City of Flickering Light
Hollywood was built by women and Jews—those were people not allowed in respectable professions. It was not taken seriously as a business, so women and Jews could get into it.
Cari Beauchamp, Hollywood historian
Blood raced through Irene’s veins like a brushfire, thrumming in her ears as she sat in the train car waiting for just the right moment. The window to her new life—or newest life—would open only briefly before it shut with a defeated thump.
She rubbed the spot on her hip where the awful flag costume had dug in. Mr. Chandler always ordered their costumes a size too small because “burlesque patrons like them tight.” The Fourth of July had been a week ago, and the irony of seven days wearing the stars and stripes, symbol of freedom, strapped around her like a titillating little straitjacket was not lost on Irene.
Independence Day, she thought anxiously. Better a week late than never.
“Now?” whispered Millie, her fingers inching along the leather bench seat toward Irene’s thigh, as if Irene were some sort of rabbit’s foot to rub for good luck. Irene nudged them away.
Henry’s eyes were on them, his gaze boring into Irene from his rear-facing seat, through the dust motes swirling between them
in the merciless southwest sunlight. He cocked his head almost imperceptibly, a what’s-going-on look.
Irene shrugged, willing her face to relax into some facsimile of composure.
Barney’s massive frame suddenly filled the aisle beside them. “Ladies,” he said, reptilian eyes scanning the landscape of their bodies. “And gentleman.” His gaze went dull as it took in Henry, the lowest paid among them. Irene knew it was more than that; it was jealousy. Henry’s good looks were made for photographs—thick dark hair and large brown eyes set off by pale unblemished skin, a study in contrasts. All the girls loved Henry, their well-mannered rascal.
None of them loved Barney, Mr. Chandler’s right-hand man, as he liked to say. Right-hand hatchet man, they whispered privately. Irene had seen him take a girl by the hair and hit her till she dropped like a sack of laundry.
“Why’re your bags under the seat?” he demanded. “Oughta be in the baggage car.”
Irene sighed, feigning mild annoyance. “No room.”
“We don’t mind,” said Millie. “Makes it easier to put our feet up.” She set the heel of her t-strap pump onto the protruding case and crossed the other leg over, her dress slipping up above her knee. Her blue eyes went coy as she tugged the thin cotton fabric of her dress down a little, the lacy edge of her slip still perfectly visible. Barney’s eyes took in that distant shoreline, a scurvy sailor hungry for a decent meal.
“Tickets?” said Irene.
“Now, don’t go and lose them.” Barney tugged them out of the pocket of his vest, spotted with whatever meal he’d last eaten. Something with gravy, it looked like. When Millie reached for hers, he pulled his hand back. “You gonna lose it?” he said. “?’Course you are. Ain’t got the sense God give a goat.”
Irene froze. If he held Millie’s ticket, what would they do? She couldn’t leave Millie behind, now that she’d promised to take her. Gone soft already, she chided herself, and she was barely twenty-one. Uncharacteristically, she’d felt a strange need for company.
Well, you’ll have company now, won’t you? All the way to hell.
Millie tittered stupidly, even for Millie. “Give it to Irene to hold for me, then,” she said. “She never lost a thing in her life.”
Barney handed over the tickets, and Irene had to keep her fingers from gripping them too tightly. Before moving on to the next row of young girls in his herd, the huge man tossed another ticket at Henry, who had to snatch it from the air before it fell to his feet.
He was still eyeing Irene, and she gave him a sharp look. He glanced away, sufficiently cowed, and fiddled with the strap of his rucksack, which she knew held only a few personal items and a tattered notebook of jokes—mostly bad ones, if his comedy act was any indication.
There it was, the faint shushing sound Irene had been dreaming of and fretting about for weeks. The engine ground into gear, and she counted, just as she had at the last stop and the one before that, to get the timing down. Timing was everything in life. She’d learned that early on.
Thirteen . . . fourteen . . . fifteen.
As the engine strained to move countless tons of steel, the red sandstone of the Flagstaff, Arizona, train depot seemed to shudder in her view. The conductor stood at the other end of the car, scolding the porter. Irene could barely hear him over the groaning of the engine. “ . . . under their seats! . . . supposed to be in baggage! . . .” He was shrunken and white haired with a mustache that trailed down off his jowls like curtain pulls. He glared up at the young black man, who shook his head—in truthful innocence, Irene knew. She herself had told him the baggage porter said the
car was full, and they should stow their suitcases beneath them. The conductor poked the young man’s chest now and motioned for him to get the cases.
The wheels hadn’t begun to turn yet. Something was holding up the train, and if they left too soon, Mr. Chandler would send Barney after them.
The young porter wasn’t moving though. She could see the anger flashing in his eyes. Things were changing. The younger Negroes who’d fought in the Great War didn’t come home to be pushed around as they had been before.
Fight back, Irene silently urged the porter. Refuse him.
But before her thoughts could find their mark, the young man was making his way toward them. There was a screeching sound, metal on metal, and the car lurched forward.
“Now!” said Irene, and Millie began tugging at her case.
“It’s stuck!” cried Millie.
“Damn thing’s overstuffed,” Irene muttered as her case swung wildly in her grip. “For godsake, pull harder!”
“Where are you—” started Henry.
“Quitting!” Irene hissed under her breath at Henry as the train began to roll, slowly picking up speed.
“Please!” Millie begged the porter who’d made his way to them. “We’ve got to get out!”
The young man shot a look over his shoulder at the conductor now barreling down the aisle toward them. He turned back and gave Millie’s suitcase a hard yank. “You go on now,” he said, handing it to her. “And good luck to you. All the luck in the world.” He stepped back into the aisle, effectively blocking the conductor.
Irene ran in the opposite direction, case banging against her knees and the elbows of passengers as she flew by them. “Hey now!” they cried out. “Watch it!” Through the dust-speckled windows, the landscape was moving, low buildings giving way
to fields and distant pines. She nearly collapsed into the door of the car, grabbing the long metal handle and tugging upward. The door flew sideways with a clank just as Millie fell into her. They staggered a moment and headed down the steps. The train was moving faster now, and Irene felt herself hesitate. If she broke her legs, then where would she be?
A sudden shove from behind and she was flying through the air. She collapsed in the hog-mown brush by the train tracks, stiff shafts of weeds poking into her knees and hands. There was a shriek, and Irene looked up in time to see Millie tumble down the railroad bed ahead of her. In another moment, a black mop of hair bobbed up out of the weeds, and Millie let out a whoop. “Ireeeeene!” she howled. “We did it!”
They watched the train recede into the landscape, and Irene felt the warm piney air fill her lungs, as if it were the first full breath she’d taken in years.
Just as the horizon had nearly swallowed the train whole, something else jumped off, a large, dark-colored blob that flopped to the ground and rolled into the brush.
“Run!” Irene screamed. “Millie, run!”
They bolted, cases forgotten in the jeopardy of the moment. They knew what happened to girls who tried to leave before Mr. Chandler was ready to let them go. He set Barney on them with strict instructions to leave no visible marks. Mr. Chandler said bruises were a distraction to the men in the audience and encouraged the girls to comport themselves with care. The only place Barney was allowed to hit them was their heads, where hair would cover any lumps or bruises.
Irene and Millie skittered to a stand of pines, chests heaving as they gasped for breath, and hid behind a thick tree trunk. Irene peered out to see how close behind them he was but saw only the
golden crowns of waist-high weeds gently swaying in the noon sunlight.
“Think he’s dead?” Millie wheezed from behind her.
“Maybe just knocked out.”
“Long enough for us to go back and get the bags?”
Who knew? Either way they needed those suitcases. They wouldn’t get far wearing the same clothes day after day. Irene looked around. There was a dead branch on the ground, about three feet long and thick enough to do some damage.
“You get the bags,” she said, hefting it as they crept forward. “I’ll keep an eye out.”
Millie grinned. “They sure don’t teach this kind of thing in finishing school.”
“I didn’t go to finishing school.”
“And you can thank your lucky stars for that!”
They inched through the grass and came upon Irene’s suitcase first. Her uncle had bought it in some Podunk town in the middle of nowhere. That’s where she and her sister had performed, mostly, though they had made it to Portland, Oregon, once and played at the Pantages. Vaudeville had its seamy side, but Irene had soon learned it was a much kinder business than burlesque.
“Mine’s up a ways.” Millie headed down the track, closer to where Barney had fallen.
“Let’s leave it,” said Irene. “We can share clothes.”
“It’s not just clothes,” Millie said, hunching a little lower as she inched toward her case.
“What do you mean, ‘not just clothes’?”
“I mean there are other things, too.”
“What other things?”
“Things a girl needs, Irene.”
Irene shook her head. These were the kinds of conversations they had, Irene trying to get to the point, Millie saying
whatever came into her head, whether it was germane or not. Nevertheless there was something about Millie that made Irene want to line up next to her as they waited to go onstage or room with her when they arrived at a new town. She had something the other girls lacked, and it had taken a while for Irene to put her finger on it. But one day, as Millie leaned her chin on Irene’s shoulder, pointed to a picture of Hawaii in the magazine Irene was reading, and said they should save up the money to go, Irene had figured it out: hope for the future.
The future can seem like a shadow, nothing but a trick of the light, when you’re caught in a situation with virtually no escape. Irene often warned herself against daydreaming. Things had gone so unbearably wrong for her that hope seemed like a radical proposition. But it was like that picture of Hawaii, with its crystalline sand and turquoise waters: you told yourself to look away, but you found yourself peeking at it all the same. And then there was Millie, who seemed to have hope enough for both of them.
Chandler’s Follies was a thing with no future, only the leaden now. He rigged it so you could never make any real dough. After he’d paid you, then taken back what you owed him for the hotel room and the meals, the scant costume he rented you, and the fees he charged for even the smallest sundries like shampoo or a hairbrush, you were lucky to break even.
“I take care of everything to keep you safe,” he’d say as he detailed the evils of the world, which generally began and ended with prostitution. There was a perplexing elegance to him that lulled you into believing the most nonsensical things. He drank tea every morning from a silver tea set that he claimed had been brought from England by his grandfather, a younger son of a viscount. A man like that seemed to make sense simply by virtue of his noble bearing.
He might require you to strip naked every night and shake your what-have-yous in front of strangers, but he would protect you from the degradation of having your body violated. For many girls, whose prospects had dwindled to one or the other, this seemed like a fair bargain. You would give up all control of your life in order to remain safe from the ultimate sin.
It was a strange thing because little by little you came to realize there was nothing safe about Chandler. If you challenged him or stepped out of line in any way—came in late for curfew, flirted with the customers, or implied you might like to try a different line of work—an example would be made of you in front of the other girls, who were forced to watch as Barney grabbed a fistful of your hair and punched you in the head any number of times. And as you stood there in front of them with Barney’s knuckles cracking against your skull, you wanted nothing more than to apologize for subjecting them to the sight of it.
“We can’t chance it!” Irene hissed as Millie crept farther up the tracks.
“Trust me, it’s worth the risk,” Millie whispered over her shoulder.
This only served to unnerve Irene even more. What in God’s name could it be? Because none of them owned a thing. Chandler made sure of that. Whatever little memento or jewelry you came with, he took “for safekeeping.”
The suitcase was only a few feet away when they heard a groan like the sound of a wounded buffalo. The girls froze. Irene grabbed Millie’s arm to pull her away, but Millie wrenched free and lurched forward, diving for the case. Irene raised the branch.
The figure sat up. Not Barney. Not by a long shot.
“Henry, what on earth!” Irene said and flung the branch to the dirt.
“What on earth, yourself,” he muttered, rubbing the back of his head. “You jump off a moving train and you don’t even warn me?”
“You scared us half to death!” said Millie as they strode through the bramble toward him.
“Well, you’ll pardon me if I’m not sorry.” He got up onto his knees and searched for his rucksack. “And don’t worry, you won’t have to spend one more minute with me. I’m heading out on my own.” He located it and hiked a strap over his shoulder.
“Well, of course you’re not. You’re coming with us!” Millie said.
“I am not. Not after what you did.”
Irene put her hands on her hips. “And what’s that?”
“Left me without so much as a fare-thee-well!”
“We couldn’t tell you, don’t you see? If even a word of it got back to Chandler—”
Henry threw his arms into the air. “Oh, yes and I would just saunter up to that old bastard and say, ‘So I hear we’ll be bidding adieu to your two prettiest girls!’?”
Millie’s face went coy at the compliment. “Henry, that’s sweet.”
“No, it is not sweet!” he said. “It’s awful!”
“Henry,” said Irene, the bruises and cuts on her leg and hands starting to ache. “I couldn’t take the chance. I wasn’t even going to bring Millie—”
Millie’s face fell. “You weren’t?”
“Then why did you?”
“She’s . . . we’re just . . .”
“Friends,” said Millie.
Yes, I suppose we are, thought Irene, though she hadn’t had a friend in years. She didn’t even know that much about Millie—the normal things like where she’d grown up or how she’d ended up stripping. Nevertheless they’d just jumped off a moving train together; if Irene wanted to deny there was a bond between them, that case had just gotten much harder to make.
As for Henry, Irene wouldn’t have characterized them as friends exactly, but there was an unspoken affinity between them that mostly showed itself in the crossword puzzles they helped each other with between shows and the way their eyes seemed to find each other when Chandler was giving one of his many warnings about impertinence. They didn’t talk about anything more lofty or personal than whether they’d been to a particular town before or how lumpy the mattresses were in their rooms. But they’d laughed together—he did have a great sense of humor. She was the one he always came to when trying out a new joke.
And he was kind. There had been far too little of that in her life these last three years.
“I should have told you,” she said to him now. “We’re friends, too.”