by Marie Manilla
Belle Fleur was there on opening night thirty years ago. She doubts anyone remembers the skinny girl in the ill-fitting wig—a replacement for one of the hoochie coochie dancers who missed the train in Cincinnati.
“You can do it, Mavie,” her mother had said, already slipping her into the gypsy costume. “You’ve seen their act a thousand times.” Her parents were The Fire-Eating Royales. That night, Mavie adopted the stage name she’d been crafting her whole life, Belle Fleur, and posed with a dozen dancers while Mr. Waller mumbled his speech. Nobody booed, since he owned The Burlesque and paid for the acts that had arrived by train that afternoon. Belle and The Lovely Sisters and The Brothers Grimelda carried trunks two blocks to the theater. Mr. Peels, the chimpanzee wearing a suit, tipped his bowler hat to women and children as he’d been taught. Kids and drunks followed him all the way to the theater where the marquee read “Suitable for the Entire Family!” The hoochie coochies would have to clean up their act.
Directly across the street was the hotel still under construction, but they likely wouldn’t have taken in the performers anyway. Not the right clientele, they’d been told in town after town. After setting up the stage and unpacking costumes in the basement dressing rooms, the thirty-odd performers settled in the boardinghouse run by Mama T, with a backyard, thankfully, for the dancing pony and jump-roping dogs, but not for Mr. Peels, who refused to sleep outdoors.
Opening night, before the theater doors opened, the performers scattered like ants around the rococo-style house, caressing the orange drapes and seats, ogling the gold-rimmed balcony and gas wall sconces. The manager shooed them backstage when carriages arrived with the Waller family and other notables who lived in that stretch of stately homes Belle had walked by earlier with the knife thrower’s kids.
From the stage, Belle saw those fine ladies on the front row with their ascotted husbands, all of them decorated with more diamonds than Belle had ever seen, sparkling more brightly than the pounds of fake stuff the performers wore. Even Belle understood this crude display was a sign of new wealth.
Though the performers had been told it would be an integrated audience, she was surprised to see negroes sitting on the main floor right next to white folks, not just tucked in the balcony or peering in from the lobby. This didn’t bother most of the Northern performers, however, a mixed lot themselves: Jews, Germans, Irish, and Italians all sharing the same train car and toilets.
After the first dance number Mr. Waller bumbled on stage as skittish as Butter, the elephant that had been banned from the show. Waller talked to his feet, fidgeting in his ill-fitting tux, applauding the theater’s craftsmanship and promising only the best entertainment for his hard-working townsfolk. And then he finally did speak up. “I know you’ve all been anxiously awaiting the name of my new hotel, which will open this spring. Only one name will do: The Dorinda, offering the grandest accommodations for miles, suitable for statesmen and queens.”
Mr. Waller bowed to his wife, Dorinda, perched in the front-most box seat. “Now your name will forever be linked with opulence!”
Mrs. Waller leaned forward; the only things glistening on her were tears.
Thirty years later Belle was back in the theater—even if it was showing its age, but so was Belle. Last fall she’d been so thoroughly booed in Peoria for her botched dancing that she’d been reduced to getting spritzed in the face with seltzer and playing baseball with a goat.
Tonight there was only a smattering of men in the audience drinking bathtub gin from flasks. Belle kept missing her cues. Several men hooted: “Bring on the fan dancer! We want the fan dancer!”
But Chéri wasn’t for three more acts and at that moment was in the dressing room tending the baby.
Belle rushed offstage and downstairs to collect the infant who, like Waller’s hotel so many years ago, still had no name. The baby lay sleeping in an open trunk.
Chéri rouged her cheeks and fluffed her ostrich feathers. “Do I look all right?”
“You look just like—” Chéri blustered off before Belle finished. “—Irene Castle before she cut her hair.”
Belle changed into street clothes and scooped up the two-month-old whose lips pursed as it dream-suckled. The thought made Belle’s milk seep, a sensation she never thought she’d experience again, especially this late in life. She clamped the baby tighter to her chest and went into the hall, pressing herself against the wall to make way for an usher carrying a laundry basket, hidden bottles clanking beneath the sheets. He darted into the tunnel that had been gouged out a few years before to sneak liquor under Front Street to the hotel. Without forethought Belle followed him, her shoulders scraping the whitewashed walls, electric light bulbs dangling sporadically to guide the way.
The tunnel ended at a stone stairwell. Belle ascended and found herself in The Dorinda’s kitchen. Chefs piled silver-domed plates onto trays for waiters to serve to diners. Someone hollered: “Baked Alaska for the mayor!”
The baby cooed and a black dishwasher looked up, unperturbed, as if he were used to Madonna with Child rising from the pits. He nodded to a plate beside him loaded with scraps. Belle scooped up bread and a pork chop with a napkin and tucked it into her purse.
Belle followed a waiter into the dining room. The maître d’ spotted her and headed her way. She went in the opposite direction, but he expertly navigated around tables to reach her. Before he opened his mouth Belle said: “I just wanted the mayor to meet his new baby.” The maître d’ swiveled to the table where sat the mayor and his stout wife.
“Absolutely not,” sputtered the maître d’, whisking her and the baby through the main doors.
The lobby’s orange and gold décor matched The Burlesque’s with the grandest chandelier Belle had ever seen. If the mayor really were the baby’s father, Belle would be eating flaming desserts and wearing a beaded gown. But the father was a Baltimore wharfie who’d disappeared with Belle’s pocket watch. She skirted the lobby, peeking in the Gentlemen’s Club where men drank tea and smoked cigars, and the Ladies’ Parlor where women sipped tea and gossiped. One wall by the front door was crowded with autographed photos of Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, John Barrymore, entertainers famous enough to earn a room in The Dorinda. A sinking in Belle’s chest at what she had already seen coming.
Just that afternoon she had tried to quiet the baby by walking it around the theater. She paused at the Wurlitzer organ that had been installed several years prior and signaled vaudeville’s death, even here in Wallers Ferry, by moving pictures.
In The Dorinda, Belle faced a stairwell that begged to be ascended, but there was also an elevator car descending inside an ornate shaft. It hummed down, the uniformed operator opening the accordion gate and letting out two men who tucked coins in his hand.
Belle stood before the car, debating, until the operator, Jeb, one of Mama T’s boarders, leaned out. “Like a ride?”
Belle entered and watched Jeb work the levers with more skill than she thought he was capable of, felt the jolt as they made their way to the top floor.
Jeb opened the door, graciously not extending his tip hand. “Have a look around.”
Belle read suite names as she passed, each with engraved illustrations on the metal plates: Blood Fruit, Sleeping Bear Rocks, Ferryboat, little works of art, much nicer than the hand-painted numbers at Mama T’s.
A young couple exited one of the suites and Belle froze, embarrassed to be caught with the baby. They probably assumed she was the nanny. Or grandmother. The man bowed and forgot to lock the door. When they were out of sight Belle slipped inside and bolted the latch, awed by the high ceiling rimmed with crown molding, the dangling chandelier, gleaming parquet floor, separate dressing rooms for the man and woman. A basket filled with fresh blood fruit and caviar and familiar blue bottles, except now the labels read: Sparkling Juice—the factory having been converted during Prohibition.
Belle laid the baby on the bed and rifled through the woman’s dresses and jewelry. The pearl ring fit perfectly and she felt entitled to it. She also bundled a mink stole inside a kimono and set it by the door. She’d always wanted a fur. The baby cried and Belle sat in the chair by the front window to feed it, not the least bit afraid the couple might return. This was her town, a place she’d visited every year for three decades. This was her room. To prove it she gouged a B in the wooden arm of the chair with a diaper pin. The streetcar clanged and Belle looked below at Front Street where couples promenaded beneath streetlamps as if they were in Boston or New York.
“The Great White Way.”
The theater manager was already taking down the poster for the vaudeville that would leave by the midnight train, just hours away. He unrolled the newest poster and even from this height Belle could see it was for The Gold Rush. A crowd gathered around the poster, their excitement already predicting the movie’s success. The Dorinda would certainly accommodate Chaplin. Belle switched the baby to her other breast. “I should have gone into pictures.”
A whistle sounded and Belle felt the kathunkathunk-kathunkathunk as the train passed. She would miss Wallers Ferry even if it was harsher now that old Mr. Waller was dead. Last year, she and several of the performers had taken the streetcar to pay their respects.
The cemetery was on an acre of land surrounded by blood fruit trees. The Wallers’ obelisk was the most prominent, Mrs. Waller buried years before her husband, and now they rested side by side. After laying flowers on Waller’s stone the performers walked to the farthest corner to place a bunch of bananas on the grave of Mr. Peels, who had died in his sleep in Wallers Ferry two years before at the ripe age of forty-five.
The baby mewled and Belle looked down at it. She had thought she was beyond fertility, but several months earlier her body had begun blooming the way it had twenty years ago. Back then her parents were still working and it was her mother who noticed even before Belle. They were in the basement dressing room at The Burlesque. “You’re carrying,” Mother had said so matter-of-factly when Belle’s costume no longer fit. They left her there with Mama T who later delivered the thing. A month afterward Belle was at the train station to meet her family just passing through. Mother wanted to see the baby boy whom the boarders called Little Man.
Belle had waited on a bench inside the station letting him suck on a slice of blood fruit to keep him quiet. Beside her was a family speaking Russian, the mother handing peppermint sticks to her children. By her feet was her valise, wide open, filled with clothes and something wrapped in linen. Belle wondered what it was, if the woman had brought it in steerage across the Atlantic. Something valuable that they could sell to begin their new lives.
A whistle had sounded. The train carrying Belle’s family approached. She moved faster than she thought possible so that no one would see her reach in and grab that linen-wrapped treasure. She was on her feet before the family noticed, dashing to the door, then outside where the train was slowing down. She raced along the platform looking in windows until she spotted The Daring Palenkas and Teacup Lil. Belle hugged the thing to her and jumped on board, her mother heading her way, but Belle said, “Go back to your seat!”
When they were safely nestled Mother looked at the bundle in Belle’s hand, her face a puzzle as Belle unwrapped it to expose, not a baby, but a matryoshka doll. A couple of vaudeville kids leaned over their seatbacks. “What is it?” Belle picked the thing up and opened it to find another doll inside, and another, and another, all the way down to a baby no bigger than a lima bean.
Mother held the littlest one in her hand. “Where’s your baby?”
Belle looked out onto the platform and into the station, but she could not see the family.
“It died.” She wondered if at that moment the mother was looking inside her valise to find Little Man surrounded by three blood fruit that might keep him quiet.
Mother’s head dropped. She looked at all the nesting dolls on her daughter’s lap. “Maybe it’s for the best.”
The train lurched forward and as Belle reassembled the dolls her mouth opened but no sound came out.
Belle often wondered what happened to Little Man. If he spoke only Russian. If he learned his father’s trade. If they even kept him or turned him over to the station agent. Maybe Little Man was still living in Wallers Ferry, and every time Belle came to town she looked into the faces of little boys, then bigger boys, big ones, men, wondering if it was him. Or if the Russians had taken him, but he ran away time after time, always heading to Wallers Ferry for reasons he couldn’t explain. I belong here. Maybe he even loved vaudeville. She already knew he loved blood fruit.
And now here was a daughter asleep in Belle’s arms. She could leave her here with this couple just beginning their lives. Tuck her in an open drawer and surround her with blood fruit in this town where her half-brother perhaps lived. Belle could board the midnight train with just her trunk, which still held those nesting dolls. The baby died, she would say if anyone asked. Or maybe she would board a different train bound for San Francisco, a city she’d always dreamed of visiting. Maybe open her own boarding house with the nest egg she’d accumulated. She’d make a good Mama T.
Ten minutes later Belle darted out onto the street, bundle clutched to her chest. She walked briskly to Mama T’s intending to hide in her room and rub the mink across her cheek, but Jeb sat in the parlor playing his Jew’s harp. He stopped when he saw her. “I beat you home.” He eyed the loot in her arms, but didn’t say a word. Belle started to leave when one of the salesmen playing checkers said: “King me.” Mrs. Oswald imbibed in her nightly sherry. Mama T mended linens in a rocker by the fire, hands so gnarled from arthritis she could barely hold the needle. She lifted one of the sheets. “Why don’t you help me with these, dear?”
Belle considered the request. She’d helped Mama T with a thousand chores. Mama T had helped Belle with her own labor. Tonight there was more than just sheet mending in Mama T’s request.
“I’m awful tired,” Mama T said.
The parlor was more familiar to Belle than the thousands of train cars she’d ridden in over the years. And it would never go anywhere, ever, nor would this town where she had carved her initial as if to claim it as her own.
“Let me set this down.” Belle carried the bundle to the divan and unwrapped the kimono that held the mink.
Mama T reached out to touch it. “Gift from an admirer?”
“Yes.” Belle felt the fur too, then caressed the baby she’d nestled inside.
“You’ll spoil that child,” said Mama T, a woman who had acted more like a mother to Belle than her own.
If Mama T could act, maybe Belle could too. Who needed moving pictures? She could pretend to be a good mother, could dote and fawn, and maybe in a few years she would be one. And tomorrow, she would walk to Harbinger’s, buy three blood fruit, and line them on the wall in the back alley behind the boarding house where her son was born, a gift for Little Man in case he walked by.
West Virginia native Marie Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Mississippi Review, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. Her novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), won the Weatherford Award. Shrapnel (River City Publishing, 2012), received the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Still Life with Plums: Short Stories (West Virginia University Press, 2010) was a finalist for both the Weatherford Award and Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year. Learn more at www.mariemanilla.com.
Image credit: The Graphics Fairy