mean, it's your car, your fine. What do you say?"
Clark turns to me. "Wanda, what did you do with the money? That bag in the trunk?"
"I gave it to charity."
"Y- you gave it to charity?" Clark rocks back on his heels and laughs. Really laughs. A belly shaking guffaw. "She gave it to charity. Hohoho heehee hahaha." We all stare at him, the whole courtroom, at tears streakin' down his cheeks.
The judge lets out a sigh, and picks up his gavel. "This is so typical. Order, order in the court." He says it in a monotone, like he's bored with having to say it, like he's said it too many times in his career.
"I- I'm- I'm sorry, Your Honor. I guess I have no money to pay the fine."
"That doesn't seem to distressing to you, Mr. Barre."
"Well, I guess it isn't really, sir. A lot of that money would have gone to charity, anyway. I'm glad Wanda thinks the way she does."
"Wanda…Wanda?" The judge rustles through the papers on his bench. "Wanda Detroit? Mac, why didn't you tell me this was Wanda Detroit?"
This is Wanda Detroit! You are Wanda Detroit, right? *The* Wanda Detroit?"
I nod. I'd hate to think there were any other Wanda Detroits out there, leadin' anything like the life I've lived.
"I could never rate tickets to your show. Not even the scalpers were any help."
I smile weakly.
"And when I finally did get my hands on some, finagled my boss out of them, what happens? Suddenly, the show's closed." His eyes narrow. He zeros in on me, but doesn't seem to see me. "Ms. Wanda Detroit, here in my courtroom, owing the great city of New York a wad of moolah." Then his eyes focus. "Ms. Detroit, do you know Mel Torme?"
That catches me off guard. "Uh, well, I was on the same bill with him in Las Vegas, one night." I leave out the part about never seeing him there.
"Sing us a song, Wanda."
"Put on a show, a little singing, a little dancing, with your partner, there," he waves at Clark. "That's your fine. That…and I want you to get me Mel Torme's autograph. I don't suppose you could do any of Mel's songs?"
"But- but, I need music, and there isn't enough room to dance here, and Clark and me, we ain't worked together in a while, and I couldn't possibly do any songs of Mel Torme's!" That last part, I shoulda been more careful how I said it. I see the judge's face harden when I mention his idol. "I mean, I couldn't possibly do justice to the 'Velvet Fog,' Your Honor…"
He relaxes a bit, nodding at me. "Of course. You do your own material."
As we're saying this, the court bailiff, a huge, bald, Cro-Magnon looking kind of man has already started clearing the tables, chairs, and people outta the way. Suddenly, I'm gonna be a star again. Sorta. I start imagining newspaper headlines: "Jailbird Sings for Freedom," and "Wanda Detroit Gives Her Regards to Broadway, Singin' Jail House Rock." Before I can blink, the floor is cleared, the judge has a boom box on his bench with a bunch of CD's, and everyone's starin' at me and Clark.
I whisper to Clark, "I guess we're destined to be sentenced to each other, whether we like it or not."
"I like it," he whispers back. I jerk my head sharply at him. He's smiling the warmest, most genuine smile I've seen since…since Petiton, I think. He's perfectly happy with this situation.
We check out the CD's, choose something we know well.
"Ready?" the judge asks.
I take a deep breath, blow it out hard, and look at Clark. He nods. "I was born ready, Your Honor," I say.
He pushes the button, and the music begins.
It's like another world, once we start. There's Clark, and me, and nothing else. There could be spotlights shinin' over the room, highlighting us, blankin' out anything else. It's just us, and the music.
I let the music flow through me for a couple bars, gettin' the feel for it, gettin' myself together, until it takes over, and I'm part of it, as much as it's part of me. I step towards Clark, and he reaches out to me, takes my hands and sweeps me into his embrace, and back into the universe we used to inhabit, together, once upon a time, before the unending march of time eroded a chasm between us wider than the Grand…expanse of his broad, well-formed pecs that I'm now pressin' against. I think I'm gonna melt. We're spinnin' around the room, I'm followin' Clark's lead in a dizzyin' display of moves I never knew he had.
I move close to him, and take the opportunity to say, dryly, "Thanks for droppin' the stolen car charge, Clark. You're a real prince." I see his jaw tighten, a pasty look that says dry heaves ain't far behind, unless someone gets him some bicarbonate of soda. I don't have time to think about it; I gotta sing.
*Dancing in the dark
'Til the tune ends
We're dancing in the dark*
Prince, prince, prince. My mouth is singin' away, but my brain is off on a different mission. Clark is a prince of a guy. Yeah, right. Like that prince in the newspaper article. The Prince of Berets, or something. Clark Barray, Prince of Thieves. How did I ever get that idea? Just because there was a bag full of cash in the trunk of a car. But it wasn't even American money, was it? Was it? Could I really not've noticed? Am I really that myopically stupid? Ya don't get French francs outta the local 7-11, or Texaco. Duh.
*And it soon ends
We're waltzing in the wonder
of why we're here…*
Clark whips me around, backwards into a dip, and I kick my legs high. I've always been limber, and I like to flaunt it. I'm swingin' above his head, across his shoulders, and I land, stretched, across the top of the judge's bench. I lean in close to him.
*Time hurries by
We're here and gone
Looking for the light
Of a new love
To brighten up the night*
He's grinnin' ear to ear, but I nearly fall off the bench as he pulls plastic flowers outta his robe sleeve, and hands them to me. I'm saved, barely, by Clark catchin' me, fallin' in his arms, cradled and safe. I've lost my breath, but I'm looking at him, and everything's clickin' in place.
*I have you, love
And we can face the music, together
Dancing in the dark…*
"You ain't from West Virginia, are you?" I gasp.
"No," he whispers, then realizes I've missed the last couple lines of the song.
*Hear this heart of mine
Make yours part of mine
Dear one, tell me that we're one
Dancing in the dark…*
I stop, stock still, and stare at him. The emotion in his voice is raw as beef hangin' in a freezer. He'd sung in the show, but now, here, he's lookin' at me, the way I remember he used to, the way he did so long ago, a lifetime ago, that first time, in Gus'. He can see everything I think and feel, I'm sure of it. That look, it's got me right where he wants me, under his spell. I can feel the heat coursin' through me, a furnace on high, and I think if he keeps holding me, my touch will sear his skin. But now, I think, I can feel him, too, his warmth, his fire sweeping first over him, then me. He sets me down, and I twirl away, enough to breathe again.
We keep our feet moving, in some semblance of a dance, as much to keep each other in proximity, to really see each other from all sides, as to pay our debt to society. A get-out-of-jail-free dance. A find-the-other-half-of-your-soul dance.
He nods, hesitantly, "More or less…it's now part of France."
"You're a prince?"
He gives a sheepish smile. "Without a throne."
We're dancing close, now, a back and forth rhythm, swiveling and pressing and grinding together.
"The money? The electronics?"
"The royal treasury. Security equipment. All just to establish privacy, and keep me connected to home, and still let me have a normal life…"
"What's Kent to you?" I ask, just as he spins me away.
*Dancing in the dark
'Til the tune ends
We're dancing in the dark…*
An image of Frank, talkin' about blowin' up chemistry labs jumps in my head. I don't need a mirror to see the chemical reaction between us. A bolt of electricity almost flows between us. A flood of energy, heat, and what must be ion particles races through my veins, and I burst towards him, kicking high when I reach him, and he catches my leg, high over his shoulder, and holds me there, pivoting me on my toes, his arm behind me.
I fling the plastic bouquet, something that woulda been right at home in that Las Vegas wedding chapel, over my shoulder, and hear a cat fight start up between Tiger Top and the gum chewer for it.
"He's…well, sort of a valet." He says, as he drops me backwards, leaning over me, and letting my leg wrap over his shoulder. His lips brush my throat, and I let my head fall away, lost in the sensations shooting through me from his touch. **Kent's a man's man, huh? Oh! Oooo! But I don't think there's any man like this one holding me.**
"He's your servant? So, you, you, that was your show! Your financing. You ran it, and he was your front man!"
"Not totally. It was my backing, but he's quite capable of handing the details. I just wanted to be near you."
I feel like I've been holding my breath for years. My thoughts swim, I can hardly remember where I am. **Just to be near me?** I can't imagine anyone goin' to the lengths Clark's admittin' to just for me. What is it? Do I produce extra pheromones? I think I should be angry, fumin' that I was kept in the dark so long. In a pitch black cave, so dark, I couldn't tell if my eyes were open or closed. But the part of me that's been missin' him, that knows what it feels like to be separated from him, that part of me says **let go, you've been wanting him, it's been too long.** And I can't help myself. It's true. I don't think I could live, apart from him, again. I love him.
We're still moving towards the floor, and I think, **Oh, God, he's gonna take me right here,** and the idea of spending time in jail for lewd and lascivious conduct is the only thing that stops me. I twist out of his hold, and here we are, down on the floor, facing each other, on all fours, crouching, and watching each other's next move.
The music's endin', although I'm barely aware of it anymore, or our audience. We crawl to each other, our mouths meeting first, and the power of the link lifts us up and closer to each other, until we're on our knees, the rest of our bodies melding together, in a fusion nuclear physicists would want to study, if we let them. It's nothing like the kiss from the show, or even from our date. It's more than I ever thought possible, that anyone could say as much as he's tellin' me, in this hot, liquid, breathy reacquaintance of tongues, lips, tastes, and the earthy, electricity-in-the-air smell that set my nerves tinglin' whenever I'm near him. The heat rises up, burnin' my scalp, setting my hair on end, and my ears on fire. It cuts a path through my being, into my soul, where Clark's always been able to go, with only a touch, or a look, or his tongue. I can feel him, pulsin', throbbin, a searin' search asking me to give him my soul. Everything he's askin', I'm tellin him I'll give him, with every thrusting probe, I give him in answer. And I'm askin' him for the same thing, back. With every move he makes, he's tellin' me, "Yes."
The room is silent. The music's gone. I hear a shuffle in the vacuum of sound, then a quiet cough, and I pull away from Clark, enough to look around. Several dozen eyes are pinned, unblinking on us, mouths gaping, stunned. I smile, embarrassed, and they snap out of their trance. The eruption of cheers and applause that follows is deafening, and we're being surrounded and jostled by the entire courtroom.
I don't care about any of that. Clark is in my arms, and I don't ever want to let go. We've got a lot to talk about, to figure out. He's got some explainin' to do. But he's still kissing me, my throat, my neck, my ear, and I'm not gonna worry about anything else, until I have to. I run my tongue along his jawline, to his ear, and say, "French, huh? You've got the kiss down pat."
"Oui, ma petite chou-chou." His breath sets my hair tinglin'. "Je t'adore."
**Ooo, la la.**
Alright, just so you know who to blame, the truth is, I wrote this. My one and only. The disclaimers: Wanda is theirs, Rex is mine. Clark is theirs, Barre's mine. Kent is theirs, Tucker's mine. Anybody want Frank? No? Okay, he's mine, too <g>. The story is mine, except the parts that aren't. Thanks to Cole Porter, Duke Ellington/E. DeLange/I. Mills, A. Dietz/H. Schwartz, and William Shakespeare for being way better poets than me (I say with understatement)…Hey, look, Ma! No LOUDSPEAKERS!